What's Wrong with the Annual Sales Kickoff: And How to Fix it

December 19, 2014
Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-12-01-2014, Issue 12

New ways for pharma to make sure its sales reps stay sharp amid a flood of new information and a more complex selling climate.

As we turn the page to 2015, the season of annual sales meetings is upon us. Leading pharmas are sharpening their already-honed focus on making their kickoff the gateway to growth, as brand teams refine product messages for drugs in various stages of their commercial life cycles. Sales teams look to these national gatherings to address mounting in-market challenges—from diminished physician access and cross-selling demands to heightened regulatory and competitive pressures.

Duncan Lennox

With so much to cover, kickoff attendees must juggle an overwhelming volume of new information critical to the job. Meeting days are so jam-packed that reps can hardly catch their breath between presentations—let alone recall the content with any detail in the days and weeks that follow. Even worse, if a drug launch or new indication is delayed for any reason, the competitive responses or client approaches introduced in January or February will be long forgotten by May. Executives may not realize there's a skills gap until it's too late.

Science of effective selling

Brain science suggests that nearly 80% of the new information imparted during a kickoff or plan of action (POA) will be forgotten within days and weeks. It's not the fault of the sales rep, sales executives, or the instructors. It also doesn't reflect on the richness of the content or the sound instructional design. It is simply a matter of how the human brain works. This phenomenon known as the "forgetting curve" was first uncovered more than a century ago by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus.

Over 20 randomized control trials conducted at Harvard and elsewhere in the past decade prove that there's a neurophysiological basis for this, and that a process of interval reinforcement can help make learning stick. Sometimes referred to as the "spacing effect," experiments show that knowledge and skills are preferentially retained in long-term memory if presented and reinforced in small amounts over intervals of time. There's also a "testing effect"—where the simple act of answering a question can provide retrieval practice and active learning that in itself can dramatically improve knowledge retention, compared to passive learning without retrieval practice.

A recent study of sales meetings in the medical device sector bears out the value of this. At Intuitive Surgical, a manufacturer of robotic surgical systems, product training is typically part of the sales meeting agenda and, like pharma, can occur months before the product actually launches. To test the concepts of interval reinforcement, Intuitive Surgical performed a three-way benchmark comparing knowledge retention scores from those who attended the product training: 1) with traditional training support in the form of eLearning modules, 2) with access to 1:1 coaching by a subject matter expert, and 3) with reinforcement in the form of scenario-based challenges delivered in a Q&A format to their mobile device every few days using simple game mechanics.

The results were dramatic. In a post-test 90 days after the initial training, Intuitive Surgical found that the mobile game approach delivered the same level of knowledge retention as access to a 1:1 coach, and better retention than the training program alone—with far less investment of time, money, and resources.

Furthermore, the mobile reinforcement approach allowed them to gather data on what sales reps understood, and their readiness to apply new information to the job. Sales and training executives used the data to drill down into individual performance, and monitor overall capabilities of their sales teams relative to their ability to position new products with buyers.

Moving the needle

Today's most innovative pharmas are putting this brain science to work as well. They're focused on the pull-through of messages delivered at annual kickoffs, mid-year meetings, and POAs. Increasingly, they are making mobile the platform of choice for reps, and incorporating game elements to drive engagement. They're also leveraging predictive analytics to point the way to:

» Personalized coaching of reps based on knowledge gaps that can create risk.

» Correlation of engagement and proficiency levels to sales performance data to spot and address issues proactively.

» Use of confidence ratings to identify cases where either reps have confidence that exceeds actual understanding, or where reps are impressively knowledgeable but lacking in confidence—two circumstances that can impact market share and revenue.

What Boehringer Ingelheim did

Executives at the US division of Boehringer Ingelheim, a top-20 pharma, recognize that field reps are squeezed for time, yet must thoroughly understand product attributes, disease states, and competitive positioning as well as the complex healthcare system issues of concern to their physicians.

The team considered traditional paths to pull through such as eLearning, richer interactive content, and even more face-to-face meetings during the critically important months between sales meetings. They determined that incremental improvements were not sufficient and sought a "game changer."

After an initial trial, Boehringer Ingelheim rolled out a program to 2,500-plus field reps using a mobile reinforcement platform. Its approach had been scientifically proven in dozens of clinical trials to change selling behaviors with impact to the bottom line. Reps simply answered two questions from their laptop or mobile device every other day. They were immediately scored, could see how their peers answered the same question, and were presented with a concise explanation and on their way in minutes. Engagement was high, spurred on by the competitive leader board aspects of the solution.

The management team received weekly summary reports and graphs on proficiency and engagement. The information gave unprecedented insight into areas where they required additional support and coaching.

Pharma facilitates faster time to performance

At present, eight of the top 10 pharmas are employing the same approach to making sure they monitor and manage the capabilities of their sales reps—and from that, enable important management decisions.

In April 2014, a top pharma ran a reinforcement program as part of its mid-year kickoff following the acquisition of a competitor's drug practice, which included the addition of more than 1,000 new reps. The teams came together at a week-long introductory meeting to the new drugs they would represent in market. Great effort went into providing the reps with the best information by the best resources in the most engaging and helpful way. After the intensive in-person meeting, the pharma established a control group of about 500 reps and a separate group of 2,000 reps who actively participated in a mobile knowledge reinforcement program.

The introduction of a knowledge reinforcement platform increased retention by 20%—as measured by the accuracy of a rep's first response attempt vs. their final attempt up to six weeks later. This demonstrates that reps gained knowledge over time in addition to retaining it. After program completion, retention among the 2,000 reps who participated was 32% better than the control group, which continued to experience decays in important information they needed to know. Program dashboards provided management with graphical views of baseline knowledge and improvement over time. In addition, as per the "testing effect," the aggregate performance on the first attempt at a question was significantly higher—63% compared to 52%—among those using the reinforcement program compared to the control group.

Meeting demands of dynamic market change

The analytics provided on data gathered from deeply knowing what sales reps know can be critical long after the kickoff to assess readiness in light of market changes:

» FDA delays: A major pharma spent the summer of 2013 readying for a new drug launch and hired nearly 100 new reps in support of it, only to learn in October that FDA review was delayed until 2014. By implementing a mobile reinforcement strategy, they ensured that critical knowledge was retained by the sales team.

» Clinical research and disease states: A West Coast biotech firm with over 2,500 clinical specialists, medical science liaisons, and marketing staff, used this Q&A approach to identify specific clinical topics that were not well assimilated to help guide the targeted investment of training time and resources.

» Recruiting: The ability to tag data from responses in unlimited ways can be used in the evaluation of the best places to hire reps. For example, perhaps reps from a specific competitor demonstrate a stronger grasp of clinical knowledge and compliance requirements, while reps hired from related industries have sharper selling skills.

Understanding the important long-term benefits of a sound reinforcement strategy is key to 2015 sales success. But tackling the "forgetting curve" head on is just the beginning. It's time that more pharmas start harnessing technologies to make sales training less about "death by PowerPoint," and more about ongoing, data-driven sales management—before the competition does.

Duncan Lennox is CEO and Co-Founder of Qstream Inc. He can be reached at info@qstream.com

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