No End to It

April 1, 2006

Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-04-01-2006, Volume 0, Issue 0

Most reps' best opportunities to gain a physician's time and attention come when they are new to a territory, or when the products they promote have a new indication.

Every pharmaceutical company understands the importance of assessing their sales reps during initial training. The reason is simple: assessments allow a company to see how prepared their sales reps are to perform in the field. Although some best-in-class companies build continual assessment and development into their sales culture, many pharmaceutical companies do a poor job of assessing their sales reps beyond their initial training. Companies typically fall short in this area for three reasons:

  • They do not find the right mix of knowledge and selling-skills assessments to accurately evaluate individual competency over time.

  • They don't define and maintain standards across a range of assessment types and assessors.

  • They don't foster a culture of routinely evaluating reps' competencies.

The solution to these problems is to create a long-term assessment continuum—a plan for testing and measuring sales reps' knowledge and practices throughout their careers, from their initial training to the day they leave the company. In that way, companies that implement this type of ongoing process take a step toward determining what additional training opportunities are needed to enhance rep performance.

Tenure Transitions

Why an Assessment Continuum?

Implementing an assessment continuum can create a fundamental shift in the culture at companies. However, the objective is not to create a culture of fear or to look for ways to terminate employees. Instead, these evaluations enable sales managers at pharma companies to identify areas of proficiency and opportunities for improvement through a mix of knowledge and selling-skill development. In the long-term, it is that focus on constant learning that helps companies improve its reps' selling skills—and the bottom line—in the long term.

If done effectively, this focus on continuous improvement can create a more dynamic exchange in the marketplace and improve reps' interaction with doctors—when they get the chance. Most reps only have a limited number of key opportunities to gain the time and attention of physicians and other healthcare professionals: when they are new to a specific territory, when the brands they promote receive a new indication, or when they are promoting a drug that was just launched. Unfortunately, poorly-prepared reps repeatedly squander these opportunities.

Many pharmaceutical companies use online assessments to ensure sales representatives understand the material they are presenting to healthcare professionals. However, manufacturers often fall short of assessing whether reps can effectively articulate these messages to doctors. Usually, the only assessment of actual selling skills—and the effectiveness of that crucial rep-physician interaction—is conducted during initial training.

That's not to say that many pharmaceutical companies don't use role playing, usually during plan of action (POA) meetings. However, these role plays are generally used to practice presenting, not as an opportunity to assess what reps may or may not know.

An assessment continuum can help focus the efforts of pharmaceutical sales reps and their managers on enhancing product and disease knowledge and selling skills—and lets those employees know the company values those traits. This creates a culture in which assessment becomes a driver of reps' success—and the success of the entire enterprise.

Executing the Plan

Creating an assessment continuum is an important step. But executing this plan is presents some issues to many pharmaceutical companies. To overcome implementation issues, it is first important to understand that an effective assessment continuum involves three important steps:

  • Using formal (i.e., in-house) training to lay the groundwork of an assessment continuum

  • Effectively linking the assessment continuum to the efforts of the front-line sales manager

  • Ensuring that the cultural mantra is championed by sales management and integrated into field observation and recommendations.

Step 1

Typically, companies only conduct two meaningful evaluations of their reps' initial training experience—an online knowledge assessment at the end of home study and a video-taped selling skills assessment before reps enter the field. Incorporating more measurements of successful selling skills helps reps focus on these abilities and identify areas where additional training is needed.

Initial Training—Home Study

As reps finish home study, companies should take the time to assess their ability to verbalize their new knowledge. Require reps to make a presentation that is evaluated by the rep's front-line manager and, if possible, by another person from the training department.

Reps can use a generic selling model since they have not been trained in the company model yet. It should include the following components:

  • Opening: The ability to craft an opening statement that generates interest in the product

  • Message Delivery: The ability to present material clearly and concisely

  • Impact: The proper use of benefit statements to support the core messages delivered

  • Closing: The ability to push the "buyer" to a commitment to action.

An evaluation based on this generic selling model can then be mapped to the company selling model so that trainers know the rep's baseline skills—and can identify proficiencies and areas for improvement—at the beginning of the in-house training.

If this presentation is recorded, it can be compared with the final assessment at the end of the in-house training to show reps their progress. For reps, this type of feedback is extremely powerful because it allows them to see the distinct differences between their initial approach and the new approach they learned during training.

