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How Pharma Reps and Managers Can Work to Overcome the In-Person HCP Barrier


While HCPs are turning away from in-person meetings with sales reps amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still strategies for them to keep their pipelines full.

It’s not unusual these days for sales reps to fill weekly coaching sessions with a litany of complaints about the current selling environment. Depending on the product they’re selling, they may have experienced a drop in sales as non-urgent procedures were postponed during the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak. While sales were dropping, reps were also watching their pipelines dry up, and the immediate future doesn’t look very promising. They can’t count on in-person meetings anytime soon. Yahoo News reports that only 34% of physicians on the frontline of COVID-19 will take an in-person pharma sales meeting before 2021.

C. Lee Smith

Those office doors are likely to remain closed at most HCP facilities, but that’s not the only problem reps face. Russell Baris, president of eLumindata, points out to SalesFuel that the COVID-19 crisis has “exacerbated a problem the industry has faced for a while. With more than 250 companies selling brand-name pharmaceuticals and multiple sales forces working for some of these companies, doctors don’t have the time to meet with so many reps.” In addition, more doctors now work for hospital groups, which have further restricted access to these sought-after professionals. And then there’s the product. The pharma industry is tasked with selling highly regulated and complex solutions. SalesFuel’s proprietary research shows that 26% of prospects in the pharma and health care vertical don’t always understand how the products reps are pitching can help their practices.

Reps may be complaining now more than ever that they can’t make their numbers because they can’t get into the HCP’s office. That’s nothing new, but it’s not a good enough excuse. Companies can turn around this situation by providing better coaching on identifying the right prospects and showing the value of the solution. In addition, managers should coach reps on how to understand customers and the local market.

Know your reps

An essential starting point for companies is to understand reps and their individual coaching needs. Unfortunately, many sales managers don’t do this. Our research shows that only 26% of pharma reps get coaching personalized to their needs. That’s slightly worse than the average for all sales reps: 30%.

Managers can make the most of their valuable time when they use an automated solution to learn more about their reps. The first step is to give reps assessments that highlight their sales strengths and weaknesses. These assessments allow managers to quickly determine where to focus their coaching efforts, how to personalize their message, and which communication style works best for each rep.

If assessment results show that a rep scored low on skills related to closing deals, that information might not be news; managers have likely been watching him or her fail again and again. But the results can also indicate where the rep faltered earlier in the sales process. During one-on-one sessions and through analysis of why the rep was unable to close the latest deal, a manager can provide system-generated, open-ended coaching questions that require the rep to think about his or her approach to the prospect. In only two to three minutes, he or she can enter a response into the system and a manager can review those details with that rep during their next coaching session.

When reps are ready to move to the next level, the coaching tool should be primed, too. For example, if a rep wants to learn how to identify the right individual at a prospect site, a manager should be able to easily access information that explains how that rep learns and then steer him or her in the right direction. Some reps need to read articles, while others learn best by watching how colleagues succeed.

Building a playbook

Our proprietary research shows that pharma and health care reps are far more likely than all other sales reps to want a better playbook. Who can blame them? Between the complex nature of the products and the environment they’re doing business in, reps need every advantage they can get.

The right automated coaching solution allows managers to customize a playbook for each rep, make it pharma-specific, and track progress. This kind of tool stores information on the sales rep’s style when interacting with prospects. When managers put that information together with suggested approaches to connect with prospects, based on their personal experience, the reps have a tool they can use. Even better, this kind of coaching tool works well during both in-person and video-based sessions.

Key to pharma rep success

Our research shows that 55% of pharma reps stay up to date on industry developments before reaching out to prospects. Only 34% of all other sales reps feel the same pressure. Pharma reps understand the importance of monitoring research outcomes and being able to translate the information into a compelling value proposition for prospects. But relying on instinct doesn’t mean reps are working efficiently or effectively.

Forty-one percent of pharma reps agree that attention to detail is a key characteristic necessary to excel in their field. Interestingly, 47% of all sales reps point to attention to detail as a necessary ingredient for success. That discrepancy in our research was surprising and indicates that pharma sales managers should address attention to detail in their coaching sessions. The need to track, understand, and explain complex scientific information means managers should place their detailed-oriented reps on their challenging accounts.

