In Defense of the Battered Sales Rep

Jul 01, 2010

Scott Moldenhauer
It's no longer in vogue to be a professional sales rep. In fact, reps have been blamed for everything from the pharmaceutical industry's tainted image to the high price of prescription drugs. Nevertheless, reps continue to be a predominant driver of sales. In fact, try as we might, reps are hard to replace.

Perhaps it's time to stand back and ask why. What are the qualities that make reps irreplaceable? What will alternative marketing channels have to provide before the traditional sales rep can be replaced? Moreover, how can the representative role be enhanced to make reps a more powerful sales tool?

Here are a few solutions.

Forced repetition Perhaps the most valuable quality of a great representative is the ability to create "forced repetition." Reps continually remind physicians of the benefits of their products; subsequently, physicians prescribe more of the rep's products.

The reality is that repetition works. As far back as 1957, Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner talked about the "accessibility rule," meaning that real-world decisions are rarely based on careful thought and deliberation. Moreover, they are often based on top-of-mind factors: If the physician easily retrieves the product name from memory, the product is more likely to be prescribed. In other words, the more often a rep sees a physician, the more likely the physician is to prescribe his or her product. And for every physician who gets tired of hearing about the "same old product," the same physician admits to forgetting about the advantages of a product that has been around for years. It's human nature.

Any selling model devoid of repetition will be of limited utility. Unless human nature changes radically, repetition will continue to be a necessary ingredient for success. So far, reps continue to be best suited for creating the repetitive sales calls needed to create success.

For example, compare the traditional rep visit to online efforts. Online efforts lack the quality of repetition. When a physician logs onto his or her computer and learns about a product once, what's the incentive to come back? PhRMA guidelines prevent monetary incentives. There are only so many "medically relevant" gifts that can be used to entice physicians into another review of a product they already know. There truly is no incentive to come back and relearn the same information over and over. Reps, on the other hand, don't wait for physicians to come to them, they go to physicians. Therein lies their utility.

Ability to connect Anyone who has "carried the bag" knows the incredible power of a firm handshake, a familiar smile, and an intelligent conversation between two human beings. Relationships can be powerful tools, especially in a marketplace flooded with hundreds of very similar compounds. When physicians perceive no significant difference between pharmaceutical products, rep relationships become remarkably influential. After all, if you needed to choose one of two products of indistinguishable quality, and you know, like, and respect one of the sales representatives, which would you choose? When all else is equal, physicians will almost always side with the rep he or she likes.

Ability to challenge Great reps challenge the way physicians think and feel about treatment options. While it may sound strange that a rep with a four-year college degree challenge an MD with a much broader foundation in medicine and science, that's exactly what the best reps do. They do it by asking the right questions, leveraging their clinical training, and using superior communication skills. In the process, physicians sharpen the way they think about treatment options.

The ability to appropriately and directly challenge the way physicians think about treatment options is difficult to duplicate with other marketing approaches. While social media is showing some promise for encouraging physician interaction, reps are ideally suited when it comes to deciphering the thousands of subtle cues that can occur during a sales call. The ability to challenge treatment decisions is a talent unique to reps, and one more reason they are hard to replace.

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