The pharma sales rep repair kit

Tyrone Edwards, professor of business administration at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, on how to help sales reps thrive

By Andrew Tolve

How can pharma sales reps thrivelet alone survivein an era marked by consolidation, outsourcing, eMarketing, and social media?
They have to get better, says Tyrone Edwards, professor of business administration at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania and a former senior vice president of sales at Merck.
In the US, he says, we pay people $75,000 a year to deliver pizza. Does that make sense? That does not make sense because you can pay a pizza person $10 an hour to deliver that pizza.
And yet still reps spend much of their time delivering samples to physicians, orchestrating pizza lunches, and handing out invitations to events, when those tasks can be accomplished by cheaper resources.
Edwards dismisses the notion that pharma sales reps can be eliminated altogether.
Sales will continue to be a personal activity, he says.
We will still need individuals contacting and talking to other individuals in order to deliver the value proposition.
But the way they deliver that value, and the value proposition itself, must change, he says.

Inverting the pyramid

Todays sales forces focus their energy on average prescribing physicians rather than on key decision makers.
Edwards says that sales model must be inverted.
Information has to flow from the bottom-up, he says, and the bottom has to be the influencers. Thats where you have to focus the bulk of your resources and activity.
The goal shouldnt be just securing face time with these experts, opinion leaders, and policy decision makers, but finding ways to create meaningful exchanges.
What do these high-value targets really need?
Generally, its customized information based on the patients they see.
Medical outcomes data, epidemiologic data, and cost-benefit analysis are therefore critical.
The old transactional model didnt talk about any of this, says Edwards.
We just walked in and said, Heres my drug, heres some samples, heres some pizza. Oh, by the way, if you go to this restaurant Friday night, Ill buy you dinner and you can listen to one of your friends talk.
Today, that doesnt work.
Physicians wont go to dinner because its against their institutions policies; theyre tired of hearing one rep after another talk about the same product; and theyre wary of getting sued if you dont have information to back up your products efficacy.
Thus, companies have to invest in disease management programs and outcomes management research to show physicians the medical benefit of their products.
Thats the new value proposition, says Edwards.

Follow the leader

Another key to driving commercial success for a sales force is replicating the behavior of its best reps.
Value propositions have a tendency to change every couple of years.
What we call value today is not what we called value five years ago, Edwards says.
And the value proposition that will be required in the future is not the value proposition that were delivering today.
But what makes a good sales repthe attributes, behaviors, and attitudesstays consistent, he says.
And if you can elevate your average-performing reps to the level of your high-performing reps, you can achieve a 10 to 14 percent improvement in sales force results per person.
Edwards references a Corporate Executive Board study that analyzed 4,200 companies across all industries around the world.
Analysts interviewed reps, managers, and customers to figure out the keys to good and bad performance.
The data shows that there is a definite difference between what your best people do, your average people, and your poor performers, Edwards says.
The study concluded that what your best people do is consistent across industries.
Whether youre in automotive, transportation, technology, or pharma, sales reps that have a firm grasp of their industry and the ability to convey customized information to the customer are successful year after year.
They figure out what information an individual customer needs and then customize that information to the customer so they have a relationship that is unbeatable, Edward says.

The importance of coaching

So how do you elevate average- or poor-performing sales reps to the level of your high performers? 
Coaching, says Edwards.
When Edwards was at Merck, he commissioned a study to examine what the best managers do.
That study found that managers who consistently delivered sales results in the top 10 percent were also consistently rated as high-performing coaches.
They spent on average nine hours a month coaching every individual on their sales teams.
In turn, those individuals, regardless of whether they were excellent-, average-, or poor-performing reps, earned higher overall bonuses than reps who didnt work for managers who coached.
You can invest in systems; you can invest in tools; you can invest in new selling models; but youre leaving low-hanging fruit on the table if youre not creating an environment where managers coach, Edward says.
The way good managers coach depends.
With low-performing sales people, they try to figure out what job might suit those reps better.
If they cant get you in the right job, they try to get you to understand the wisdom of working for someone else, Edwards says.
With high-performing reps, good managers make sure those reps continue to have the resources they need to be successful.
And with average performers they create personalized plans that plot out how they can reach new high-water marks.
People in the middle are the sweet spot, Edwards says.
Thats where the high-performing managers spend the bulk of their time because thats where they can achieve the greatest gain in sales productivity.

Click here to listen to Creating a customer-centric sales force, a podcast with Tyrone Edwards.

For more on coaching, see Coaching for sales effectiveness

For more on the challenges facing sales reps, see Sales force effectiveness: are reps still relevant? and Mals Musings: Why I hate sales reps.

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