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Learning, Retaining, Applying Information: Preparing Reps for Success in the Field


Thee most effective way to train sales reps and boost their success is to consider the learner/user experience in all facets, in every training encounter, and on each training platform, writes Shaun McMahon.

For the past few decades, the pharmaceutical and biotech industry has employed somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 sales representatives each year. This army of foot soldiers is responsible for the financial health and vitality of a multibillion-dollar marketplace and plays a role in improving the health of millions of Americans.

Sales reps have played an essential face-to-face function for decades, informing medical practitioners about important treatment options. But with all the changes in how we access information and communicate with one another, it’s somewhat remarkable that actual human contact is still a primary driver for the marketing of medications and the educating of prescribers.

Employing thousands of sales reps is a hefty annual investment for pharmaceutical executives. It’s equally important that executives invest in training and development programs calibrated for today’s changed and challenging marketplace, where healthcare providers (HCPs) are time-pressed and hard to access while medications and treatment protocols are increasingly specialized and complex.

As a former sales rep and current president of Illuminate, a firm that has designed and developed clinical sales training offerings for life science companies since 2004, I believe that the most effective way to train sales reps and boost their success is to thoroughly consider the learner/user experience in all facets, in every training encounter, and on each training platform.

Often, we think of user experience only in terms of tech and eLearning, but when we consider the user experience from a more global perspective-including any interaction a rep has with any type of training and development deliverable-we have a better shot at achieving the best possible outcome in terms of learning, retaining, and applying information. Here’s how.

Learning information

When I worked as a sales rep in the early ‘90s, the initial learning process began in earnest with a loud thud on the front steps that marked the delivery of a hefty binder bursting with every bit of information that commercial learning leadership deemed necessary to know. Reps like myself would lift the binder from the box and do our best, then be tested on our knowledge with an entrance exam several weeks later. If we did well, we’d move on. If not, we’d either go back to the binder or out the door.

Today, we’ve moved the majority of training materials online, where they can be accessed via a variety of platforms. However, the tendency to “do it old school” often persists, which results in new hires being given access to the vast trove of training materials housed on their organization’s learning management system (LMS). Needless to say, this doesn’t exactly make for an engaging user experience-and with so many options for delivering learning materials in ways that best match how we learn, we can do better.

For example, one method of educating sales reps that has proven particularly effective is to break up material into smaller, “bite-size” segments. In an era when attention spans are shorter than ever, content that’s divided into smaller pieces is more manageable for many trainees, allowing them to focus on and swiftly absorb key information. Applying microlearning strategies to training deliverables yields a quicker sense of accomplishment, which in turn boosts motivation.

We also need to think carefully about how we arrange material, as presenting nuggets of information in a sequence that flows and creates an engaging narrative makes content more compelling. Ultimately, organizing material to be quickly accessible via search terms or a detailed index allows individual users to more easily review whatever curriculum they want, whenever they want.

When working to optimize the user experience, it’s important to remember that the best training programs aren’t just about home study modules and learning from an iPad, and that training isn’t solely for new hires. With this in mind, we consistently seek ways to improve reps’ experience in a live setting, as live training/interactive workshops are an important method of transferring knowledge for both new team members and seasoned veterans. And while many pharma and biotech sales reps groan when they hear the words “role play” in a live workshop setting, there are better and more appealing ways to practice sales calls face to face.

Since we began using the Selling Village concept at National Meetings and POA Meetings several years ago, the method has received rave reviews from participants and clients. Moreover, it has been recognized as an engaging alternative to the traditional certification session, which is typically scheduled at the end of a meeting to assess information and skills taught mere days or even hours before; this focus on artificial, front-to-back details of the core visual aid does not reflect the real-life situations that pharmaceutical sales reps encounter, which limits the effectiveness of the traditional approach.

