Switching Sides

September 1, 2002
Patricia Strandboge
Patricia Strandboge

Patricia Strandboge is a co-founder and managing partner of Targeted Performance Partners LLC, a Rochester, NY-based sales training and development company that specializes in serving the unique needs of pharmaceutical and biotech companies. Contact Targeted Performance Partners by e-mail at info@tpptraining.com, by phone at (585) 271-8370 or on the Web at www.tpptraining.com.

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Jim McGuire
Jim McGuire

Jim McGuire is a co-founder and managing partner of Targeted Performance Partners LLC, a Rochester, NY-based sales training and development company that specializes in serving the unique needs of pharmaceutical and biotech companies. Contact Targeted Performance Partners by e-mail at info@tpptraining.com, by phone at (585) 271-8370 or on the Web at www.tpptraining.com.

Pharmaceutical Representative

How to succeed when you go to work for the competition.

Field sales organizations have increased in size over the last several years, to the point where there are now more than 70,000 pharmaceutical sales representatives in the United States. This expansion has created many welcome opportunities for experienced pharmaceutical sales representatives to move on to bigger and better things by joining different companies. In today's tough job market, many pharmaceutical companies will only consider candidates with expertise in certain therapeutic areas or candidates who have experience selling in specific markets. One of the reasons for this requirement is that the company can hire experienced professional salespeople who have existing relationships with high prescribers in the market in which their product competes. Many times, these relationships can give a candidate the necessary edge over other candidates to secure the position. While taking a job with a different company can offer valuable career growth for an ambitious pharmaceutical sales representative, it may also pose a particularly sticky challenge: If you are now working for a company that you used to sell against, how do you sell a former competitor product to the same physician universe?

What do your customers think?

The overall feeling among physicians is that they understand the pharmaceutical sales representative is just doing his or her job. While some may want to give the rep a hard time about having switched to a competing company, most physicians know that pharmaceutical sales representatives are professionals who earn their paychecks by promoting their company's products.

"There is no doubt that pharmaceutical sales reps have a job to do, and a family to feed, but so does the doctor, and we have a need to do what is best for the patient," said Louis Papa, an internist with Strong Health in Rochester, NY. "I will not use a product to do a favor for the rep, as some reps ask, but I will use products when I understand the information behind them. Reps need to have more than just promotional material information. They need to understand all aspects of the product that they are promoting, as well as the disease state, and be able to talk about them."

How the physician reacts to your career change often depends on how you have conducted yourself in the office in the past. "If the rep is a hard-sell rep, or someone who is always questioning why the doctor makes specific choices related to the patient, doctors are waiting for these people to trip up," said Papa. "If the new product is a borderline drug, or not on the right tier or the right formulary, the drug will not be utilized because of the rep's personality. On the other hand, if the product is presented by a more personable rep who is knowledgeable and talks about the information, and then asks me to prescribe for appropriate patients, that is much more likely to happen."

How do you handle this personally?

Some sales representatives who switch to a competitor may feel confronted with a moral dilemma. They have grown to feel personally attached to the product they used to sell, but now they must sell against it. "It was very hard that first week or two," said one pharmaceutical sales representative who took a specialty position selling a former competitor product. "I was so nervous before every call. I didn't know if the doctors would yell at me or throw me out, or just think less of me because of the decision I made to change companies."

Additionally, some reps feel as if they are going back on their word. "I almost didn't take the new job, because I didn't know how to handle it with my doctors without seeming dishonest," said another rep who switched products within the highly competitive attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder market. "But it was such a great career opportunity for me and financial opportunity for my family that I couldn't pass it up." The key to maintaining your credibility, said Papa, is to continue to provide valuable information to the physicians in your territory, rather than setting your sights on switching all your customers over to the new product. Papa once experienced a situation in which a sales representative switched companies and began selling for a competitor. "The sales rep gave me the information on both products, and let me make up my own mind about when to use the new product," said Papa. "The credibility for this sales rep went up because of this approach, and because I felt that I was getting a broader perspective on the disease and the drugs."

Succeeding at selling a competitor

You used to prey on your former competitor's weaknesses; now it's your job to sell its strong points. Despite physicians' overall understanding that you are just trying to make a living, the determining factor in how warmly you are received in the office is your attitude, according to Donna Palumbo of University of Rochester Medical Center. "It depends on how the rep presents," said Palumbo. "If the rep comes in trying to discredit the old product, that would be a problem. The doctor needs to feel that the rep provides a service. All products have their pros and cons - present both." The first step in turning this awkward situation into an opportunity is to acknowledge that the product you used to sell is a good product with many fine attributes. Second, ask the physician open-ended questions to determine what the physician believes are opportunities for your new product. These questions can be focused on what the physician feels are particularly strong points for the product you're selling now versus the product you used to sell, or other competitive products in the marketplace. Finally, focus the physician on the specific patient types or problems that you know your new product will address, and that other products in the market may not address. The key to success in this difficult situation is to stay positive and focus on providing a valuable service to the physicians in your territory by helping them make decisions that will positively impact the health of their patients. "Surprisingly, most of my doctors were a lot less uncomfortable with the situation than I was," said one sales representative who switched companies. "I was just upfront about the positive and negative aspects of both products, and my doctors seemed to respond positively to that. It's been about three months since I took the new job, and my relationships with most of my doctors are better than ever." PR

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