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Pre-launch Prep: The Modern Protocol


Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-09-01-2019
Volume 39
Issue 9

Tech-driven changes to training and learning systems-and how brand information is provided and shared-are overhauling approaches to sales rep preparation.

Tech-driven changes to training and learning systems have overhauled approaches to sales rep preparation


Whether a pharmaceutical company outsources its sales training programs or develops curriculum in-house, it already knows that thoroughly prepping their brand teams is critical for any successful product launch. But how we access information has changed dramatically in a remarkably short period of time. Not too long ago, training materials were printed, and sales reps would receive stacks of paper to read and review. Today, a large percentage of training is designed for intuitive use, with self-guided movement through curriculum, and accessed via mobile devices (M-learning) or online (E-learning).

With new technologies prompting changes in the ways that we learn and allowing fresh methods for providing information, it’s a good time to review the components of a modern training protocol.

Access on mobile devices

We want instant gratification. A 2012 study by University of Massachusetts professor Ramesh Sitaraman revealed that potential viewers will begin clicking off a YouTube video if they have to wait just two seconds for it to load, and that every second after that results in another 5.8% of viewers moving on. As a culture, we’ve experienced a parallel decline in our ability to pay full attention to almost anything for more than a few seconds. In fact, a 2015 headline-making report from Microsoft determined that goldfish, who’ve shown that they can focus on something exclusively for nine seconds, are now superior to human beings in this ability. (As a species, we can focus our attention without distraction for only an average of eight seconds.) 

That same study revealed that almost 80% of young adults reach for their phone as soon as they feel bored. In the four years since then, it’s likely that percentage has grown.

So it makes sense that pharmaceutical sales training content is increasingly uploaded onto mobile devices, designed to be accessed immediately, no matter the time or where we are.

EXAMPLE: For a recent client, we introduced a new format of a learning system that did away with audio narration and the traditional screen-to-screen view. Instead, this system was presented in an eMagazine or website style. This format allowed a more responsive design that could be accessed and easily read on laptops, iPads, and mobile phones. The user experience and reaction was so positive, we have been regularly adding this presentation as an option for all of our clients.


Learning isn’t something that happens immediately. Actual retention of information requires consistent review of materials; but “consistent review of materials” can be boring-and then we’re right back to that old problem with attention. So, savvy designers are finding ways to deliver curriculum that is stimulating and spaced out in a way that accommodates shorter bursts of focus.

Microlearning (where materials are broken down into quick-to-review and easy-to-grasp modules) helps quite a bit. Microlearning encourages a boiling down of material to its essence, and once that essence is understood, a platform of knowledge can be built upon. The micro- learning format also makes it easier to find and review materials as needed. We’re now seeing microlearning move from “innovation” to standard practice.

Gamification, which applies the competitive structure of games to the learning process, is another longtime-and very successful-component to training, and thanks to inventive new technologies, it’s one that is regularly finessed and improved. Many people are accustomed to playing games on their phones. The trick in training is in repurposing complex information into a gaming format that is attractive and compelling and contains all necessary curriculum.

EXAMPLE: We are using a new technology platform that sends out questions to pharma sales reps on a regular basis in a contest format as a means of sustaining the learning curve and preventing the forgetting curve. Reps compete with each other and against other teams, which motivates them to stay engaged. It also helps them relearn information until it is absorbed.


Programs can be designed to match the specific needs of each member of your sales team, with different materials emphasized based upon each individual’s areas of difficulty. Also, if one particular rep does better with interactive platforms while another responds better to video tutorials, each can have a program that responds to their preferences. Curriculum itself can also be adjusted depending on varying levels of understanding. In addition, personalization means that every trainee’s learning track can be supported via chat features that engage with users, answer FAQs, sustain interest in the program, and more.

Methods can also be incorporated into the program to allow assessment of individual learners and the team as a whole. Areas of weakness are identified through regular quizzes inserted into the program, and steps can be taken immediately to strengthen areas of difficulty.

EXAMPLE: We have incorporated personalized learning into many of our programs. Learning gaps can be identified via all sorts of assessments and gamification that then serve up recommendations with microlearning assets. This helps tailor a learning plan to resolve a trainee’s area for development accordingly in a wholistic, not punitive way.


Even as technology leads the way in supporting innovative training features, developing face-to-face interaction skills remains essential. However, while getting up and doing a role play in front of the entire team might be fun for some, others prefer to make their mistakes in a more private fashion.

There are new approaches to improving in-person skills that borrow on the concepts mentioned earlier, including the “Selling Village.” Established at pharmaceutical sales meetings, the Selling Village is an area where the trainee is responsible for his or her own success in what is akin to a sales training gym. If they need extra help with verbalization skills, they can camp out at that particular station until they’ve achieved competence. If, on the other hand, they’ve already achieved content retention, they can skip that booth.

EXAMPLE: At a recent company-wide sales meeting for a leading pharma firm, we established a continuous, comprehensive Selling Village that featured several innovative stations where workshop content was extended into live, interactive, and more intimate sessions, allowing immediate application and reinforcement. We also established department stations where sales reps could interact with experts on varied subject matter. Lastly, mini-certification stations were set up to help certified sales reps grow their critical skills in a gradual and organic manner, rather than the traditional checklist approach, which can result in surface learning and poor retention.


One of the most transformative elements of today’s training programs that we look forward to introducing soon is virtual and augmented reality. Trainees using VR and AR have the opportunity to practice their presentations and develop their skills in simulated realities.

Virtual reality places trainees in situations that feel realistic and true to the sales experience. This saves on resources and time, and removes the fear of sales call failures. Trainees can be comfortable practicing and trying new approaches in safe environments that mimic reality but are completely simulated and private.

Post-launch training

An 1885 study by researcher Hermann Ebbinghaus established the “Forgetting Curve,” which demonstrates how and why we forget information, and follow-up studies have confirmed that without regular reinforcement, much learned material can be lost. For that reason, you shouldn’t expect the initial training program to be the final chapter in your trainee training process. Keep your product fresh and alive in the marketplace by investing in occasional “refresh” training campaigns to reinvigorate your team members and prevent sales techniques from becoming rusty.

EXAMPLE: As part of a launch for a recent client, we developed a comprehensive sustainment plan which included:

  • A multi-faceted, long-term gamification campaign.

  • A successful board game provided to sales managers.

  • Best practice postcards delivered in the old-fashioned USPS method.

  • Videos pulsed out regularly to keep the energy of the launch meeting alive.

  • Follow-up meetings with light slides for reinforcement of best practices and to help ensure that lingering questions were answered.

In addition, the sustainment campaign was not static; changes in direction since the product launch were addressed as necessary.


Shaun McMahon is founder and president, Illuminate. He can be reached at shaunmcmahon@illuminate.net


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