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The Persuaders

Published on 24/10/03 at 02:21pm

Long time the province of Steve Coogan (grrr, I'm a tiger) and, more recently, Ricky Gervais in 'The Office', sales training lies at the heart of the good use of a key marketing resource  the representative. The average cost of a pharma sales call is around £35 per call. We all know that training is a 'good thing', but calculating the value is more tricky. Furthermore, what should be the rep for the 21st century NHS be trained in, in order to sell effectively? How can the training be delivered and by whom?

Effective sales training will improve productivity and return on investment, and key parts of any sales representative's job can be improved by training. The pharma industry has a good reputation for structured sales training, borrowing heavily from allied industries such as FMCG for call structuring, planning and other basics, and financial services for more sophisticated roles like NHS liaison.

How can basic sales training improve productivity?

Let's take a theoretical business with a field force supporting £1 million revenue territories. Their job is to 'switch on' new users and grow market share from existing ones.The outline model is fairly obvious; it becomes a compelling case when we look at some simple numbers.

Number of calls

Increasing an average of seven calls per day (GP/hospital prescribers) to eight reduces the call costs to £31, a 12% reduction.

In-call productivity

'Switch on' new prescribers and increase existing use. With average growth of 8%, the increased skills leads to 12% growth from the higher performers, a £40,000 increase in revenues per territory. Well worth the investment.

The Persuaders?

The Roman senator Cicero commented: "To persuade me, you must think my thoughts, use my words and feel my feelings." That's a pretty good definition of 'customer focus' and is as relevant now as in 80 BC. Understanding the customer lies at the heart of any effective strategy. Gone are the days of manuals of product knowledge and some bolted-on sales skills - or are they? Do customers see any difference? They do, and the sorts of comments that are very common are below.

Type A: sell, sell, sell

  • Pushy, aggressive
  • Foot in the door
  • Not interested in me/my patients
  • Talks too much
  • Interrogates me
  • Attacks competitor products
  • Has a 'spiel' or script to deliver
  • Constantly asks me to try out product
  • Appears brainwashed to their product's benefits

Type B: persuade

  • Friendly, relaxed
  • Informed on local issues
  • Listens to me
  • Carries or delivers specific pieces of information or material
  • Understands surgery/PCT/hospital systems
  • Knows local opinion leaders
  • Spends more time with me
  • Fits products into prescribing patterns
  • Asks a few, but informed questions

On joining the industry new recruits join an initial training course - the duration ranges from one week to nine weeks, depending on company resources and traditions. Interestingly, the content does not vary that widely  the course is an induction exercise to introduce new salespeople into the business and its culture. It is the underlying philosophy that makes the difference - the difference in turning out 'Type A' or 'Type B' representatives. The amount of emphasis on customer understanding - characterised by bringing in customers to talk on training courses and involving them in developing material - underlines the point.

Industry tradition plays its part in all this. The basic selling activity is still called 'detailing', a US term from the 1960s referring to 'detail men': the pharmaceutical sales teams who went out to inform doctors of everything about their product. Telling a prescriber every detail of the product may have seemed a good idea 40 years ago, but things have moved on. Sales strategies have developed from there, but the practice is still widespread - running a territory representative as a walking brochure is an expensive marketing practice.

A later development in the 1970s and 1980s was 'closing' - a sales technique designed to extract some commitment from the prescriber. Sales management became obsessed with ABC - 'always be closing' - a practice that, whether it was executed well or (more likely by a trainee) badly, our customers found very frustrating. Extensive research (which well look at later) has showed this to be counter-productive. Where building a long-term relationship often lies at the key of prescription generation, using such outmoded sales techniques irritate more than they influence.

Who should deliver the training?

Training delivery is routinely carried by in-house trainers, either as a dedicated resource or as senior field personnel or sales managers. This has the benefits of introducing new personnel to individual company standards and ways of doing things - the culture unique to each pharmaceutical business. Traditionally, pharma companies pride themselves on the provision of 'product knowledge', sometimes to the exclusion of market facts. Sales training material is often delivered under license from the originator, customised for company use and made product specific.

Specialist sales training businesses can bring a lot to the party and are contracted in to deliver specific parts of training courses or tailored sessions for individual businesses. The major advantage to using outside resources must be innovation - bringing fresh approaches and an objective cross-industry view has enormous value.

