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All things Pharma

Building trust in health with sales representatives

Paul Terry explores how the sales representative is best placed to build trust with the health sector, and how industry needs to adapt to support them to do this.

Pf recently revealed the results of its trust survey, placing a spotlight on an issue that doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. When asked ‘Overall I trust the Pharmaceutical Industry’, approximately a third agreed, while a third disagreed or strongly disagreed.

“Digital transformation might help us get messages to our customers, but it is people that build relationships”

For many, these results will be a source of sadness; the belief that we make a difference for patients and society is often a core reason for entering the industry. Yet the public and decision makers commonly have a perception that is very different. With this in mind, it is good to see the ABPI launch a ‘Valuing Medicines’ campaign, designed to showcase how industry is critical for the health and wealth of the UK.

Issues of trust have major implications for our field-force. In an era of multi-channel engagement, challenging customer access and formulary-driven prescribing, the relevance and purpose of the pharmaceutical sales representative continues to be debated. When faced with a challenging return on investment, it may be tempting to turn to alternative options to engage with customers, particularly if there’s a consideration that sales teams are culpable in helping to sustain a poor reputation.

Building trustworthiness

According to Maister, Green and Galford trustworthiness is created through credibility, reliability and intimacy (how secure a client feels sharing with the representative) and is undermined by self-orientation.

Considering credibility, what does that look like from our customers’ perspective? The NHS Long Term Plan heralds yet another evolution for the NHS and the demands of ‘more for less’ show no signs of abating. Time is an increasingly precious commodity, so why should customers spend it engaging with sales representatives?

Clearly, industry recognises the challenge facing healthcare professionals (HCPs) and is responding, providing options to engage through multi-channel solutions. Yet it’s worth questioning whether we have really got to the root cause of why HCPs may prefer not to engage, before running to a tempting (if incomplete) solution. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves how credible industry is as a source of influence and advice?

Imagine that you own an expensive sports car. Would you turn to Google to help you learn how to service it? I suspect you’d much rather engage a specialist mechanic, who has unique skills, training and the appropriate diagnostic tools for the job, supplied by the manufacturer. We need HCPs to do the same and turn to industry.

Upskilling the sales team

The first step in this is addressing issues of credibility and the ‘Valuing Medicines’ campaign will hopefully be a step towards this. But what are the knowledge and skills that field teams need in order to be recognised as a valuable use of customer time? How prepared are they to answer complex therapeutic questions, which may be subtly nuanced, depending on the patient type or stage along a new integrated pathway? Is the clinical key message that we want to deliver really the thing that is going to add spark to our customers’ flame?

The Corporate Executive Board (CEB) offered up an alternative to the transactional sales call. It’s hard to argue against its evidence that in a complex selling environment, the challenger sale, which teaches customers something new and valuable about how to perform better, is the most impactful in changing customer behaviour.

An ability to tailor for resonance relies on knowledge of the specific priorities of whomever our representatives are talking to. However, here’s the rub: the NHS labyrinth is complex and very few of our customers have the time for us to have a conversation to explore their needs – they need us to show them something about their own situation that can be improved (that they may have not been aware of) and offer a solution.

Maister et al consider self-orientation to have the greatest impact (negatively) on the perception of trustworthiness. The next time we approach a customer, it might be worth considering who we are there for and how well-prepared we are, to help customers see the value in what we offer.

Adapting industry

We then need to look at how we challenge and support our field teams to have value-based conversations; whether the global marketing strategy fits the local situation; what insights the marketing team have that provide an impactful proposition to teach customers.

If time is a scarce resource for our customers, how do we treat it in our own organisations? Knowing that the NHS is complex and tailoring for resonance requires exquisite insight (which may be hard to obtain and review), how do we support our teams to build the capability and capacity to work in this way? What do we need to stop doing, in order to start doing this, if we aren’t already?

Organisational readiness and culture are important considerations. Are our training capabilities, coaching capacity, compliance and recognition programmes set up to support our working in this way? Even the most innovative and cost-effective solutions will remain underutilised, unless skilled influencers can help decision-makers understand the relative benefits and positioning along the pathway.

Being reliable

Through all of this, creating trust depends on us being reliable. There are many great examples of our industry supporting ethical ‘beyond the pill’ services, that have benefitted patients. The NHS needs us to innovate not only in our science, but also in the way we are able to navigate our regulatory concerns and process diligently, to provide these solutions. If we can’t resolve our customers’ issues, then we shouldn’t be too surprised if they don’t rely on us.

It might be tempting to conclude that the challenge of reframing perceptions of industry trust is insurmountable. But then people rarely give over their trust to institutions, they give it over to people. Steve Radcliffe’s ‘Relationships to Results’ model in ‘Leadership, Plain and Simple’, asserted that in order to create big ideas, that can lead to new opportunities and better results we need to have ‘relationships big enough to get the job done’.

Radcliffe believes that failure to invest in relationships leads to poorer results. If we accept that, then perhaps the Pf Trust Survey is a great opportunity for us to consider how we recruit and develop people, to help us navigate to a brighter future. Digital transformation might help us get messages to our customers, but it is people that build relationships.

Paul is the Founder of the customer engagement consultancy, Paul Terry Associates. Go to www.paulterryassociates.com


Sources: Radcliffe, S. (2012) Leadership Plain and Simple. Financial Times Publishing

Maister, Green, and Galford. (2001) The Trusted Advisor. Free Press.

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Paul Terry
Paul Terry
Paul is the Founder of the customer engagement consultancy, Paul Terry Associates. Go to www.paulterryassociates.com


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