Back to the Future (of Pharma Sales)

Kevin Dolgin looks back (and forwards) at some of his sales force predictions. Which ones came true and which are still ideas in gestation?

Our last column saw us surveying the smoking ruins of the pharma sales model, poppies beginning to grow over the remnants of jobs long gone. We examined how we got there (something to do with archdukes and Ottomans... or perhaps that was a different conflict) but we didn't dare look towards the future. It's much easier to examine the foibles of the past than to predict those of the future, after all.

But the time has come to stick my neck out above the parapet.

Before we start to consider visions of tomorrow, how about checking yesterday's visions of today? As I sat down to write this column, I remembered that I had already written an article about the "sales force of tomorrow"... in 2004. I thought I'd dig it up and see just how wrong I was.

Turns out I was pretty wrong, but I'm going to comfort myself by thinking that my error was more in timing than in substance. The article was published in "Visite Actuelle", a French pharma sales journal. In it, I predicted the following for 2014:

  1. There would be far fewer reps.
  2. In most countries, physician accessibility problems would get worse.
  3. CRM would become more complete and more dynamic, providing automatic analysis of customers and microsegmentation, with customized approaches.
  4. Reps would become "Customer Relationship Managers", using not only face to face visits, but web technology, distance detailing, etc.
  5. These empowered customer relationship managers would in some cases be supplemented by more basic, communication-oriented or service-oriented reps.

On one hand, I don't see anyone with a customer relationship manager title, and most reps don't sit at the center of a network of telecommunications, choosing the channels with which to approach customers. On the other hand, I actually think I was right about a few things: there are certainly fewer reps and greater accessibility problems (see last month's column for my opinion of why this is the case), and while we weren't talking about CLM back then, the article's description of "interactive CRM" is, effectively, CLM. What's more, some companies are moving toward different rep specializations... AstraZeneca, for example, has been experimenting with full reps and "service reps".

So I'm going to be boring and make the same predictions, just extending the deadline by a few years. I still think we'll change the entire approach with respect to reps, assessing them on their ability to engage with customers more than their ability to push a message, and we may well see the emergence of rep specialization according to role.

Consider reps as CRMs... note that this is not a system, but a title: "Customer Relationship Manager", or Key Account Manager if you will. In the old sales force, a rep's job was essentially to deliver a message that had been designed centrally. He or she was assessed on sales alone, or sometimes according to how well that message was remembered by doctors. In this case, the rep is like a walking billboard, saying the same thing to everyone and relatively impervious to any feedback from the customer.

Of course, the rep is supposed to engage in a conversation, but this is only in the context of getting the message across... "objection handling" if you will. The contact is largely scripted and the rep has relatively little leeway. Sometimes the rep is asked to gather information from the physician, but this too is tightly scripted. In the future, the "CRM" is going to have to master the messages, but he or she is ultimately responsible for creating a relationship, managing that relationship, and most of all, encouraging customer engagement. The CRM will be assessed on sales, but also on customer satisfaction and on the level of customer engagement, and all this within strict compliance boundaries.

This sounds warm and fuzzy, and probably scary. If you let reps chase after customer satisfaction then won't they focus on their friends, and on relationships instead of sales? Well yes, if you do it wrong. However, we're not talking about getting customers to like you; we're talking about getting them to engage with the company. This can be measured, as can satisfaction. It used to be very difficult to measure it, but now as the industry moves toward iPad detailing, suddenly the tools are in our hands to measure these things.

Pharma is not alone in this. Just about every industry out there is being transformed by customer engagement. It used to be that you could pretty much dictate to your customers. They might take their business elsewhere, but for the most part, you make something, put it on the market, shout your message and the customers either come and you are successful or they don't and you do something else. These days, though, customers want to be engaged. They want to participate in the creation of value. You used to have encyclopedia salesmen pushing big heavy books door to door... now you have Wikipedia, which is built around participation.

So how does pharma encourage and measure customer engagement? Largely through technology. To what degree are customers interacting with your promotional technology? Are they touching the iPads? Are they using your interactive content during the detail? How about the follow-up presentations you're sending, do they open them? Do they proactively follow your customized links to their personalized websites? Are they using your portals to get in touch with other contact personnel (medical, etc.)? Are they making suggestions to you about products and services? Are they asking questions via your system?

All of this means customer engagement and I'll guarantee that the more your customers are engaged, the more they'll use your products, and use them effectively. The role of the rep of the future will be first to encourage engagement, then to get across messages, because if a customer is engaged you don't need to rely only on the rep to get your messages across.

I'm sure some of you are saying "no, our reps are customer-oriented, we had an initiative about it, trained them, and included a customer orientation measure in our coaching form".

I'm going to challenge you on that, though. I've seen so many pharma companies who talk up a great story, but they still don't measure any of the things I've mentioned and when you actually talk to the reps, they'll explain that their job is to get across a specific canned message to their target list.

When I wrote the original article, in 2004, I didn't know that the iPad was coming, and I didn't know the impact it would have. Neither did I know about CLM. I was undoubtedly over-optimistic about the timing of the changes, but now all of this is ultimately easy through a proper CLM system, in which case I contend that with a system like that, there's no excuse to limit yourself to lip service when it comes to customer orientation.

Which means, I suppose, that we're really going to have to talk about CLM in next month’s column...