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Ensuring sales success

For better relationships between reps and physicians pharma must improve call quality

Imagine if one of your suppliers - the guy selling the fax machines for instance, or perhaps the woman from the PR agency - knocked on your door every other month, once a month, or even once a week. All they ask for is a couple of minutes of your time, but when you agree to see them, all they talk to you about is the same product or service that they carried last time. They have no real news, they just want to remind you of their existence. On the way out they make an appointment with your secretary to come back, let's say two weeks from today?

It may be a bit unfair to compare this to the way pharma reps operate, but fiercer competition, reduction of salesforces and increased governmental regulations have forced us to focus more on quantitative efforts and less on quality.

I would like to see reps winning back some face-to-face time with the physician and re-establishing a partnership with the customer that benefits the rep, the physician and the patients.

Salesforce effectiveness
Everyone is talking about salesforce effectiveness, but unfortunately many of the big pharma companies are also downsizing their sales teams. From my perspective, there seems to be an increased focus
on improving salesforce effectiveness in measurable ways:

  • Fewer sales reps
  • More calls per day
  • More products detailed
  • More key messages delivered
  • More calls to the same customers.

There is an alternative way to improve performance. We work with three main drivers for increasing the overall effectiveness of your salesforce (see figure one):

  • Effort - Not only the number of sales calls per rep, but also the length of sales calls
  • Targeting - Seeing the right customers with the biggest potential for prescribing your product
  • Quality - Communicating a message that is relevant and will be remembered by the customer.

Companies are demanding more and more calls per sales rep per day, and although they are getting better and better at profiling their customers, what are they doing about the quality of the sales call?

It might be valuable to take a step back and remember what selling pharma products is all about.

Changing habits

Physicians, especially those in primary care, need to cover a broad spectrum of disciplines. They must keep abreast with many therapeutic areas and be aware of all the latest treatments. They may also have to run their own businesses. When it comes to prescribing drugs, they must know that these are tested and work well. They probably feel that a lot of the competing drugs are fairly similar, with only small differences in side effects, potency, onset, etc. So, as soon as they establish their preferred option for a particular class of drugs (based on individual research, experience, education), they can tick that off their to do list and focus on other things.

Your salesforce is out there to break some established habits that the customers have no desire to change. You won't make an impact with standardised messages. I am sure that if you ask any physician, he or she will give you examples of reps singing the same song over and over again, but there will also be examples of reps being perceived as valuable partners who can be of great assistance to physicians, not just in choosing the right drug, but in various other ways too.

In order to interact as partners you must customise the type and content of the information you are supplying to the physician, making it relevant to them.

No one is willing to accept a proposal if the sales person cannot present the benefits of the product in a context that is relevant for the buyer. A real estate manager might describe the big room in the basement as ideal for teenagers when showing the house to a family of five, but when showing the same house to a retired couple, he might say that it is perfect for storage or a workshop.

Is this not what every pharmaceutical company already does when launching high-cost and high-profile CRM projects?


In my career working with pharmaceutical companies, I have seen a number of CRM projects that segment their customers in great detail. Usually this work is conducted thoroughly by very intelligent people, yet from a sales perspective, I have found that it works better in theory than in practice.

How the salesforce actually operates doesn't always marry up with the intentions of the people devising the strategy. However, it is not because sales reps can't differentiate their detailing according to the customer sitting in front of them.

The good reps always base their approach on intuition and good salesmanship, and I'm a big fan of both these qualities. I know, however, that not all reps find this easy and even those who do will benefit when supported by all the knowledge accumulated in the company.

We should not give up on our wish to differentiate the marketing message and to monitor what the salesforce is communicating, but we must equip our salesforce with the proper tools and training to do so.

Instead of leaving it up to each sales rep to act according to the segmentation in your CRM system, consider your CRM system as the midfield passing the ball to the offence - which is the CLM or closed-loop marketing systems. The offence has received balls from the midfield many times, but each time they try the same manoeuvre instead of considering the variations of play that the coach has pre-defined for them.

CLM systems equip the salesforce with all the pre-defined plays (or sales strategies) that the marketing department comes up with. It allows the rep to change his strategy on the fly and the CLM system even reports back to headquarters on whether the strategy has an impact or not.

This is the loop that companies like Agnitio are trying to close. We want to use the vast amount of information stored in pharma companies to reach the goal of true 1:1 detailing. We believe this can be done through a mix of the right software supporting the marketing process, from campaign development to post-campaign evaluation, and the revitalisation of traditional salesmanship.

Dialogue or monologue?
We should learn from the best sales reps and start acting as trusted partners instead of pushy fax machine sales guys. We can profit from the good salesmanship within the salesforce, but in a more structured way. If we do so, physicians will open their doors, they will lend us their ears, they will believe what we are telling them and they will let us stay a little bit longer.

This is not only about segmenting and delivering the right messages to the right people, but about having the tools that allows reps to deliver messages with impact.

One way of reinforcing your dialogue when detailing the electronic way is by localising your detailing. Imagine that you can make epidemic or health outcome analyses on the physician's patient population during a visit. It is like a banker telling you that you can save three per cent on your monthly repayments. You might think that sounds nice, but when he starts entering your personal figures and calculates what it actually means to your private economy, then things really get interesting.

Why not let the physicians decide what the sales call should be about? Ask the sales reps to start every sales call by setting an agenda in conjunction with the physician. In this way the physician is involved from the beginning of the call and a dialogue is established. He also feels more obligated to pay attention throughout the sales call (even though that is not really a problem anymore) because he is actually getting the information he asked for. Don't be afraid that you may not deliver your key messages - it is a dialogue, you give and take.

Argumentation in layers
One reason why so many reps are pushing key messages and not participating in a dialogue with the physician is because they are not given the right support tools. The CLM systems contain the same amount of information as the rep used to carry in his bag plus everything stored in the product manager's drawer back in the office. Not only that, it is organised so that the rep has easy access and can use it to prove his or her claims.

The rep need not spend time presenting scientific articles. If it is made apparent to the physician that behind each key message is an additional layer of information that proves the claim, then the credibility of the rep is raised and it will no longer be necessary to spend time proving every claim before moving on to the next key message (see figure two).

We should get out of the groove of reps visiting physicians assembly-line style and move towards making use of our customer knowledge. Give the reps the tools so that they can act on all of this information - empowering them to build a real relationship with the customer. We may not see physicians as frequently using this approach, but they may be calling us to set up the next meeting.

The Author
Anders Solgaard is creative director of Agnitio

19th June 2007


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