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The death of the salesman has been grossly exaggerated

Published on 10/01/11 at 06:20am
Andy Lee

Reports of the death of the salesman are grossly exaggerated. Despite widespread recognition that a systemic rethink of the pharma’s commercial strategy is required, the continuing importance of the industry’s largest collective means of customer contact should not be underestimated.

The sales team remains the only mechanism by which a clinician is going to be convinced to use a product. But the way in which it is used is, quite understandably, being significantly re-evaluated.

The customer landscape has of course changed. The UK government’s recent White Paper has proposed radical reform of the NHS, making an already complex stakeholder environment even more complicated. In such a dynamic marketplace, the industry must find new and innovative ways to demonstrate the value of its products to a diverse range of influencers. But the value of the field force must not become lost in the process - that value goes beyond simply detailing products to prescribers and influencers.

At its most powerful, the sales force can dramatically enhance a brand’s commercial development as a key component of a cross-functional approach. But alchemy will only arrive if the customer contact team is sufficiently encouraged and empowered to participate.

The traditional view has been that the role of the medical and marketing teams is to know a product inside out, to live and breathe its data and believe in it passionately as a brand - and then to channel this into the sales team who  market and promote the message to customers.

In a complex customer environment plagued with market access challenges, the flaws in the traditional approach are now being ruthlessly exposed. It’s fine to go carving through the market and collecting business, but what happens when you inevitably run into a brick wall? As a brand team, what it your Plan B?

In the modern market, more often than not it is market access issues that create the wall.

The sales don’t materialise and marketers don’t understand why; they reassess their brand positioning, messages and data - and wonder what has gone wrong. To a greater extent, the problem is that they haven’t listened to the feedback and insights their field force has given them. Or worse still, they haven’t even set-up a process to capture and consider it in the first place. Too often, brand teams set off on a path convinced of their approach, but when Plan A fails, what happens next?

Plan A - the market access team approach

So how can the field forced be deployed proactively to ensure that Plan A works?

Primarily, there needs to be a recognition from marketers and medics that a field-based perspective can add value to brand development.

To reflect this, the field-based market access team needs to be invited into the cross-functional process.

Involvement should begin at the point in the product’s life cycle when marketing messages are starting to be developed. Typically, this will be around one year from launch as the cross-functional team begins to evaluate the data emerging from phase III studies. At this crucial stage, when marketers are trying to build a value proposition and messages around trial data, the perspectives of the market access team are invaluable. After all, this team will act as the bridge to the front line sales professionals who will take those messages to market.

An effective field-based market access team will have developed solid relationships with influential payers in the marketplace. They will understand the challenges facing these important customers, and will know the kinds of messages that will resonate with them. Likewise, if you are launching a product into a market where you already have a history, or indeed have an existing product, it would be naïve to overlook the input of customer-facing individuals that have an in-depth knowledge of the therapy area and existing customer relationships within it. There are key questions that can be asked which, if shared effectively with head office, can be used in a cross-functional way to inform and drive strategy.

Marketers need to empower their market access teams to capture the right kind of information from the marketplace and communicate it back to head office. Sales and marketing management need to identify leaders within the market access team to take responsibility for undertaking this critical activity. The collective challenge is to maximise relationships with key stakeholders to generate vital information for brand development.

What are these customers trying to achieve - both clinically and in terms of the kinds of services they’re trying to develop? In terms of products in your disease area, which treatment do they currently favour, what do they get from it and, crucially, what is important to them beyond that? What is the next big thing that they are looking for, or the major issue that they are trying to overcome? Equally, beyond products, the other vital consideration is service provision. In an ever-evolving NHS, clinicians not only have aspirations about what they want to do clinically for the patient, but they also have ambitions around services. What are they trying to achieve and where are the stumbling blocks?

Questioning the care pathway is key; what form is their ideal service going to take? The answers aren’t always predictable. For example, there are rheumatologists who believe that rheumatology is a secondary care speciality that should reside in the hospital - meaning patients should come to them and hence a service model built around that philosophy. Alternatively, there are other rheumatologists who feel they don’t need the hospital and can function in the community.