Communicating with reps

Unfortunately, pharma sales managers may need to work a little harder to convince reps that coaching will improve their sales outcomes. Only 34% of the pharma reps we surveyed believe they need to be coachable to succeed. Compare that data point to the 39% of all sales reps who think coaching helps. Sure, pharma reps have to keep scientific and government regulation knowledge top-of-mind. But to close a deal, they need top-notch sales skills.

Part of any rep’s resistance to coaching relates to the way the manager communicates. A harried manager may have a tendency during a one-on-one session to get right down to business. He or she might ask what happened during the most recent video call with the HCP. When the rep admits the HCP missed the meeting, the manager might respond that he or she never had those kinds of problems when selling. Some reps will take that response as a challenge and work harder to follow up with the prospect. Other reps will pull back, feeling the manager is insensitive and impersonal. To be more effective, the manager should review the communications tips provided by the assessment results and modify his or her style. Doing so can mean the difference between an effective and an ineffective coaching session.

Connecting with HCPs

To succeed in connecting with HCPs, Baris says, “reps must understand their local market and who should be on their target list.” One way to gain the edge is to learn which doctors have credibility and target them. These professionals’ opinions carry weight. Doctors who ask their expert colleagues for help will also pay attention to which pharmaceuticals those experts are prescribing and often follow suit.

In some markets, reps will sell to solo practitioners who need help understanding the latest research. In other markets, reps will work with doctors at academic research institutions who need no explanation about the benefits of a new medication; instead, they are concerned about insurance reimbursement and whether their patients can afford the medication. It is important to coach reps on how to identify the right decision-maker.

To make the best impression on busy physicians, reps should tailor their pitches to each practice and the kind of patients being seen. In Baris’ experience, doctors will usually give new reps at least one chance. Reps shouldn’t blow that opportunity by wasting the doctors’ time, but they need to ask enough discovery questions to get a true picture of how the doctors prescribe.

The pharma selling world is filled with stories about “no-see physicians,” but reps should not give up on these accounts. Managers should coach them on how to succeed. Baris recalls a detail person who never had trouble getting responses from a “no-see physician” because she kept the key objectives in mind: Deliver value and remember that the physician’s goal is to improve patient health.

Communicating with HCPs

To repeat: One thing pharma reps can count on is that HCPs want positive outcomes for their patients. That motivation, says Baris, “is what drives doctors’ interest in new products. They’ll ask reps to send them something to read.” Doctors lack the time to sit through a canned presentation about the benefits of a new drug, especially if it doesn’t apply specifically to their practice. And long video pitches? Enough, already. You can almost see them rolling their eyes. It’s much faster to skim an e-mail that summarizes the latest results of a clinical trial. The content of that e-mail determines whether the prospect moves farther down the sales funnel.

But reps should not default to the style of e-mail messaging they use to communicate with colleagues. Crafting an effective prospecting e-mail message that delivers key information with a minimal amount of fluff takes practice. Good e-mail messaging is especially challenging in the pharma industry as reps must use the right language to explain highly regulated products.

Work with reps on creating the subject line. This aspect of e-mail can be as important as the included text in terms of convincing the HCP to read the message. And be careful—grammar and spelling issues can derail a deal. Some HCPs might worry that if the rep can’t take the time to correctly spell the name of a medical condition, how can he or she be trusted to get the details of clinical research right?

Managers should coach reps to establish good communications habits. Remind reps to leave e-mail messages in their draft folder for a few hours and review them before pressing the send button. If they’re particularly concerned about the tone of a message, ask them to work with a colleague to proofread each other’s work.

The sales assessments results should highlight reps’ communications strengths and weaknesses. For example, a rep may need coaching on when to use e-mail to communicate with a prospect. E-mailing an informative article as a follow-up to a positive video chat is a good strategy. Defaulting to e-mail instead of a video call when it’s time to discuss concerns about possible side effects of the medication may not be the most effective way to interact.

As HCPs struggle to stay on top of everything that happens in a typical day, they take breaks. It’s easy to check e-mail a few times a day. You want one of those e-mail sessions to include reading a well-crafted message from one of your sales reps. Good e-mail communications may encourage HCPs to write more prescriptions for specific medications, especially now that consumers are returning to physician offices for routine visits.

C. Lee Smith is the founder and CEO of SalesFuel, a Columbus, Ohio-based firm that leverages critical insights to enable the acquisition, development, and retention of top employees and customers.

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