The Force Behind Sales Forces

Jan 01, 2013


Torsten Bernewitz
The pharmaceutical industry faces considerable changes affecting fundamental aspects of its business operations. Payers are gaining power, providers are consolidating, and physicians are limiting access to sales representatives. Specialty care is being emphasized over primary care, rendering the traditional sales model less effective, while competitors develop capabilities in account management and B2B sales processes. Customer centricity is king, leading to new sales and service roles.

In response to all of these changes, pharmaceutical sales organizations are, not surprisingly, investing considerable energy and resources into adaptive measures aimed at reconciling sales functions with the available opportunities in the market. What strikes us, however, is that building the first line manager (FLM) team—which is truly the force behind the sales force—is frequently only an afterthought, relegated to a mere span-of-control question that can be decided quickly.

In the best case, this means a lost opportunity to help the sales organization live up to its potential. In the worst case, the lack of a strong sales management team can seriously derail the company through poor decisions, mistakes, field anxiety, frustration, and attrition.

The difference between failure and success

Take the example of a mid-sized, US-based pharmaceutical manufacturer. The company launched a newly acquired CNS product with a field force that also promoted a basket of "me-too" drugs to primary care physicians. This added new, very specialized customers to the sales rep's target lists, and the pharma manufacturer both modified its selling approach and expanded its field force by 50 percent. With the expansion, a dozen new FLM positions were created, most of them filled by promoting the company's highest performing sales reps.

The company identified a strong need to adapt its national sales strategy to local market conditions, especially to help address physician access and managed care challenges. The FLM team was instrumental in making these changes, and the company empowered them to make important resource allocation decisions based on their analysis of the business in their districts—decisions that were previously made centrally at headquarters.

A year into the launch, however, it was clear that sales would fall significantly short of expectations. Despite some areas of success, sales reps in many parts of the country received no or only small incentive payouts. Field motivation was low, and many reps decided to leave.

Many FLMs and their teams found it difficult to transition into the more sophisticated selling approach required to gain credibility with specialist physicians, defaulting to the their old approaches and behaviors instead. The FLMs, lacking experience and tools, made resource allocation decisions through trial and error, resulting in loss of direction and inconsistencies across the company.

This was not a product or market problem. In fact, a few FLM teams and reps had adapted to the new approaches and succeeded, either because it felt natural to them or because they had previous experience handling such change. But this was not enough to save the day, and the company had no process to harness these "bright spots." Instead, it settled on a "more realistic" forecast and cut the field force in half. With repeated restructuring, the disruption also impacted the rest of the portfolio. Further cuts may be in the offing.

A key shortcoming was that the pharma company did not have a strong enough team of sales managers to navigate the required changes: facilitating and implementing a new, more sophisticated selling approach, and adopting a new, flexible and localized resource allocation planning approach. The company did not do enough to help the FLM team excel in the changing role, and the FLMs, with a few exceptions, could not help reps succeed.

It does not have to be this way. Investments that strengthen the FLM team can work, as shown by the following story:

A smaller European-based specialty pharma company was competing against Big Pharma with limited financial resources at its disposal. Studying the behaviors of sales professionals in several countries, the company identified and prioritized a number of techniques and behaviors that set the top-performing sales specialists apart from the rest. These were great insights, but what would it take to get everybody to adopt these differentiated behaviors?