The Role of the Salesperson: How a Person Can Make or Break a Sale

This month, Ifti Ahmed examines the role of the salesperson in a sales transaction, and explains why simply setting targets might not be enough to make that sale.

Previously I proposed that there are three key components to any sale. The success or failure of your product hinges on each of these components and the way they interact with one another. The framework in question is as follows:

The 3 components

1. The Product: How different or valuable is your product to the customer? What is the USP?

2. The Person: Who and how the sale happens, this includes the sales process/experience (convenience, ease of transaction, enjoyment, hurdles etc.)

3. The Deal: The financials (price, terms, commitment etc.)

This month, I will focus on the “person” and their role in the sales process.

For sales professionals, managers of sales professionals and those charged with the commercialization of the product it is critical to understand what the salesperson’s role is. Currently the role of the salesperson is a hot topic given that the methods of communicating with our customers are expanding along with some severe restriction on traditional interactions, making the sales person one of the most expensive forms of communication in the manager’s portfolio.

In my opening article, I proposed being successful in sales simply requires the salesperson to be aware of some fundamentals (that may not be immediately apparent to everyone) have some basic capacity for understanding and the motivation to succeed.

Yet finding ‘good salespeople’ that are able to respond to the challenges of the evolving pharmaceutical environment is becoming more and more difficult. Why is this so? The knee-jerk response could be that the environment is becoming too challenging for our sales talent.

I do not share this point of view.

I would suggest that as managers, we are increasingly more and more hands-off in our approach, leaving our expectations of our sales teams unclear and expecting them to respond simply to the pressure of targets or lure of incentives.

I am sure that many of you will disagree. But as a challenge, how many sales managers are actually measuring anything other than the simple quantitative measures of call rates, targeting and frequency?

Performance Indicators

Time spent on a particular slide does not mean good or bad, it simply means time is spent on it

The tech savvy managers may say we are now measuring everything. We can track how the detail is run from the iPad (or similar device). Yes this is true, but I would say this is a leap from the frying pan into the fire!

Data from presentation tools (much like other market research) has a capacity to misinform as much as inform.  As an example, time spent on a particular slide does not mean good or bad, it simply means time is spent on it. Is it because this is such a difficult slide that the salesperson has to explain it extensively? Is it because there is something in the slide that distracts the doctor onto a tangent? Is it simply that the salesperson supplemented his detail with other material and the slide was just sitting open? ...There could be many, many reasons for time spent on a particular slide – time measures nothing but the passing of seconds.

A lot of valuable resource is wasted collecting meaningless data and looking for trends which may be coincidental in nature, the phrase ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ springs to mind.

Why am I talking about measurement? The reason is simple, what you measure will define your sales teams. What you measure will be the driver behind why things are done.

Any good sales person will tell you that knowledge alone is not enough, it has to be relevant for the customer and delivered in the format that is most pertinent for him or her.

In my opinion, this is the role of the salesperson:

To understand the customer, know the product and make the benefits of it clear and relevant to the customer.

A sales person can do this better than any other communication media and this will always be so. The question that remains is in what areas of Pharma we still need traditional sales as opposed to information delivery.


When we look at “salespeople” we must look not just at the information (content of the call) but how the content was delivered, so why are we not measuring the things that encompass behavior and make a difference in the sales call?

 In my experience there are three main reasons given by managers:

  1. Sales behavior is too complex so we can’t measure it.
  2. We don’t know what to measure; each territory and each sales person is too unique.
  3. We never needed to before and no one has asked us to.

All the above reasons are valid to an extent; however, should we not try to measure the most important part of the sales interaction? Earlier this year at eyeforpharma Barcelona, I presented on this subject. It is not only possible to measure sales behavior in a meaningful way; it can be done very easily. Should the reader require the presentation, send me through a short email request and I will be happy to share.

Let’s elaborate a little further on the role of the sales person in Pharma sales! I mentioned above that it is to understand the customer, know the product and make the benefits of it clear and relevant to the customer. In my opinion this simple definition encompasses the requirements of knowledge, behavior and application.

The sales person needs to have a good knowledge of:

  1. The customer/human element
  2. Consultative selling/ convincing techniques
  3. His product and/or service offering
  4. Market and competitor

I believe these to be core and in my experience this is also the order of preference of the knowledge.

“Selling” is interactive and those with high EQ (Emotional Quotient) will always be successful. I personally know successful sales people who have very little else!

Consultative selling skills are essential after EQ so as to demonstrate understanding of the customer’s needs and to align the relevance of the product benefit to the customer. Selling skills come before product knowledge simply because even if you know the product, if you cannot demonstrate relevance to the customer, nobody cares what you know. Harsh but true. Market and competitor knowledge comes last simply because knowledge of these is only to put your product value in context for the customer. If you cannot do all the previous, who cares how well you know the pharma business and all the players?

Most companies have good selling skills models and I will not go into the merits of all the variations that exist in the market. For anyone looking for a model or wanting to change, I recommend:

1. Focus on what you really need not what you would like in an ideal world!

2. Focus on implementation. Keep it simple enough that your core sales team will understand it and your stars will consider it relevant (even if they think it is simple!)

3. Focus on application, how will you know if your sales team are using the model? How will you know if it is working? How will you know what needs to be changed?

In the following weeks I plan to go into the details of what makes a good call and how simple steps can ensure uplift in performance of any sales team.

Questions and comments? For more information on the thoughts and theories put forward in this colum, you can contact Ifti Ahmed directly on or leave your comments in the form below!

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