Coaches bring out your best

September 1, 1998
Terry Rodgers

Pharmaceutical Representative

Even Michael Jordan recognizes the value of a good coach.

As a training manager I have heard plenty of horror stories about managers who yelled at their representatives or, worse, never said anything at all. I am sure most of us would agree that neither is very productive.

But is coaching really that important? After all, you have been fully trained by your company and your experience and expertise grows every day, right? Some of you may feel that your managers are out of touch - they have not carried a bag for years and they spend too much time worrying about paperwork and going to meetings! This may be true, but a good coach or manager is a valuable commodity, and will help you improve your performance in front of physicians.

Don't believe it? Consider Michael Jordan. Sports writers report that basketball's prodigal son will decide to return to the Chicago Bulls next year based on the coach the Bulls hire to work with him.

There is another reason why coaching is important: Competition. Just as Michael Jordan experiences the increasing competition of his game, the pharmaceutical industry continues to be more competitive with each passing year. You must continue to improve your skills to maintain a competitive edge.

It is easy to be boring to your customers when you blindly give the same repetitive message to each physician every day. It's like a scoreless basketball game in which the players run blindly back and forth on the court using the same plays over and over again without success.

In pharmaceutical sales, a good coach will initiate new sales strategies, and help you improve your skills. He or she will help you develop the ability to have a productive dialogue with physicians, and bring you to a higher level of performance.

Having said that, I admit there are prodigies in sales, just as there are in sports. We have all seen at least one "natural-born" sales person. You know they type: The one who could sell ice to an Eskimo.

I have encountered one natural-born sales person in my career, and he was amazing. The way he would weave a sales message into a conversation with a physician truly made me feel that I was in the presence of a master! And I was, but do you know what? He was the first person to invite the district manager to work with him. He was also the first to volunteer to practice at district meetings. Having always fought against a certain amount of performance anxiety, I asked him why he did this. His answer went something like this: "It's simple. I can't get better without someone telling me what I am really doing." When he said that, I realized that there are three sides to sales, just as there are three sides to a news story: mine, yours and the truth.

In sales calls, the three sides are the representative's, the physician's and the actual call. And it's the actual call that only a third party can witness.

Good coaches

Given that coaching is necessary, what kind of coaching does a pharmaceutical representative need?

As a training manager and a member of the National Society of Pharmaceutical Sales Trainers' training faculty, I have had the pleasure of speaking with thousands of representatives about coaching performance. One thing is clear: Representatives only want to be coached if it's productive. The only thing worse than no coaching is bad coaching, so good coaching is imperative.

Feedback from a good coach is specific. If a manager tells you, "That was a good call," what does it really tell you? What was good about the call? Was it the question asked at the beginning of the call, the product knowledge displayed or was it the close that really cinched the critique? If your manager isn't specific about his or her feedback, ask him or her what made it a good call.

Coaching must also be timely. There is nothing less rewarding for a sales representative than feedback that is so late you have trouble remembering the call. If your manager does not give you feedback soon enough ask, "How am I doing?" Sometimes it's that easy. Other times, you may need to be more specific as to what you want from the manager. After all, you are now giving the manager feedback, and we already know that feedback must be specific.

The second part of timely coaching is frequency. In my experience, a good rule of thumb is that coaching needs to take place every six to eight weeks. Once a month is even better. Good coaching must be consistent. Even though managers are busier than ever with responsibilities that take them away from time in the field, reps need this reinforcement.

Another sign of a good coach is that he or she makes observations about behaviors and doesn't judge. For example, making a bad call does not mean that you are a bad person or a bad sales rep. As a representative, you can help this process by not being defensive.

Good coaches also share ideas and information. A good coach will try to avoid saying, "Well, when I was a representative, I always used to do this or that." A good coach will share productive sales ideas that he or she has seen work for other representatives, and he or she will ask your permission to share your successes with other sales reps. After all, a good coach is not there just to help you correct your problems - a good coach wants to catch you doing something right, too!

Finally, a good coach will always be honest with you. No sales representative interested in improving his or her performance wants to be told he or she is great when he or she is only on the path to greatness.

Try it, you'll like it!