We’ve been in the consultative sales training business for more than 30 years. Over the last dozen or so years, we specialized in sales training for the health care market.
Given that short background, let’s do a one-question quiz. In which segment of the health care market did we have zero clients? Well, with that hint about consultative selling, you probably got the right answer – pharmaceuticals.
Now, we did have initial conversations with a number of pharmaceutical companies. But as we talked about their needs, it became clearer and clearer what we did best was a limited fit. The fundamentals of consultative selling did not make the top ten. Instead, they needed to address two very specific challenges: How could they develop better sales pitches? and How could the sales reps present their sales pitches more skillfully so docs would write more prescriptions? If we had any structured approaches for gaining greater access to the docs they would be on the money as well.
But let’s forget the past and fast forward to the present … because times have changed for pharma sales – and pharma sales training.
Doctor’s perspective. Today doctors are under significant pressure from health insurance providers to curb costs. Along with reduced insurance reimbursement and other financial pressures, doctors are finding it harder to make money. They have responded in a variety of ways from selling their practices to hospitals to moving to a concierge business model. Others are looking to reduce operating costs while increasing revenue – by adding more patients to their day and/or offering additional procedures.
Doctors practicing in hospitals aren’t immune from these pressures either. Physician behavior here is changing, too. Doctors increasingly see controlling cost as part of their job.
Regardless of the business models, it’s becoming clear that doctors have little interest in – and in many cases, time to listen to – persistent sales pitches from pharma sales reps. Interestingly, earlier this year, 23% of 680,000 doctors surveyed by market research firm SK&A said they refused to even see drug reps.
Pharma’s perspective. From big pharm’s viewpoint many products are going off patent without new products to replace the losses. Big pharma is also under pressure to cut costs. One area where cost cutting is highly visible is the number of sales reps fanning out to “detail” docs with well-rehearsed sales pitches. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, AztraZeneca, for example, is cutting its U.S. sales force by 24%.
Sales strategy. The implications? Some big companies, like Eli Lilly have adopted a new approach – embracing consultative selling as a way to add value to docs. The author of the Wall Street Journal article noted: “Increasing physician satisfaction, it turns out, is a much better way to promote a pharmaceutical agent than simply telling them to write more prescriptions or giving product benefits, said David Ricks, president of Lilly’s global business unit.” GlaxoSmithKline and Merck have followed suit, asking their reps to switch from the scripted sales pitch to acting as a resource to support treatments – from assistance in educating patients to help in navigating reimbursement.
Sales training. But, like many things in sales, changing to a consultative sale is easy to talk about – difficult to do. Just asking sales reps to soften how they sell and add value doesn’t work – especially when a prepared sales pitch has served as a safety net for a lot of sales reps for a lot of years. Let’s explore three traps that need to be avoided in implementing a sales training effort to help pharmaceutical reps learn the skills of consultative selling.
- Underestimating the magnitude of the change. It would be possible to overestimate the magnitude of the shift in sales strategy but it would be difficult. The difference between what pharmaceutical reps have done historically and selling consultatively is substantial. The skill sets and best practices are different – as a matter of fact many of the traditional best practices would be counter productive in a consultative sale. There is no reason why pharmaceutical reps cannot successfully make the transition. However, it will take commitment on the part of the individual sales rep and investment on the part of the company.
- Thinking standard generic consultative sales training programs will work. In general, generic sales training programs don’t work that well. In this case, they would be particularly risky. The content of a program needs to be specifically customized to the new sales challenges that must be met, the exiting skill set of the audience, and the new mindset and the emerging needs of the customer. The learning methodology needs to maximize the time spent on practice and feedback on the new type of physician interactions and minimize time devoted to lecture.
- Failure to recognize the importance of coaching. Any VP of Sales in an organization traditionally engaged in a consultative sale will share that coaching is the single most effective activity for improving sales performance. So, if a pharmaceutical company wants to develop a sales team that is competent in consultative selling, then simply doing a great sales training program will unlikely be enough. A formal sales coaching effort needs to be an additional piece of the puzzle.
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