Make no mistake about it, the role of the pharmaceutical sales representative is in flux. But, then, when has it not been?
In truth, looking at today’s small, data-fueled sales forces, it’s hard to conceive that back in the early nineties more than 100,000 pharma reps were plying their trade in the US alone.
Back then, the name of the game was – in reductive terms – to flog as many blockbuster drugs to healthcare professionals (HCPs) as possible. Ok, it was always much more nuanced than that, but it never approached the complexity of today’s environment, where reps are increasingly expected to focus on patient outcomes to deliver their targets.
To do that, companies are increasingly focused on tracking patients and building high-resolution, holistic pictures of the patient journey, every twist and turn, every bottleneck and pinch point.
Once the preserve of company HQ and global marketing departments, now, an understanding of the patient experience is a vital weapon in the arsenal of the sales rep.
While this sea change is welcome, says David Fortanbary, Senior Director of US Performance Training at UCB, it goes deeper than patient understanding.
If reps truly want to improve their interactions with HCPs, they need to demonstrate “genuine empathy” for individual patients’ experiences.
In effect, they need to step into the patient’s shoes. “Empathy absolutely improves interactions with the HCPs,” he explains. “Once empathy is achieved, learning and understanding the data and the reasons why your products or solutions are good choices for that HCP is a lot easier.
“Your mind is opened up when you dig into the data; you understand it and you want to learn more, because you are intrinsically motivated to do something for the benefit of that patient.”
With the sheer complexity of our omnichannel world, it’s easy to lose track of what customers want from sales reps – clarity and simplicity. As a result, these two highly valued qualities can get lost in the mix.
For Fortanbary, the guiding principle for the sales force is simple: value. “There’s no question about it, as pharma and biotech representatives, we have to be prepared and ready to deliver insight and value to our customers,” he says. “Every minute they give us, is one less minute they can see patients, which can have an impact on their income.”
You have to create and generate value from day one, he adds. “That comes from preparation and conviction, and understanding the patient, understanding the products and understanding the disease area as much as possible.”
Commercial leaders have a responsibility to nurture a learning culture, says Lutz Bonacker, SVP and General Manager, European Commercial Operations, at CSL Behring.
“The majority of our regional business managers (RBMs) and sales reps have a decade of experience in their role, which provides them with a detailed understanding of the entire patient experience. This is backed up by a high level of clinical knowledge, by continuous learning based on interactions and conversations with customers, and through close working partnerships with HCPs, which helps them to understand the challenges that patients face.”
At UCB, the focus is on creating immersive learning experiences, says Fortanbary. “We do everything we can to create empathy and to simulate what it is like to be in a patient’s shoes.
“We have elevated the production value of our sales meetings – it’s no longer about PowerPoint slides but about creating an environment where you feel you’re with the patient as they experience symptoms, at first diagnosis, and the experience of aftercare treatment.”
Simulation of the patient experience is increasingly forming a key part in the training of today’s reps, with many companies, including UCB, bringing in real patients. Reps are also encouraged to not think of patient understanding as a tick-box exercise – “one-and-done” – rather an ongoing journey to build a personal connection to the patient.
Reps need to draw on this connection when they meet their HCPs, says Fortanbary, but it is only the first step. “Once you have it, then it’s about how you connect that patient to the representative’s personal life. Everyone has a story, so if you can find out what that rep’s ‘why’ is, if you can find out the purpose of why they do what they do, you increase the chances of creating a strong bond and purpose. But it all starts with the patient.”
At CSL Behring, patient understanding is built on many levels – through engagement with patient groups, to regularly monitor and re-evaluate the patient journey to HCPs, and patient advocates delivering talks at internal training sessions for RBMs.
It’s all about staying “ahead of the curve”, says Bonacker, who also admits that the shift to a truly patient-focused approach for reps is not without its challenges.
“It requires a committed approach to gathering insight and staying connected, together with ensuring that a regular forum exists, in which relevant findings may be communicated effectively to our RBMs,” he says.
“On the external side, we recognize the need to maintain a transparent and ethically-sound relationship with HCPs. It falls, therefore, to our RBMs to build and maintain that trust with HCPs.”
Fortanbary adds: “As industry leaders, we have to be consistent in our approach. It has to be embedded in our culture.
“It’s not just a picture on a visual aid, it’s spoken across every level of the organization – the tone at the top must be the same as the message in the middle, and everyone must be aligned around one single thing – delivering value to patients.”
A Product Manager with expertise in pharma marketing and sales operations