All Eyes on Pharma Sales Reps: The Myths. The Pressure. The Rewards

“At the end of the day, when I think that somewhere in my territory there is a patient whose life has been improved because of a product I promote I get a warm fuzzy feeling and a deep sense of personal satisfaction.”

–Corey Nahman, CEO of Internet Drug News INC.


Pharmaceutical companies impact just about everyone’s life. According to a Mayo Clinic study, seven out of ten Americans take at least one prescription drug – in a country that’s home to approximately 67,000 pharmacies. From the testing phase, to production, to selling and prescribing the treatment, a medical product’s journey is intricate and involves countless professionals.

The most significant of these professionals? For companies that want to stay in business, the answer is easy. Reps. A pharma rep’s job itself, however, is anything but. It’s demanding, complex, and at times exhausting, requiring specialized training in pharmacology and a thorough and advanced skillset in very diverse areas (think selling techniques and biology, for example). Pharma reps also need a great deal of perseverance – not only to get the job done, but also to withstand misconceptions and misguided stereotyping.

Challenges and Myths

Ever see a pharma company hosting a banquet-room lunch for doctors and think to yourself that pharma sales can be bought? Think again. The complex relationship between reps and doctors is often incorrectly regarded as a quid-pro-quo system that starts with drug companies providing free meals and paid speaking engagements to doctors and ends with doctors prescribing their products. While it’s true that a strategy’s at work here, it’s not designed to woo. It’s about time. Which, as we all know all too well, doctors have very little of. Often, the only way to get in front of them is during coffee or a meal. And while it’s great for pharma companies when doctors back their product(s), no MD with any ethics is going to promote a drug he/she doesn’t believe in. What’s actually happening before and after and in between these events is the building of a partnership between salesperson and doctor. One focused on determining the best therapy options for patients.

That may sound like a lofty goal for a salesperson, and it is. Not only due to the stress of the sales process itself (which includes battling the myth that reps lack the education to intelligently interact with and inform doctors), but because attaining and retaining a position is no walk in the park. In reality, many pharma reps come to the job with a background in chemistry, biology, or premed. According to the Princeton Review, pharma companies commonly demand that their sales employees have an advanced degree in the medical field. During their initial years in the industry, pharma reps often take advanced courses in pharmacology to deepen their understanding of their company’s product line. Doing so helps them convey complex scientific and medical terms in accessible language. They also may have to learn how to interpret data and statistics; knowledge of both public and private health issues is expected. As a primary source of information for doctors, they have to be prepared to discuss various diseases and new clinical studies, stay up to date with the competition, and thoroughly explain the qualities that make their product better than those that are similar. Every one of them must earn his or her spot as a trusted member of the medical community.

“I Love My Job” vs. “I Need to Make More Money.” A.K.A: Motivation

The intensity, the intellectual challenge, and the satisfaction of helping patients get access to the right treatment may be just what draws people to this career.  “You cannot get discouraged doing a job like this,” says James Bowden, a pharmaceutical sales specialist. “After all, by filling the shoes of a pharmaceutical representative, you bring a great added value to a physician and his or her patients through the drug products that you promote. Do not let anyone else tell you otherwise. That is why I’m doing what I love the most and that is helping people live longer, healthier and an overall better quality of life, not only for them, but for their families as well. Always keep this mindset and you will perform well in this type of a career field.”

In the best of all possible worlds, pharma reps are driven by the innate passion for the profession and find jobs with companies who value their unique skills and their ability to build long-lasting relationships with their client-doctors. But we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds. Which brings us to money and financial satisfaction.

A pharma rep’s salary is between twenty and thirty percent commission-based, far above the percentage for reps in other industries. But the market is highly competitive—so much so that a “pay for performance” cult has developed, one that may become the trend across other sales verticals as well. Recent HBR research shows that the number of companies offering bonuses or other forms of pay based on performance increased by 6% between 2014-2016 alone. That’s great news. All a pharma rep needs to do in order to earn financial rewards is hit quota on a regular basis.

Easy, right? Nope. With the majority of quotas set at unachievable heights, reps who strive to attain their goals do so on a wing and prayer. Less than half will succeed.

Which means most will fail.

And failure is not a great bedfellow for reps, who thrive on success. It leads to frustration and loss of interest—in your product. If you’re in a leadership position, you can avert such a scenario at your company by instituting business processes that ensure goals are challenging but achievable, now and moving forward, even during periods of enormous change. How? With the right technology, for one. Advanced technology enables accurate quota management, balanced territory design, and, most important, forward-thinking comp plans that tap into your people’s interests. Gamification, for instance, appeals to salespeople’s competitive spirit. Visibility into individual and team performance will also light a fire beneath them; it’s empowering for reps to have access to sales and call planning insights that indicate which doctors or institutions are likely to be most receptive to the messages they’re delivering. Visibility also helps reps discriminate between which doctors and institutions would benefit from more visits, and which would not. Add on a bonus calculator, which should be included with any truly robust technology solution, and reps can build on these insights by approximating how much more they’ll earn by planning in accordance with the information they now have. This may well provide them with the inspiration they need to optimize their compensation rewards— and boost the company’s bottom-line performance.

But even more valuable than technology to your reps’ sales success and company health is expertise. Bring in staff who knows their way around the technology and can help you use it to its maximum potential. Who can conduct ongoing analyses of processes and continually gain and share insight. Specialists who will make improvement and revenue growth part of your company culture.

Beyond Love and Money

They’ve followed your bliss. They’re not living paycheck to paycheck. Running from one doctor’s office to another, checking in with pharmacies, attending conferences and taking extra courses energizes them. But still—something’s missing. Too much of the time, like many remote workers, they’re alone. Keep them involved by fostering interactive programs. Regular coaching and training sessions are a good place to start. And make sure your solution can be accessed on mobile devices. Social apps encourage productive conversations and encourage reps to share inside tips and best practices. Push notifications that provide regular updates on quotas, targets, sales results or other performance indicators do as much to foster connectivity as they do to keep salespeople informed.

The Bottom Line

Pharma sales reps truly are a rare breed, and they’ve got a rare kind of responsibility toward the end-buyer. Just think about it. Their recommendations end up on your prescription slip.

Giving these professionals the right tools to succeed touches, in some way, almost every person in this country.

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Daniel Stewart

Director of Strategic Engagement

Daniel develops and implements innovative solutions across multiple business functions for global companies, leveraging over 7 years of experience in strategy, management consulting, and sales operations.



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