Doctors — often strapped for time and experts in their fields — are a hard sell. So pharmaceutical sales representative require training of near surgical precision.
A bright, well-dressed pharmaceutical sales representative walks into a physician’s office, all set with a well-polished and rehearsed sales presentation (called a “detail” in the pharma world). She gets lucky — the doctor will see her, so she begins her detail. Within 30 seconds, the physician asks a technical question about one of his patients. When she hesitates, he shakes his head and says he has to go. She leaves some samples and walks out, a bit dejected.
Such situations are increasingly common in today’s pharmaceutical sales market. It’s rapidly changing, and pharma sales training departments have to adapt in creative ways. Sales representatives are getting less time with physicians, yet they are expected to provide more in-depth, targeted information in the time they have. To have a chance at getting the physician’s attention, reps have to be able to quickly and flexibly choose the right thing to say given what they know about the physician, disease, product and competition. If reps don’t quickly become trusted resources, many physicians, who are themselves stretched for time, won’t give them the time of day. The days of being able to recite a scripted detail are long gone.
Interviews with learning leaders in major pharmaceutical companies and further research confirms that companies in the pharma and biotechnology industries are facing increasing complexity in the market and greater demands on sales representatives. Learning leaders are responding by making changes in the way their departments are organized and making shifts in the learning technologies and instructional methodologies they use.
“A lot of companies are looking at evolving commercial models,” said Norbert Stone, national senior director of sales and marketing training at Astellas Pharma US Inc., “and some of these models are pretty complex in terms of the expertise and competencies that are going to be needed.”
According to Stone, the biggest challenge he faces is developing business acumen among Astellas Pharma’s sales teams and its sales leadership while continuing to drive a deep level of understanding of disease states and disease state outcomes. “Mirroring those two together is going to be the most challenging aspect going forward, but it is going to be needed, not only for Astellas but for a lot of companies in pharma and biotech,” he said.
Pharma sales training groups are adapting to meet this challenge. Here are six emerging strategies that leading companies are adopting to provide reps with the depth of knowledge and skill they need to succeed.
- Enabling close collaboration between sales training and marketing teams.
- Retaining developers with deep product, market and instructional design knowledge.
- Using blended learning methods.
- Using active learning and realistic scenarios.
- Creating long-term development programs.
- Implementing social learning.
At Astellas, sales training people are involved with the marketing team from the beginning. They are “embedded” in the marketing and product teams like reporters are embedded in military units. According to Stone, they’re “fully integrated with the marketing function and have a seat at the table when strategies and tactics are developed. They help develop the message and train to the message.”
Investment in a marketing message and strategy can fall by the wayside unless the sales reps have the ability and motivation to get the message across to doctors. Close collaboration between training and marketing makes the entire process, from marketing message development to delivery of the message in sales conversations, go smoothly. By embedding the sales training employees in marketing teams, the training employees develop a deeper and more nuanced understanding of market needs that they can translate into better learning experiences. In addition, the training reps help the marketing teams think in terms of the end user — sales reps and managers — to craft messages and sales support materials that can effectively be delivered in the field.
The Sales to Training Transition
Training department staff often consists of reps who have come in from the field. Some come into the training group as part of a rotation, as a steppingstone to moving into a sales management role. They have real marketplace experience and some product knowledge, but they may not have a deep understanding of instructional design. Companies may use outside vendors to provide the instructional design expertise and new creative learning methods, but have their internal people — who know the nuances of the products and markets — do the content development. Others use external vendors for training development but go through a rigorous process to make sure the vendors have an understanding of the business and the clinical knowledge — as well as a deep understanding of curriculum and instructional design. Their internal staff manages and oversees the work of the vendors.
Most pharma training groups are moving away from a focus on instructor-led training and inserting more technology where appropriate. Some are using asynchronous e-learning to learn basic science and disease state knowledge. For example, Baxter Healthcare uses e-learning for basic knowledge but still does live training, by webinar or in the classroom, for competitive information and selling skills practices. Baxter is moving to synchronous e-learning for some of its training, using either webinar tools or videoconferencing. Astellas, meanwhile, is just beginning to experiment with using mobile media — mostly through podcasts that can be listened to anywhere.
Whatever media and technologies they use, pharma companies are moving away from presentational instructional methods to more active and learner-centered learning methods. Whether in the classroom or online, the paradigm is shifting from presentational methods to learning-by-doing methods — working through scenarios, case studies or situations — to actively come up with solutions. Reps work through a series of scenarios that guide them to learn key knowledge in a realistic selling context. This context increases the probability that they will connect learning to actual physician interactions and put it to use in the field.
Astellas has done away with paper modules and relies on interactive e-learning for basic knowledge training. The asynchronous e-learning allows for tracking, assessment and lock-step sequencing. The company is moving away from online “page turners” to having reps work though complex simulations with multiple correct answers, so reps need to critically think though each situation and decide how to best handle it.
Even in the classroom, there is minimal lecturing. Teams work through scenarios together so they are learning from each other in a structured environment to share best practices. The instructor becomes more of a guide, answering questions as needed.
Learning Long Term
Another trend in pharma sales training is the move from piecemeal learning events to a more strategic, long-term learning and development process. This means the development of a systematic and flexible curriculum and a matched set of performance requirements that reps can work though over time. Training resources are spent in greater proportion for newly hired reps and taper off gradually.
A benchmarking study on training new pharma sales reps by Best Practices LLC reports that new hires are a minority at 32 percent. However, of the reps trained at the 19 pharma biotech companies surveyed, the majority of training budgets — 61 percent — is allocated to these new hires. The study found that reps at 74 percent of U.S. pharma firms complete most of their new hire sales training within the first 90 days.
Astellas’ learning and development program is structured using a medical school metaphor — reps complete courses in multiple stages and then take “boards” for certification. According to Stone, reps engaged in this program “felt extremely challenged and that it was very relevant to their jobs.” Coaching and tracking performance in the field are integral parts of the coherent long-term development process.
Slow to Social Network
Pharma sales training groups are slower to get on the social networking and Web 2.0 bandwagon. According to sales and learning executives at Hospira, Abbott, Astellas and others, the big stumbling block is concern about regulatory issues. It is hard to use social networking and share information if it all has to be reviewed by a regulatory and legal team. That takes resources and creates a bottleneck to timely interaction, which defeats the purpose of social networks. Most are taking a wait-and-see approach to social media. There is a consensus that social media will be adopted more slowly than in other less regulated industries.
Pfizer has developed a Web 2.0 set of tools for collaboration and knowledge sharing that has taken off. It was developed for the company’s research and development group, although sales reps can use it, too.
As industry challenges grow in the pharma and biotech fields, as in other industries, sales training groups are moving toward a vision where sales reps have at their fingertips all the information they need. More important, they’re moving toward a vision where sales reps can skillfully and flexibly use their knowledge of particular physicians, diseases, products and the competition to engage in conversations with doctors that lead to results — prescribing a drug or treatment to people who it can really help.