“TRAINING IS A WASTE OF MONEY” or How to be an Asilone...

Graham Young explores the gradual erosion of pharma sales as a respectable profession, the untrained masses who replaced the experts and what over-reliance on Contract Sales Organisations could be doing to your reputation in the field...

Once upon a time there used to be a company that rejoiced in the name of Armour Berk (obviously named by Americans who don’t know what ‘Berk’ is rhyming slang for!). It always raised a chuckle when one encountered a member of the company in the doctor’s waiting room who’d throw out a confident hand with the introduction: “Hi. I’m Steve, Armour Berk” (Of course you are, Steve…)

Meet Steve

Meet Steve

Steve’s big problem was that he was given minimal, if any, in the way of initial training and a call rate of 6 GPs a day which, even back in the 1980s, was eye-watering. This usually left very little time for in-depth interaction with the GP.

On one occasion, a GP told me (and he was chuckling like a drain as he did) that he had been sitting in his surgery quite happily when the local Armour Berk rep burst through the door, called him an ‘Asilone’ and departed. Needless to say, my GP friend didn’t use much Asilone after that.

The reason why the rep in question stood out was that he was, frankly, crap. This was at a time when pharma companies (including Big Pharma, not just the non-Big ones) would recruit and train their own reps. And spend the best part of two months running them through the Initial Training Course. Selling skills, anatomy, physiology, tests, more selling skills, ABPI code, selling skills, more tests. Then field visits with other reps, your manager and refresher courses. And, if you were making the grade, you might – just might – be allowed out on your own.

Fast-forward to today. Armour Berk has gone; the call rates have gone; the customers have gone too and the industry’s reputation is soiled.

Instead, what do we have? Big Pharma is relying on Contract Sales Organisations to recruit and train and manage the sales forces for them. There are two advantages to this: firstly, it’s a useful exercise in try-before-you-buy and, secondly, it keeps headcount down. And you don’t want to upset some MBA-brandishing, bean-counting, cadaverous tosser in Global by taking on headcount, do you?

And there’s a third advantage – you don’t need a training department.

Training Managers are expensive and are regarded by the MBA theoreticians as being a waste of space and cash and should be resisted by all means. There’s no tangible ROI. So there!

So the industry can now rejoice in sales forces whose training is superficial to the point of gossamer thin. They are just walking sales aids and they are disposable, like crisp packets or yesterday’s Daily Mirror.

I’m not repeating heresay; I have seen these reps in action and it is probably more cost-effective to give the CSO the money and ask them not to send anyone out on the road. The sales force used to be the pride of the industry and its most public face – especially with our key customers, the medical profession. And the industry would nurture them accordingly.

Since the days of slash-and-burn marketing – where CEOs could drive the share price up 5% just by telling the markets they had another 500 reps on the road – the rep has become a tactic not a strategy. And this has been driven by CEOs who should know better, but obviously are so divorced from their own customers (and I don’t mean the banks!) that they don’t.

Just a side issue: it doesn’t help that many of the CEOs of pharma companies have not ‘carried the bag’ themselves. This explains why people like Tom McKillop have been such a raging success, or Andrew Witty – although he did do six months on the road as part of his management fast-tracking. Gosh! (I know this because we covered the same territory.)

Removing professional and well-trained reps from the field means that the gradual drift of the medical profession from the industry has been consolidated. Why do I say that? Because the following intangibles have been eroded:

  • Trust
  • Recognition
  • Support
  • Admiration
  • Partnership

Sending untrained reps to see customers is tantamount to sending them suicide bombers instead. In the latter case, the statement of intent is likely to be more obvious. No wonder surgery doors have been slamming in our face for the past 15 years.

I hate to polarise opinion on this one but you either agree that training is an irreplaceable resource that ensures our industry shows an ethical and professional face, or you’re a bloody Asilone!          

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Mar 19, 2013 - Mar 21, 2013, Barcelona, Spain

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