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All Eyes on Pharma 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, InternetDrugNews.com

Getting face time with doctors is among the greatest struggles for pharma reps. 

Pharmaceutical companies impact just about every American’s life. Our country is home to approximately 67,000 pharmacies, and according to a Mayo Clinic study, seven out of ten people in the United States take at least one prescription drug. From testing to production to selling to prescription, a medical product’s journey is complex and involves countless professionals.

The most significant of these professionals? For drug companies that want to stay in business, the answer is easy: sales reps. A pharma rep’s job is demanding, intricate, and at times exhausting. It requires specialized training in pharmacology as well as comprehensive knowledge of subject matters as diverse as biology and sales techniques. Succeeding as a pharma rep also takes a great deal of perseverance – not only to get the job done, but also to withstand misconceptions and misguided stereotyping.

Challenges and myths

If you’ve ever seen a pharma company hosting a banquet-room lunch for doctors and formed the assumption 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 in exchange for those 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 know all too well, doctors have very little of.

Often, coffee or a meal is the only avenue for pharma reps to get in front of a doctor. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of doctors won’t promote a drug they don’t like or believe in. So what’s actually happening at these lunches? The real answer is that salespeople and doctors are coming together to build a partnership focused on determining the best therapy options for patients.

That may sound like a lofty goal for a salesperson, and it is. That’s due not only to the stress of the sales process itself (which includes battling through the myth that reps lack sufficient education to interact with and inform doctors), but also because attaining and retaining a position is no walk in the park.

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, they often take advanced courses in pharmacology to deepen their knowledge of their company’s product line. Doing so helps them convey complex scientific and medical concepts in accessible language.

Reps may also have to learn how to interpret data and statistics so as to gain an understanding of both public and private health issues. 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 the competition.

In short, every last one of them has to become a trusted member of the local 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 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.”

In the best of all worlds, pharma reps are driven by an innate passion for the profession, and they find jobs with companies that value their unique skills and ability to build long-lasting relationships with doctors. But we don’t live in an ideal world, which means that reps’ financial satisfaction is a vital consideration.

A pharma rep’s earnings are 20-30% commission-based – a far higher rate than you’ll find in other industries. But the market is highly competitive – so much so that a “pay for performance” cult has developed and begun to take hold across other sales verticals. Recent HBR research shows that the number of companies offering bonuses or other forms of pay based on performance increased by 6% between 2014 and 2016 alone.

That sounds like great news for pharma reps, right? All they need to do in order to earn financial rewards is hit quota on a regular basis.

Of course, that isn’t as easy as it sounds. With quotas often set at unachievable heights, pharma reps are flying on a wing and prayer. Less than half will succeed – which means the majority will fail.

As you might imagine, failure is not a great bedfellow for reps, who tend to thrive on success; failure leads to frustration and loss of interest in selling your product. If you’re in a leadership position, you can avert such a scenario by instituting business processes that ensure goals are challenging but achievable – present and future – even during periods of enormous change.

How? With the right technology, for one. Advanced technology enables accurate quota management, balanced territory design, and – most importantly – forward-thinking comp plans that tap into your people’s inner motivations.

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 their overtures. Proper visibility also helps reps decide 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 capitalize on these insights by projecting how much they can increase their earnings. When reps feel inspired to maximize their compensation, the company is simultaneously rewarded with better bottom-line performance.

But technology is only as good as the people who implement and use it. That means it’s vital to bring in expert staff who know their way around the tech and can help you utilize it to its full potential. These experts can conduct ongoing analyses of processes, continually gain and share insight, and cement improvement and revenue growth as an integral part of your company culture.

Beyond love and money

They’ve followed your bliss. They’re not living paycheck to paycheck. They’re energized by running from one doctor’s office to another, checking in with pharmacies, attending conferences, and taking extra courses. But something’s still missing. What is it?

Too much of the time, like many remote workers, your reps are alone. Keep them involved by fostering interactive programs; regular coaching and training sessions are a good place to start. It’s also absolutely vital that your solution can be accessed on mobile devices. The addition of social apps can encourage productive conversations and encourage reps to share inside tips and best practices. Push notifications that provide regular updates on quotas, targets, sales results, and other performance indicators can be a great tool to keep salespeople informed while fostering connectivity.

The bottom line

Pharma sales reps truly are a rare breed, and they’ve got a unique brand of responsibility to the end buyer. Just think about it: when you go to the doctor, it’s typically the pharma rep’s recommendations that end up on your prescription slip.

In such a vital field, giving these professionals the right tools to succeed can have a tangible impact on the life of nearly every American.

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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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