Understanding the vagaries of individual local health economies is essential. Insights generated by market access or customer contact teams could prove the difference between the field force driving straight towards a market access barrier or overcoming it without a fuss.

Plan B – the brand sales team approach

The cross-functional team will, of course, always have an inner belief that Plan A is the correct approach - it will have faith in its data and will have conducted thorough market research to support its strategy. But sometimes, despite the best attempts of the sales team, the messages do not resonate and product uptake is weak. As referenced earlier, this can often be due to a failure to maximise customer-contact early enough in the brand development process - though there are, of course, other factors which may well be out the brand team’s control.

Whatever the reason for the lack of success, identifying a solution is paramount. Perceived failure ultimately means going back to the strategic drawing board - but can the sales team add cross-functional value to these reactive discussions?

The job of the sales professional is to challenge the belief system of the customer, and to try, where necessary, to alter it. To do this, sales representatives must make the most of the messages and materials they have been given by the brand team - and to challenge customers’ beliefs using the data they have available. When this doesn’t work, it’s often all too easy for sales people to blame marketing or blame their tools at the first sign of objection.

But, as well as being unfair, this reaction is also not necessary: the objection itself is important, and interrogating it can often unlock the problem. The best sales people will take advantage of the good customer relationships they already have, by engaging in frank dialogues to help identify where marketing messages are failing to convince. What’s the issue that hasn’t been considered? What is the piece of data your value proposition lacks?

This feedback is vital for the cross-functional team. Commonly, companies deploy sales managers to act as the conduit for collating insights of this nature - giving them responsibility to filter all of the feedback and assimilate it in a way that is meaningful for the brand team.

However, if there then emerges a recognition that Plan A isn’t working, the cross-functional team should capture the individual insights of sales professionals who have good customer relationships, and explore them in greater detail.

The best sales professionals will take responsibility for capturing market intelligence and sharing it effectively.

Moving beyond bias

The brand team must of course distinguish between accurate customer insight and some of the inherent biases commonly found in sales dialogue - on both sides of the fence. Finding the measure of reality in sales feedback is not always an easy task, particularly with reps who are experiencing difficulties or failing to meet targets. On the other hand, whilst sales professionals may identify customers with whom they can have an open dialogue, sometimes the answers those customers give can be the ones they think you want to hear, rather than what they actually truly believe.

Faced with this dilemma, the most telling intelligence will almost certainly be independent. The value of outsourcing key aspects of environmental monitoring and customer intelligence is considerable. An increasing number of companies are expanding their cross-functional brand teams to include independent agencies who can build on strong relationships with NHS associates, to generate factual and impartial environmental insight. Such an approach enables brand teams to ratify any feedback being picked up from its field-based staff and, crucially, test the validity of value propositions in a clean and independent manner.

The cross-functional future for sales

Pharmaceutical companies have, in the main, come a long way in their attempts to forge a cross-functional approach to brand development. But the dynamics of an ever-changing customer environment and the need to develop both clinical and economic-based value propositions for medicines, mean that the need for an integrated approach will only intensify. Marketers need to manage this cross-functional approach and to recognise the value their colleagues in medical and sales can provide. From the perspective of the customer, the industry’s approach to stakeholder communications more often than not manifests itself in the form of front line sales professionals. It is this dialogue that has the greatest impact on a healthcare professional’s decision to prescribe a product. As such, it is essential that pharma maximises the opportunities these exchanges provide.

Nowadays, the ‘customer-centric’ approach is very much in vogue. However, companies still frequently use their salesforce like a battering ram. The industry cannot afford to assail customers with their marketing messages - it must develop the ability to create a two-way dialogue. One of the strongest attributes of good sales people is their ability to listen. Demonstrating this ability does not detract from a representative’s primary focus - to create that change in prescribing behaviour - but the brand teams need to realise that sometimes, in order to change someone’s behaviour, you have to acknowledge where they are at the moment.  And they may not want to go where you directly want to put them. It is a two-way street, and if brand teams recognise this, they may ultimately, if incrementally, end up at their desired destination.

Andy Lee is Commissioning and NHS Partnerships Director at WG Group.


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