There was a time when the success of a pharmaceutical sales representative depended on product knowledge, presentation, sales skills, reach and frequency, confidence and persistence. But that combination alone no longer yields the same results. It’s become increasingly difficult for reps to gain access to individual healthcare practices and institutions, while the level of scrutiny and regulatory oversight has made it more difficult to convey a straightforward message. Factors such as these have contributed to the image of a shrinking, embattled sales force on the brink of extinction.
However, the "Death of a Pharma Salesman" paradigm is at odds with what many consider a new era in pharmaceutical sales—an entirely restructured professional reality with major upside. In fact, what’s happening now is not the death of an entire profession, but rather the decline of an outdated model.
According to James Crowley, managing director of life sciences strategy at Accenture Life Sciences, a global consulting firm, well-trained, digitally savvy pharmaceutical sales representatives will continue to be in demand well into the foreseeable future.
A reinvented sales team
Pharma sales reps currently face the task of addressing the needs of a broader network of stakeholders, while moving away from a physician-centric model. Crowley explains, “The traditional sales rep model is changing. Sales managers are reinventing their teams to be more responsive and relevant to customers. There is a major shift now towards an outcomes and value-based focus.
The pharmaceutical sales profession is not ‘dead’ as many had predicted, however, the context in which sales reps are functioning is almost unrecognizable compared with a decade ago.
Accenture has identified three broad changes that are largely responsible for this new reality. First, reimbursement models have changed because of healthcare reform. By 2016, 85% of payments will be tied to patient outcomes, and by 2018, this will be true for 90% of payments. In addition, sales reps are no longer calling mainly on individual practices or physicians in hospital settings. Integrated delivery networks (IDNs) have now become the predominate form of healthcare delivery, and currently own more than 60% of all physician group practices. In practical terms, this means that a physician whom a rep has been calling on for several years may suddenly be part of an IDN and have significantly less decision-making authority.
However, one of the most disruptive factors for the traditional sales model has been the now ubiquitous presence of digital communications-based marketing and information aimed at healthcare providers. Accenture’s research shows that almost one in four direct sales force interactions targeting doctors have been replaced by digital interactions.
Navigating the IDN
Of course, like anything else, once you understand the playing field, it’s a lot easier to come up with a winning strategy. What does a winning strategy look like? Crowley says, “Companies need to invest aggressively in talent right now. They need to re-think the role of their traditional sales reps and train them to function effectively in today’s healthcare marketplace—by training them to be conversant with the IDN business model, and by making them more agile in non-linear networked environments.”
More than ever, having a solid repertoire of B-to-B skills is important for reps who want to climb the ranks. However, at the same time, they have to continue to be patient-centric and scientifically astute. For example, by linking use of a particular therapy with certain outcomes, such as reduced risk of hospital admission, a pharmaceutical sales rep is demonstrating value.
Another area where reps can provide a value-add is by helping promote patient services, thereby helping to increase enrollment and improve outcomes. This is especially true when it comes to chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Selling in the era of personalized medicine
According to Crowley, oncology is one area where knowledgeable, highly experienced representatives are seen as important partners in care. Here’s why: Because of the increasing use of personalized oncologic treatment regimens, including various combination therapies and immune-oncologic approaches, each patient’s therapy is customized. In this setting, a pharmaceutical sales representative working with a team of oncologists will know each patient by name, and will be able to discuss relevant data with the doctors, with a focus once again on outcomes. Reps can also bring value in this setting by helping patients with the reimbursement process, which is often one of the most challenging aspects of setting up a treatment plan.
The future of pharmaceutical sales
In the final analysis, challenge is nothing new for pharmaceutical sales reps. Their job definition includes the need to continually update their skills, while constantly improving product knowledge and gaining therapeutic area experience. In that respect nothing has changed, although everything is completely different. Regardless, the pharmaceutical sales profession is not dead. Not by a long shot.