Instead, the Selling Village features various interactions that enable sales reps to acquire a multifaceted certification over the course of the meeting, rather than during a one-time event. Interactive stations focus on different skills, issues, provider types, types of calls, sites of care, and other areas, and are created with the understanding that some sales reps may sail through particular stations but hit roadblocks at others. Some stations will be made available during the entire meeting, while other stations will only be open on certain days. As the meeting progresses, the stations/interactions and their focus will evolve, presenting further opportunities for reps to apply what they have learned and to receive feedback as many times as they need it. Practice makes perfect, and the Selling Village is a supportive environment for testing new key messaging, finessing frequently asked questions, and using new visual aids to ensure that stumbling blocks are removed prior to presenting live in front of a clinician customer.

Retaining information

We are all aware of the learning curve, but many aren’t so familiar with the “Forgetting Curve.” First described by Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885, the Forgetting Curve demonstrates that a shocking percentage of learned material and skill is quickly forgotten, which is especially likely with difficult material and challenging concepts. So, with the specter of the Forgetting Curve looming large, how can a focus on user experience help reps retain knowledge and maintain abilities? In adding functions that invite repeated use and review of materials-such as gaming and gamification tools-we support increased user engagement and boost retention. (Gamification, which involves the use of contests, leaderboards, etc., has proven to be an effective way of testing and reinforcing knowledge by inviting a sense of competition among the training group.)

In the same vein, we’ve designed games to make learning complex material into a spirited and addictive sport that trainees find far more enjoyable than traditional presentation formats. Studies have shown that repeated testing beats repeated studying when it comes to learning retention, as methods that prompt users to review materials and measure their progress protect the learner’s investment of time and the company’s investment in the training process.

Beyond games and gamification techniques, we work to enhance the user experience in a prelaunch/launch or pre-event/post-event setting by incorporating the Morning Report, a series of consistently executed calls involving the manager and the entire sales team. As a relevant, timely, and beneficial sustainment piece, the Morning Report keeps everyone up to date, reinforces important information, and builds teamwork and accountability. The addition of competition-style Q&A sessions, small prizes, and other forms of acknowledgment can make these calls more fun and provide additional incentive for active participation in an engaging, non-tech-based format.

Applying information

Understanding information is pointless if a rep cannot effectively communicate and apply that material in a compelling manner. With this in mind, learning and development programs must be continually reviewed to ensure reps will be properly prepared for a constantly evolving marketplace.

At Illuminate, we discuss changes in the marketplace with two different but equally important groups: our pharmaceutical and biotech clients, who are always developing new and innovative products, and our colleagues in the training arena, who-like us-are canaries in the coal mine when it comes to the use of emerging learning trends to better prepare reps. Awareness of the current overall life science landscape is vital, as it provides a necessary foundation for a successful learning and development design process.

Beyond this, training must be proactively designed to accommodate both learning and sharing of curriculum. We design each program so that content can be efficiently accessed by reps in the field and is presented in a quickly understandable format; our intellectually stimulating and visually engaging interfaces feature thoughtfully selected material to optimize the user experience and support better-executed clinical discussions.


Are your new hires ready to effectively promote your product when engaging in clinical conversations with HCPs for the first time? Is your existing sales team prepared to use new marketing resources in productive clinical interactions?

If your training and development offerings deliver a thoughtful, intuitive, and engaging user experience; communicate all necessary knowledge; make that information “stick”; and give the members of your team the tools they need to translate what they know to prescribers in a winning and factual manner, the answer is likely a resounding “yes.” If this sounds like you, your investment in both your workforce and the training process will likely pay off with a vibrant and successful campaign.

Over the decades I’ve spent in this field, I’ve learned that there are as many learning styles and preferences as there are learners-and I’ve determined that the best approach to preparing sales reps for success involves considering the user experience while working to accommodate these differences and support information acquisition, retention, and application. Keeping these core components in mind will yield successful training, a strong product launch, and robust continued promotional efforts.

Shaun McMahon is founder and president of Illuminate.

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