Cloning Your Top Sales Performers: Four Strategies To Run With

By Marty Rosenheck

Charlene, a top pharmaceutical sales representative, walks into Dr. Patel’s office. The receptionist looks up, shakes her head, and warns Charlene that the doctor is backed up today. Just then, Dr. Patel walks put the waiting room, sees Charlene and says, “Oh, hi Charlene. I’m swamped today, but come on in to my office. I have something I want to run by you.” They proceed to have a brief conversation about a patient and Charlene quickly provides clinical data about the efficacy of her product in similar types of patients. The physician thanks Charlene and moves on to her next patient.

Gloria, a relatively new pharmaceutical sales representative, walks into Dr. Friedberg’s office, all set with a well polished rehearsed detail. She gets lucky&mdashthe physician actually agrees to see her, so she begins her detail. Within 30 seconds, the Dr. Friedberg asks a technical question about one of his patients. When Gloria hesitates, he shakes his head and says he has to go. She leaves some samples and walks out, a bit dejected.

Cloning Charlene

The pharmaceutical sales market is rapidly changing. Sales representatives are getting less time with physicians, yet they are expected to provide more in-depth, targeted information. As Charlene knows, to have a chance at getting the
physician’s attention, reps have to be able to quickly and flexibly choose the right thing to say given what they know about the physician, the disease, the product, and the competition. If reps don’t quickly become trusted resources, many physicians, who are themselves stretched for time, won’t give them the time of day. Sorry, Gloria—the days of being able to recite a scripted detail are long gone.

Norbert Stone, National Senior Director of Sales & Marketing Training at Astellas Pharma US, Inc, believes that the biggest challenge he faces is “how do you develop business acumen among your sales teams and your sales leadership and also continue to drive an extremely deep level of understanding of disease states and disease state outcomes? I think mirroring those two together is going to be the most challenging aspect going forward, but it is going to be needed, not only for Astellas, but for a lot of companies in pharma and biotech.”

In other words, how do sales organizations get all their “Glorias” to become top performers like Charlene?

Sales training groups in leading pharma and biotech companies are adapting to meet this challenge. Here are four emerging strategies that these companies are adopting to provide reps with the depth of knowledge and skill they need to succeed.

  • Capture the knowledge of top performers
  • Use evidence based cognitive learning design principles
  • Use-blended and social learning methods
  • Create long term development programs

Capture the Knowledge of Top Performers

Top reps like Charlene engage customers in genuine conversations about their needs and how their needs can be met. When we dig deeper into the though processes and knowledge organizations of these reps using knowledge engineering techniques, we find that rapidly formulate a set of mental judgements and goals at each stage of the physician conversation. They automatically and unconsciously consider things like the perceived needs and concerns of the physician, what
additional information they need about the physician, where they want the conversation to go next, and what product information is best to bring out given their understanding of the physician at each moment. It is the flexible and skillful linking of product knowledge to physician needs that distinguishes the top salespeople from the rest.

Here are key steps for gathering knowledge for use in developing learning that accelerates the path to top performance:

  • Uncover the implicit thought processes that tops reps use to make sales, make them explicit and incorporate them into the learning activities.
  • Put the top sales reps, product managers and training developers into the same room to work out the content together.
  • Use of a systematic process of identifying and categorizing the types of sales situations that reps encounter.
  • Work through prototypical sales situations together to uncover how the sales reps think about, and identify what product knowledge is needed at each point in the sales call.
  • Identify what product is not needed. That nice-to-know information can go into a reference guide.
  • Develop a series of scenarios, setting up teachable moments that require reps to access and apply the relevant product knowledge in context.

Use Evidence Based Cognitive Learning Design Principles

Leading edge companies are moving away from presentational instructional methods to more active and learner-centered learning methods. Research on the development of expert performance indicates that the key ingredients to learning complex skills are:

  • Learning by doing
  • Deliberate practice
  • Feedback and coaching at the teachable moment
  • Learning in a community of practice

One large pharma company create a “science fair” to learn the basic clinical information. Instead of sitting passively to listen to a lecture (“death by PowerPoint”) the reps were learning by doing; actively seeking the information they needed by moving through a series of exhibits with informational displays, short videos, and live experts in a kind of interactive science museum environment. They were guided by a learning map that laid out a checklist of the learning objectives they were responsible to meet.

Whether in the classroom or online, the paradigm is shifting from presentational methods to learning by doing methods that enable deliberate practice by working through a systematic set of experiences, either simulated (online or in a workshop) or on the job. When reps work through a series of scenarios that guide them to learn key knowledge in a realistic selling context, they are more likely to connect it to actual physician interactions and put it to use in the field.

One does not become a top rep by practice alone—one needs to get feedback and coaching at the teachable moment. Leading companies are refining the coaching skills and process for their district managers, using fine grained coaching guides to provide reps with the targeted feedback they need to speed up their journey to top performer level.

Communities of learners are being set up to create opportunities to share best practices. At Astellas, even in the classroom, there is minimal lecturing. Teams work through scenarios together so they are learning from each other in a structured environment to share best practices. The instructor becomes more of a guide, answering questions as needed. Others are using periodic conference calls or web meetings to enable reps to share and learn from each other. Reps can reflect on their experiences by discussing them within a community of learners, which is critical to truly learning from those experiences.

Use Blended and Social Learning Methods

Most pharma training groups are moving away from a major focus on instructor led training and inserting more technology where appropriate. Some are using asynchronous eLearning to learn basic science and disease state knowledge. For example, Baxter Healthcare uses eLearning for basic knowledge, but they still do live training, whether by webinar or in the classroom, for competitive information and selling skills practice. Companies like Baxter are moving to synchronous eLearning for some of their training, using either webinar tools or video conferencing. A few organizations are just beginning to experiment with using mobile media—mostly through podcasts that can be listened to in the car. New tablet computers (like the iPad) are opening new opportunities for mobile learning.

Pharma sales training groups have been slower to get on the social networking, Web 2.0 bandwagon. For the sales and learning executives at Hospira, Astellas, and others, the big stumbling block is concern about regulatory issues. It is hard to have social networking and sharing of information if it all has to be reviewed by a regulatory and legal team. That takes resources and creates a bottleneck to timely interaction, which defeats the purpose of social networks. Pfizer has developed a web 2.0 set of tools for collaboration and knowledge sharing that has taken off. However, it was developed for their R&D group, although sales reps can use it too. Most are playing wait-and-see for social media. There is a consensus that social media will be adopted more slowly than in other less regulated industries, but finding ways to allow social learning to take place will become more important for sharing knowledge and best practices.

Long Term Development Programs

Another trend in pharma sales training is the move from piecemeal learning events to a more strategic long term learning and development process. This entails the development of a systematic and flexible curriculum, and a matched set of performance requirements that reps can work through over time. At Astellas, the learning and development program is structured using a medical school metaphor. Reps complete courses in multiple stages, and then take “boards” for certification. Stone found that reps “felt extremely challenged and that it was very relevant to their jobs.” Coaching and tracking performance in the field are integral parts of the coherent long term development process.

As the challenges grow in the pharam and biotech fields, sales training groups are moving toward a future where sales reps have at their fingertips all the information they need; more importantly, where they can skillfully and flexibly use their knowledge of a particular physician, the disease, the product, and the competition to engage in conversations with the doctor that lead to results. They are using these learning methods to speed the development to top performance—cloning Charlene.

Reference: Development of Professional Expertise, 2009, Edited by K. Anders Ericsson, Cambridge University Press.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2010 edition of Spot Focus.