Why are salesforces in Indian pharma missing opportunities?

Mahesh a diligent sales representative working with one of the renowned Indian pharmaceutical company is working hard to meet his sales quota by adhering to his assigned call plan. He makes about 9-12 calls per day but with increased doctor access restrictions, many of these calls follow the script below.

Mahesh: Hello Sir! How are you?
Doctor: Hi Mahesh, I am very busy right now. Let’s plan to catch up some other time. BTW, is there anything ‘new’ that you would like to share with me in a few seconds?
Mahesh: Nothing new sir. Just wanted to share drug details with you.
Doctor: Ok. I am sure I’ll be able to get that information from the website of your organization. Thank you!
Mahesh: Thank you sir! Have a wonderful day!!

To a lot of us, who are aware of the pharma sales cycle, where every single minute with a doctor is a huge opportunity, this may look like an opportunity lost and the blame goes to Mahesh. Natural question that arise is “Oh! Why did he give it up, why couldn’t he engage the doctor when doctor asked if he has something new? After all he is a sales guy and should know the tactics to sell”. Is he proactively preparing for the call by learning from his past interaction with the doctor and tailoring his pitch to accommodate customer’s specific needs and preferences? Does he plan for the list of questions that should be asked to help him better understand the customer profile and build emotional connect with him?

This is not just one off case; a whooping majority of sales reps in India are not able to capitalize on the opportunities and convert it into relationships resulting in more prescriptions and this is a worrisome trend.

On the oust it seems that Mahesh could have done something different and is failing in taking advantage of favorable situation. From his point of view, at the end of the day he has option of telling his front-line manager that doctor didn’t have time and it still counts for a call. However, there are various factors working in synergy that leads to these kinds of missed opportunities (large part of the blame goes to the organization itself as well) and its worrisome because of the sheer scale at which this is happening.

Some of the major factors that are leading to lack of emotional connects and missed opportunities:

1. The Digital age: with almost all the information going digital, doctors are now equipped to pull the information that they need on the internet and with smart devices this becomes even easier. This leads to doctors saying NO to meeting sales reps and eventually with sales reps not having any new information to share on an ongoing basis results in this “NO” becoming a regular feature with negligible emotional connect with the doctor. At times, even when they agree to meet, doctors know that they can pull the general information on their smart devices.

2. The Performance push: every sales rep has a target to meet and they rely more on traditional call approach in absence of support ecosystem from the organization side. Many a times sales incentives for medical representatives are qualified based on adherence to their aggressive call plans so they take an easy route wherever they can and log their call in with a status as “doctor was busy”. Qualification based on adherence to call plan essentially shifts the focus from quality of call to the count.

3. The Skill Gap: while there is, a significant effort made by lot of organizations to train their field force the impact has not been significant. There are three primary reason to the same i.e. the content, the approach and the mindset.

  • Content: The content that is currently being used in the market to train the field force is largely esoteric and non-contextual in most part. So, that means the learner is not able to take the learnings from the classroom to their day to day life. The session on learning and development do focus on ‘what to do better’ but a lot less focus on ‘how to change’ to be able to do better. Thus, the learnings dwindle away over a period and based on Hermann Ebbinghaus research on forgetting curve, only about 10-20% of it sticks with a few, after 30 days of the learning session
  • Approach: There are two predominant approaches in imparting skills to the field force and sometimes a mix of them is also used. One is the Push approach where training sessions are conducted in a classroom setting. The challenge with this approach is closely linked to the first point which is the content and forgetting curve leads to ineffective adoption of learning. Since there is no re-instating of the practical application of the concepts taught, learning fades away. The second approach is the technology assisted learning and I would call it a pull based learning. This is where the learning videos are made available online for sales reps to access them on their device. This kind of learning requires a lot of self-motivation and a huge behavior change in the Indian population to pull the content online and learn. The time crunch and lack of understanding of importance of training leads to failed adoption of learning
  • Mindset: This is linked to the second point where mindset of a large population of medical representatives is to complete the call and move on to the next one vs the quality of the call (both due to prevalent culture and lack of supporting training ecosystem). There is also a kind of pessimism that has been developing over time due to rejections by doctors to meet and a casual touch point. Also, one of the mindset that if we have gifted a doctor with free samples, we have won over her or him to write our prescription. These mindsets act as a mental block for continuous improvement and lead to failure of the learning programs in place.

