Can medical sales executives be more entrepreneurial?

The role of the sales representative is changing; we all know this.

The role of the sales representative is changing; we all know this. Some companies are hanging on to the traditional sales rep role where activity and noise is the focus while others are moving their representatives to an account manager type role whereby the traditional activity and noise is being supplemented by project work and a wider customer type portfolio. As marketplaces and customers change then the move to account management is to be welcomed but is the move enough to really capture increased sales and market share?

I would argue that despite the move to account management, little is being done to foster and encourage entrepreneurship within sales representatives and account managers and as a result they will still face the same challenges that have been holding back medical representatives for years.

After nineteen years in pharma and now eight years of self employment and  with contact with some very successful entrepreneurs I would like to offer a framework that medical sales representatives (and managers) can use to benchmark and boost their entrepreneurial ability.

Successful Entrepreneurs are a special breed of people who stand out from the rest. I have been lucky to work with some fantastic sales representatives over the years although of the hundreds of sales reps that I have worked with I can immediately only relate to a handful who could ever be described as entrepreneurs. The vast majority of reps unfortunately could never be described as truly entrepreneurial largely due to their own inability to challenge inadequate management or deal with repressive cultures. Now, lets get things into context. The vast majority of reps I have worked and managed over the years are honest, hard working people and most usually hit their activity and more importantly their sales targets. However I have always felt that they could have achieved so much more for themselves and for their customers. I have also learned so much in my eight years of self employment that when I look back at my own years in the pharma industry I realise that I too could have achieved so much more if I had shown more entrepreneurial flair.

So, what can todays medical representative or account manager do to ensure they become more entrepreneurial? Lets look at the key characteristics of the successful entrepreneur.

1. Entrepreneurs have a strong belief in themselves. They are always optimistic, have a positive outlook and are very much aware of their talents and capabilities. They are great achievers and are always confident that success can be achieved albeit they may face failure along the path to achievement. My experience has shown me that many representatives do not have a strong belief in themselves to be highly effective sales and business people. Many reps go from day to day attempting to hit activity targets and many have plans that are built to appease management rather than to build their own business. Many see the representative role as simply an employee role with a monthly income as opposed to driving a business forward as if it were their own and their income depended upon that businesss success. Much of this is mentality is driven by company culture and by managers who are totally activity driven. Much of the potential entrepreneurship is kept at bay by the need for activity and results with the result that much of the activity is of low quality in terms of actual customer engagement and selling.

2. Entrepreneurs are great dreamers and have the habit of thinking big. They want to explore the 'big picture' and new horizons. New business opportunities, new ideas and money making opportunities often grab their attention. How many sales representatives really think beyond one or two years? We really need to encourage sales reps and account managers to look at the bigger picture and consider where they want their business to be in five and even ten years time.

3. Entrepreneurs are prepared to take calculated risks. They know very well that unless you venture out nothing tangible can be achieved. The word here is calculated and despite there being many challenges in working a business a medical sales representative should be looking at what they can do to be innovative and enterprising. Yes, the ABPI Code of Practice, and company rules and regulations can be intimidating but close examination of these should encourage innovation and create a why not culture as opposed to a cant be done one. Access to customers is tough but it is tough in every industry. Try being a self employed training and development specialist and gain access to pharma senior managers and training managers! Those who are more creative , persistent and take calculated risks are the ones who win through in the end.

4. Entrepreneurs always work according to a plan. They have a short term plan and a long term plan with their goals clearly outlined. These plans need not be War & Peace (unless the bank manager demands it!) but neither should they be written on the back of a fag packet or matchbox. Medical sales representatives should have their own designed and written plan which highlights exactly what they have to do achieve and how best they are going to achieve it. Standard templates do not encourage ownership not do they encourage action. A tick box mentality is not what is desired if the medical sales representative or account manager is to be successful.

