Sales forces integrate strategies

February 1, 1998

Pharmaceutical Representative

While the outlook for the pharmaceutical industry is much more optimistic today than it was several years ago, some companies are still cautious about over-hiring. To retain flexibility, they outsource some in-house operations, including sales.

While the outlook for the pharmaceutical industry is much more optimistic today than it was several years ago, some companies are still cautious about over-hiring. To retain flexibility, they outsource some in-house operations, including sales.

Currently, 13 of the top 20 pharmaceutical companies in North America use contract sales organizations to sell one or more products. In 1995, there were less than 2,000 contract sales reps - about 4% of the total pharmaceutical sales force; in 1997, that number was nearly 6,300, or 12%, of the approximately 50,000 pharmaceutical sales reps nationwide.

Len Mormando, national training and development manager for Professional Detailing Inc., a contract sales organization, and Andy Hartnett, director of sales training for Astra Merck Inc., agreed to address a series of questions on how an in-house sales force and contract sales force can work together successfully.

Why would a company hire contract sales reps, and how do the in-house reps initially react?

Hartnett: The primary reason for hiring a contract sales force is that it lends flexibility to an established sales force. A company can create a specialty sales force to meet time-limited or temporary challenges and free the existing sales force to focus on better-defined territories.

There is often a lack of understanding as to why contract sales reps are hired. Once the rationale is defined, I think most salespeople are very open to a contract sales force. They certainly know that if the contract sales reps successfully complete their business, it will impact the customer unit positively.

Mormando: The sales reps' perception of contract sales reps is very important, particularly at the outset of the relationship. The in-house force may be initially skeptical, or even apprehensive, about these arrangements, worried about losing credibility with their customers or giving up job security to perceived outsiders.

It's critical for them to understand that contract sales reps go through the same length and intensity of training that they do. Senior level managers must demonstrate confidence in the contract sales force.

How integrated should the two sales forces become?

Hartnett: Contract sales force relationships span a broad spectrum, from minimal customer contact and no transfer of product information to what I call a full-parity relationship, where the contract sales reps are virtually indistinguishable from the in-house sales force.

It's critical that reps from both companies understand where on the spectrum their particular relationship falls, and what the related expectations are. Those expectations should always be measured against the actual terms of the contract relationship.

Mormando: Contract sales forces are customized to fit the needs of individual clients. When the contract sales force is the only sales force selling a particular brand, a high degree of interaction between the sales forces is not critical. But for highly competitive categories and brands that are promotion-responsive, where both sales forces call on the same customers with the same products, they are tightly integrated. They may share the same sales goals and bonus structure. These types of alliances call for more communication and structured integration between the two sales forces.

What specific steps can a rep from either team take to increase the chances of creating a successful relationship?

Mormando: Communication is the key to successful integration. Especially in shared-territory situations, it is vital to coordinate visits and exchange information about overlapping physician lists.

Setting up a cycle of communication, preferably on a weekly basis, can easily be done by e-mail or telephone. Each rep can send a message to his or her counterpart in the field, briefly stating the number of doctors called on, who they were, what samples were distributed and what happened. This doesn't take a lot of time and it helps everyone keep track of what's going on in the territory. I would also recommend that reps keep open minds, and really get to know their counterparts.

Hartnett: A lot of sales reps have basic selling skills, but the culture of their company drives how they will approach customers. So attention to detail is important as it regards internal processes, corporate culture and how the parent company approaches their customer.

Regardless of how integrated the relationship is, an in-house rep can help the relationship by discussing the corporate culture and the approaches that the parent company uses when contacting customers, keeping in mind the contractual expectations of the relationship.

For highly integrated relationships, I advise intermittent lunches to discuss strategy. An initial breakfast meeting to orient them to the territory's overall goals and geographic and demographic makeup is helpful. Managers might invite sales reps who know the contract sales reps' customer base to come in and debrief the group on customer profiles, how best to approach them and the importance of those customers to the company's overall strategy. In-house reps might also get the contract sales reps involved in field activities, such as hospital displays, dinner meetings and journal clubs. PR

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