4. Ineffective frontline manager: the front-line managers in Indian context are those medical representatives who were star performers and with tenure and performance based on goal attainment they get promoted to be the first line managers. Yes, the experience at the ground level counts. However, the role of frontline manager demands a lot more than just being a good medical representative. Based on the activities the frontline manger’s role demands them to deliver effective leadership to create a motivated field force under them, effective task management for playing a broader role of that of a manager, coaching and mentoring their reporting representatives and client engagement role (primarily for key opinion influencers) to ensure execution of the business strategy on ground. Unfortunately, these require developing the skillset, mindset and toolset and the current programs to develop frontline managers have not proven effective.

5. Lack of on the job, Coaching skills: Most of the FLMs assume that ‘telling’ is ‘coaching’. Hence, often they would give the feedback that they told the Sales person about something. Mostly, it sounds like a fault-finding exercise. We can't entirely blame the FLMs as they are neither trained when promoted, nor coached by their reporting managers. Also, undue pressure of PUSH approach to performance, they have less inclination towards ‘on the job’ coaching. So, the joint field work tends to become a ritual, monotonous and with no significant value addition towards developing the sales person.

The problem seems to be huge but there is a hope for a solution. Instead of addressing the individual problem one by one there is needs of a consolidated effort where effective use of learning, data, psychological principles of memory enabled by the technology can be used in conjunction to up the game of the salesforce.

Platform to gather field intelligence

First step towards building a credible ecosystem is to provide platform for healthy information exchange and increased collaboration between headquarters and feet-on-street field representatives. Many a times data collection and analytics are functions of the headquarters where they either use in-house secondary data sources or third party data sources to perform analysis, share market insights and create an action plan for the field representatives without necessarily any direct involvement from the salesforce. Once the information is received by the field, they distrust the data due to sometimes perceived / sometimes real reasons resulting in hesitation to take any relevant actions. In such scenarios, the best practice is to develop and deploy a platform to gather field intelligence and to acknowledge the wisdom of the feet on the street. This not only provides credibility to the whole exercise but also helps in collecting nuggets of information based on specific interactions or customer preferences (marketing channel preferences, sample needs, preferred level and type of information etc.) which can support design and development of realistic actionable plans resulting in:

  • Better operational efficiency
  • Improved customer relationship
  • Greater sales success
  • Enhanced salesforce engagement

Currently, Indian pharmaceutical companies hope to get through this need with the use of CRM systems but field representatives see that more as administrative burden rather than something which is empowering and engaging.

Training & Development

There are several crucial elements which should be part of comprehensive sales coaching model.

  • Competency Model – which acts as a guide and essentially includes more details about cultural aspects, sales tactic framework, use of supporting ecosystem and being a great organizational citizen in general. This should clearly highlight expectations from individual representatives and what it would require for them to move to the next level in addition to sales success. Sales should be an important parameter but should not be the only parameter.
  • Training Program – a comprehensive system to set medical representatives up for long term success. This should be combination of class room trainings (push methodology), technology enabled content and videos (pull methodology), interactive/mock activities for better understanding of information (gamification) and technology enabled timely information push for improved retention of information.
  • Buddy System – opportunity provided to senior and top sales representatives (after sustained performance delivery) to showcase managerial talent in a more constrained environment. Average performer observing top performer during buddy ride and vice versa where top performer gets to share his/her feedback with the buddy in the presence of frontline manager. In some of the rides, frontline manager can also be present along with buddies and later provide feedback to the top performer on how to coach in certain specific situations. These setting up of mock managerial challenges upfront in a constrained environment can help organizations prepare top performers for success once they move into a new role.
  • Management by qualitative objectives – set SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, result-oriented, and time-bound) objectives to drive right behavior and align to broader corporate objectives. Define effective scale which can help differentiate performance based on refined set of objectives with tangible and measurable activity parameters. Establish support structure to help medical representatives accomplish their individual objectives.
    • Coaching and discussions with their frontline managers
    • Buddy system
    • Early feedback for course correction
    • Other support channels to reinforce their activities, events and messages

Performance Tracking

In addition to building a credible platform, it’s also important to make their sales performance information available timely using reports and dashboards. This helps field representatives have visibility into their productivity metrics (based on their past performance) and allows for course correction if required. Access to performance what-if calculators help them view different scenarios and motivate them to develop action plan for short-term future. Coaching must be a part of the KRAs in helping managers to improve the performance. With Indian pharma on the aggressive path to become one of the largest markets of size $55Billion by 2020, the key players of its value chain, the sales reps and front line managers need to evolve to be more relevant in their role. It seems possible only with conglomeration of Technology to bring about accountability and context based learning and the providers are ready as well. The million-dollar question is, are the decision makers listening?

Posted By

Hariram Krishnan
M.D. of Galderma, India (Retired)