Initial Training—In-House

Each day of reps' in-house training should include some type of assessed role play that allows them to incorporate what they learned into a presentation. Reps should also have the opportunity to observe other sales reps giving presentations. One effective way to parlay this peer-to-peer learning is to identify a top performer each day, videotape that representative demonstrating a component of the selling model, and show the recording to the other reps. This approach has the added benefit of associating assessments with positive, rather than negative, reinforcement.

The evaluation form is a critical tool for any assessment. It should define and maintain consisten standards and be used throughout the assessment continuum. Currently, most pharma companies assess reps using an evaluation form with a three-point scale (i.e., Needs Improvement, Meets Expectations, Exceeds Expectations) or a five-point scale (i.e., Needs Improvement, Satisfactory, Meets Expectations, Exceeds Expectations, Outstanding). However, these forms can create problems because the criteria are not well-defined, leaving the choice of score up to the assessor. This makes reliable comparisons among reps very difficult because two different assessors can define "Exceeds Expectations" differently.

Too many companies use five-point scales to evaluate reps without clearly defining the difference between scores. These companies often end up with scores that are essentially meaningless because evaluators (due to a lack of guidance) tend to give the majority of reps high score sregardless of the quality of the presentation.

To avoid these issues, it is necessary to build a scale that clearly defines "good" and "bad." For example, let's say a company wants to ensure their reps can deliver a brand's core messages, use visual aids to support it, and make certain that the customer understands the relevance of the communication. The assessment scale could look something like this:

  • Failed to deliver the core message

  • Conveyed the core message incorrectly

  • Conveyed the core message accurately

  • Conveyed the core message and supported with available data

  • Conveyed the core message, supported with available data, and ensured that the data conveyed was relevant to the customer

The scale above is designed to give the assessor more information about where a rep's performance resides. Similar scales for each component of the selling model allow assessors to consistently evaluate reps and clearly explain where they are proficient and where they need improvement.

Advanced Training—In-House

All advanced training needs to link to the overall assessment continuum and include a formal evaluation, so that reps can apply the information they have learned. This not only helps measure the rep's knowledge level and selling ability, it is a good tool to measure the ability of their front-line managers to reinforce training with effective coaching.

Step 2

Once reps leave in-house training, front-line managers, with some oversight from the training department, take over the responsibility to further develop them. Here, using an assessment continuum to link field training to in-house training efforts through field coaching reports helps instill the culture of continual evaluation into the organization. Common examples of such assessments include:

  • Front-line managers conduct role plays with their reps before going on sales calls to ensure that reps can articulate information and have a plan to handle likely concerns of customers. After the call, the manager can assess the performance and re-inforce lessons the reps learned during in-house training. By using the field-coaching report as an assessment tool, managers can show reps their progression or regression over time. These types of in-field assessment are most valuable if the field coaching report resembles the assessment forms used during in-house training.

  • POAs can include well-designed role plays that address issues reps encounter in the field and assess rep skills and preparedness. Reps should be allowed to demonstrate their ability to use materials to address new (or ongoing) objections they might have. By allowing reps to observe and assess each other using the same evaluation form, they begin to understand exactly what their peers should be doing, which contributes to accurate self-assessment.

Companies should also keep in mind that experience on the job does not eliminate the need for continued training. In fact, sales force assessment projects with multiple companies have revealed that:

  • Longer tenure is not associated with increased sales performance.

  • A new, young rep from a competitive company often comes in and steals market share from an incumbent, tenured representative.

  • Tenured reps often "fight" the sales model. Instead of working on their basic selling skills, they rely on relationships they have developed over the years to secure continued business.

Step 3

Creating a culture that values assessment begins with initial training, but is solidified throughout the rep's tenure. Regardless of the efforts of the training department, the assessment continuum can only be successful with support from the pharma organization as a whole. As we saw in Step 2, front-line managers must instill the culture of assessment through field evaluations and coaching. However, front-line management will only enforce high expectations if senior management encourages them. In that way, senior sales executives' buy-in to the asessment process is crucial. Management must also provide front-line leaders and sales trainers with the resources needed to execute the assessment continuum.

The end goal of all sales organizations is to improve sales performance. Therefore, companies must ensure that sales reps are prepared to make the most of their time with the doctor. Creating a culture of assessment that spans the tenure of the rep is one way to meet this goal. Reps will be more likely to excel in the field if they know they are required to keep their selling skills and knowledge up to standard.

If front-line management emphasizes the need for continuous assessment, and senior management supports this goal, long-term assessment will be surely become part of the organization's culture.

John Bye is a practice executive of sales practice at Campbell Alliance. He can be reached at jbye@campbellalliance.com

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