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All things Pharma

The devil’s in the details

A prescription for turning detail reps into salespeople

As the focus of the pharma industry adapts to meet the needs of its customers, sales targets based on ‘details’ and ‘key messages’ are starting to look outdated. Allan Mackintosh asks if the industry is sacrificing quality for quantity.

Often, salespeople in other industries do not see pharmaceutical salespeople as true sales professionals.Why is this? “They don’t take an order” and “Medical reps just impart information” are just a couple of the responses I have heard.

The fact is, in many ways pharmaceutical salespeople have a tougher sales assignment than many other salespeople. Most salespeople are in a position to take orders at the end of the selling process.The pharmaceutical salesperson is not.The pharmaceutical salesperson’s customers, physicians and nurses, do not take orders (unless they are dispensing) and can only prescribe a particular medicine when a particular patient with a particular condition comes to the office to consult.The master pharmaceutical salesperson has to sell a particular medicine to a customer and then ensure the customer remembers that drug when patients with a particular condition present themselves.

During that time, the physician may see a number of competing salespeople, so individual pharmaceutical reps have to make a real impact.

A tough environment

Medical selling is tough, and in many cases, it is not made easier by the work environment. Let’s look at some facts:

The vast majority of pharmaceutical companies still talk in terms of ‘details’ or ‘detailing’ and not ‘sales presentations’. A detail is a sales flow in which all the product’s key messages are delivered to the customer.

Medical salespeople have a number of products to detail in any one sales interview. Marketing departments talk in terms of a ‘detail flow’, that is, the order in which products should be detailed.The detail flow depends on the products’ priority ratings.

Each product has its key messages, which tend to be the product benefits, and marketing outlines these in great detail on expensive, glossy sales aids, or as marketing departments call them, ‘detail aids’.

Most companies expect their salespeople to make good use of these detail aids, and some expect full use from cover to cover!

Here comes the crunch:
pharmaceutical salespeople are not only measured on their sales of the particular products, they can also be measured on the number of details per product they manage, and the number of customers they have detailed. Research is carried out routinely to assess what key messages the customers are picking up. So, in effect, salespeople are assessed in terms of their capability to transfer all the key messages into customers’ memory banks.

‘Getting the details in’

This approach is fatally flawed, in my opinion, and results in the following trends:
• The words detail, detailing and detail aid have become entrenched in everyday pharmaceutical language to the exclusion of sales presentation, selling and sales aid. As a result, pharmaceutical salespeople think that just detailing is OK. “Well, I didn’t seem to sell anything, but I got all my details in” is a statement I have heard too often.
• Detailing all the products’ key messages takes up valuable time during the interview, and as the customer may only be interested in particular aspects of a product, the salesperson risks boring and disengaging the customer.The result is that the salesperson does all the talking, while the customer sits back and, if the salesperson is lucky, listens. More often than not, the customer tunes out. By detailing, the salesperson risks not building rapport, not asking relevant questions to identify needs and not presenting the appropriate messages to address these needs.
• The vast majority of pharmaceutical salespeople have what are called “call rates” or “activity targets,” and these are usually dependent on each salesperson’s experience and, to a degree, the state of his or her territory. Call rates are essential, but they must be realistic. I have seen too many salespeople run around chasing activity targets as opposed to spending real, quality time with target customers.

A case study

A good example is a salesperson I worked with a couple of years ago who was very successful when her target was four doctors, face to face, per day. As her experience grew, the target was raised to six. Suddenly, some non-target customers appeared on the target list, the time spent with target customers went down and the salesperson resorted to detailing as opposed to selling.The rep’s measures of products detailed, key messages delivered and customers detailed improved, but alas, her sales were static.Why was this the case?

 Pharma reps are targeted on the customers they detail to and key messages they deliver, as well as on sales


This focus on ‘getting the details in’ means the salesperson is failing to engage with the customer


Pressure from managers can mean that target customers are neglected and sales decrease


Less focus on ‘detailing’ and more on ‘selling’ is needed

The time spent with target customers went down largely due to the need of the salesperson to satisfy the demands of her manager and her company.A good salesperson who had taken the time to gather information about her customers through both research and face-to-face time suddenly had less time to spend with them.The representative’s time was now spent running around trying to get another couple of customers per day.

Pressure from the manager meant that all measures had to be met and exceeded if the rep was to get a good report.What about the sales measure? How important is that, relative to call rates, etc.? Call rates will always be important because the more quality sales calls you do, the more chance you will grow the business and hit targets. But these must be quality calls, both in terms of target customer and the skills that the representative uses within the call. Running about trying to see on target low potential customers is a waste of time, energy and money – especially if all the rep does is detail!

Empowering the salesperson

There are a number of things the pharmaceutical industry must address to ensure that it fully supports the salespeople who have a major impact on the industry’s success.

First, replace the words detail, detailing and detail aid with sales presentation, selling and sales aid. Detailing is throwing facts at the customer; selling is building rapport, identifying needs and satisfying needs with the appropriate solutions. Customers actually like to be sold to; they expect it. The more expert the salesperson, the more pleasurable the customers’ experience.They do not like to be detailed.

Examine how medical salespeople are measured and rewarded. Obviously, product sales are essential and appropriate contact or call rates should also be a measure. But does a salesperson really need to be measured on the number of product details and the number of key messages delivered? What ever happened to empowerment, responsibility and accountability?

With changes in the industry pointing to the fact that sales representatives may have bigger territories in the future and perhaps a more diverse role, it is essential that we move away from the ‘detailing’ mentality and start to develop sales representatives into business people who think of their territory as their business. If it was their business and their livelihood depended upon it they wouldn’t dare ‘detail’ – they would target effectively and sell!

All it takes is a little mental adjustment and excellent support from management to turn a ‘detailer’ into a salesperson!

Allan Mackintosh is an internationally known performance coach and director of TeamBuilders International Ltd. He can be contacted on  01292 671220  01292 671220 or at allan@teambuildersinternational.com
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