Paul Loxley is a senior consultant at Huthwaite International, a provider of sales effectiveness solutions for various industries, and works with several pharma companies. He says: "Unlike most sales strategies, Huthwaite training is strictly based on the research gleaned from thousands of observed sales calls and customer reactions - more than 40,000 currently. This allows us to accurately benchmark successful sales behaviour."

The Huthwaite perspective is interesting. They clearly see the current pharma sales efforts as falling short of their true potential. "On the one hand, 'detailing' is still prevalent, - science graduates talking to prescribers  and on the other hand there are the 'relationship builders' getting on famously with key customers but not selling them anything," says Paul Loxley.

A lot of this is common sense. With increasing numbers of products within broad classes, companies become obsessed with the overall superiority of their product. In reality, effective selling is about differentiation - why one product is different from others - and delivering information that is relevant to the customer, rather than to the product manager. Discovering and seeking out relevance demands a more intelligent solution to the sales call.

As the industry has become more focused on results over the last few years and sales measurement and reward have stepped up a gear or two, what effect has that had on sales training? There is the risk of the downward spiral of diminishing returns, not the increasing rewards of productivity that we looked at earlier. Reinforcement of out-dated sales techniques, driven by increasingly steep sales targets, can have this recognisable result.

"Effective sales training is more about changing field force behaviours than anything else. Using our research database, we know the successful behaviours that need adopting," says Paul Loxley. "By training sales people in those behaviours and following up any formal training with effective field coaching to reinforce the change, real advances can be made."

The facts speak for themselves. Let's look at a case study, we'll call it X Pharma to preserve anonymity. This was an 11-month Huthwaite project and it underlines their holistic approach:

  • more than 230 face-to-face calls observed to analyse current behaviour
  • classroom training of a project group to compare with a control group (active vs. placebo!)
  • follow-up coaching and training of X Pharma personnel in coaching.

The results are impressive: the project group consistently out-performed the controls. Revenues were up 6% during the process, rising to 9% after completion. Gross profit showed the same trend: up 9% during the exercise and rising to 13% after the project. The longer-term effects are significant, reflecting learned skills and successful behaviours that good training embed, rather than short-term results due to the presence of trainers or management.

Click here for training

Is the traditional training course being replaced by on-line or CD-ROM-based learning exercises? Cathy Curwood, Business Development Manager for Information Transfer, a leading supplier of on-line training solutions to the pharma industry, says: "The practicalities are clear. On-line training cuts costs  travel, hotels and classroom delivery; a field-based salesforce can access training on-line any time, any place; self-pacing is an important benefit - a well constructed on-line programme will facilitate a wide range of learning styles and pace."

With the establishment over the last few years of company intranets, training can be supplied in an increasingly flexible way. David Lillibridge, Worldwide Vaccines Product Training at GlaxoSmithKline, an Information Transfer client, says: "With Information Transfer's help, we have been able to deliver a comprehensive range of e-learning courses over our training intranet within a relatively short timeframe. Our people find the courses easy to use, accurate and informative and, from our point of view, the cost benefits are substantial."

This sort of training obviously builds the skills very effectively for remotely scattered field sales people, but its the combination of on-line facility mixed with more traditional classroom sessions - 'blended learning' - that really work well. "On-line training is an ideal delivery method for delivering product knowledge, therapeutic training and competitor information in conjunction with classroom style courses to deliver 'soft skills'," says Cathy Curwood.

Victor Palmer, Managing Director of DPP Cordell Ltd, tends to agree: "As a training business with many pharmaceutical clients, we have delivered CD-ROM and on-line solutions for many years. We have designed specific programmes to capture the interactive nature of sales training, with role-play driven software profiling - SalesFocus. CD-ROM technology allows a huge amount of interactivity using video clips, audio and printable formats."

If the sales and marketing function is the key driver to pharmaceutical company success, according to an Accenture report last year, then the relative ability to generate sales becomes increasingly important. Salesforce effectiveness - in the nitty gritty face-to-face call can become a staggering strategic advantage. The difference in results between the mediocre and the exceptional become ever wider. In the X Pharma case study customers described the project group as more professional and 'more problem solving' than pushy. Various metrics may come and go, but it remains true to say that the only thing you need to measure is your customers' reaction - get that right and your revenue and margin will follow.

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