5. Successful entrepreneurs are enthusiastic, dedicated and passionate about their business. Now here is an area where I believe the vast majority of medical sales people dont have a challenge! You only have to attend the annual or biannual conference to witness this! Unfortunately I have seen too many reps over the years have this enthusiasm drained from them, either by their own self limiting beliefs or by inadequate and unsupportive management. Management has a key role to play here and companies must create an environment and culture that maintains and focuses that enthusiasm so that it brings results.

6. Entrepreneurs are very knowledgeable about their business and actively participate in all business related workshops and seminars. They ensure that they are up to date with the latest developments in their area and they network extensively. Again medical representatives are not too bad in this area but many do not self develop their knowledge as they should and they tend not to network as actively as they should both internally within the company and externally with professional bodies. Medical reps should be seen as experts in their particular therapy areas and should be able to converse with their customers on the same level. Only that way will the customers see them as equals with the trust and respect that this creates. Anything less and they will just be seen as, well, sales reps. Tomorrows successful representative or account manager will never be seen as just a rep but will be seen and respected as a highly professional company advisor, coach and problem solver in the eyes of the customer.

7. Entrepreneurs build an excellent public image and they strive very hard to build this image for their business and for themselves. They perceive this as very critical in a competitive market and as a result they keep themselves mentally and physically fit which not only creates a good image but also strengthens them to face and conquer their everyday challenges. Medical sales reps (and their managers!) should continually look at themselves and assess their levels of fitness both mental and physical and they should continually assess how they are perceived by customers and peers. Image is vital!

8. A growing business faces many challenges in the market place. Changes are inevitable if you want to be successful and entrepreneurs are ever ready to meet these challenges and make the necessary changes. Change is not a threat to the entrepreneur it is an opportunity. I have been amazed over the years how many people in the pharmaceutical industry react to change. Unfortunately the reactions have been largely negative and in some cases it is to be understood given the number of restructurings and downsizings that occur routinely at present. However companies should look carefully at how they manage change because in my experience this is not an area that companies handle as well as they should. However, the strong medical sales representative should look at the proposed changes very carefully and attempt to understand exactly what is happening as opposed to jumping to conclusions and listening to the gossip merchants and doom agents. Strong leadership from management can and should be a great help here and crystal clear communication is a necessity in times of change.

In many respects the successful entrepreneurs challenge the status quo in that they actually create change. I have seen and heard many representatives talk about change and how they should be challenging the company and management but in virtually every case (and I have been one of these!) they back down when blocked by management and thus never stick to their convictions. This can build tremendous frustration. We need to encourage medical representatives to challenge the status quo constructively and thus enable them to bring forward their ideas and proposals. Without this happening the individual, team and company will stagnate.

10. Entrepreneurs are always customer oriented and focused. Their attitude that the customer is always right helps them build good customer relationships and thus enables them to beat the competition in the longer term. The entrepreneur in many ways plays the coach with the customer assisting them in identifying what their specific challenges are and then helping them come up with options to overcome their challenges obviously by using their own products and services! In the case of medical representatives unfortunately we still live in a detail world whereby the medical sales rep may ask questions (within a structured sales framework (aargh!)) but asks them without authenticity (because the framework tells them to do it!) and just waits for the opportunity to detail their products, bombarding the customer with numerous marketing messages in the hope that perhaps one or two will stick. This is not customer focused and the best representatives are the ones who actively listen to the needs of the customer and then present the relevant information that will assist the customer to make a decision and then act. Entrepreneurs do not use structured sales frameworks nor do they detail their clients they engage them in a two way adult conversation discussing openly the challenges and potential solutions.

Can medical representatives actually become entrepreneurs? I believe they can but they must be given the correct environment, culture and support from management in order to be able to act as entrepreneurs. Furthermore the representatives themselves have to have the courage and focus to treat their territory as if it were their own business and not just play the numbers game. The industry itself has to change its ways and move away from the activity at all costs and detail mentality. Activity has to be strived for but it has to be balanced with quality. The move towards more of an account management approach is long overdue although in order to be effective account managers they have to take a more entrepreneurial approach. Can yesterdays medical representatives become tomorrows customer focused and trusted account managers? Time will tell.

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