Sales Report: Rep School

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While people may joke about recruiting pharmaceutical sales reps from the cheerleading squad, selling for the drug industry requires substance over fluff—scientific knowledge, business acumen, relationship building skills and self-motivation are all necessary for success.

Most companies have a centralized training department, responsible for all therapeutic areas within the sales force. Individual therapeutic area alignment happens at a group level with product trainers or managers aligned to the brand teams and/or therapeutic areas. While outsourced training is available, the majority of training occurs in-house.

“Outsourced training is something that companies tend to stay away from,” says George Schmidt, senior practice executive, sales practice at Campbell Alliance, “especially with new hires, mainly because these individuals are coming into the organization for the first time and companies view training as the way to imprint their culture.” 

Brad Sullivan, Director of Operations at the National Association of Pharmaceutical Sales Reps (NAPSR), agrees that companies prefer doing their own training, though smaller companies outsource more often. 

However, outsourcing is useful for highly technical training, as well as district manager courses geared toward interviewing and hiring. “Companies will bring in facilitators to assist in workshops that require specific expertise in coaching, leadership, and communication, but the core areas of product and selling skills, and being able to apply it all, that is something that they try to keep in-house,” says Schmidt.

Most training programs are intense. “The companies and the reps don't want to be embarrassed by going into a physician and not knowing the answer, not knowing the terminology, not knowing the industry,” Sullivan says. “It is a minimum of 60, all the way up to 100 hours.”

Since a science background isn't necessarily a prerequisite for hiring, training has to incorporate scientific and therapeutic area knowledge.  “In the ideal world,” Schmidt says, “you would have somebody with a pharmacist background, who is able to talk to the managed care side, with a science background who can talk to the science, and who is comfortable in the selling position…a super person.” But with so many reps  in the industry there is a gap between ideal and reality. To minimize that gap, the industry focuses much of its resources on training new reps.  Training often starts with a home-based program, that includes a mix of independent study—workbooks, computer modules, and online assessments—as well as interactions with district managers, experienced peer reps, and field-based trainers; then a program of classroom-based training focused on reinforcing product knowledge and selling skills. Before entering the sales force, new reps will be tested on their knowledge.

“At companies such as Merck,” Sullivan says, “reps have to get 90% of their test correct or they are not sent off to their sales force. Most companies have that.” Some companies also have a one-week training class at the 9-12 month period, as well as a one week in-house advanced training for reps at the 12-24 month point that covers advanced selling skills and concepts.
Continuing sales training for veteran sales reps, however, can be lacking. Sullivan estimates that on an average annual basis, reps receive 40-80 hours of continuing education, consisting of product knowledge and sales techniques. According to Schmidt, while companies train new reps well, after a couple of years, the focus on individual development is pushed aside in favor of national and regional training programs focused more on execution and development plans for the company. 

“Companies fall down here,” he says, however, “some companies are really focusing on doing a better job, through multiple types of methods. One of the biggest is online learning where reps can sit down with their district manager or by themselves and assess what they think their areas of need are, and then go online and find modules or activities where they can build up their competency and skill.”

Focusing on continuing education for veteran reps is an important strategy for preventing turnover. “Most people in their first year aren't going to leave unless they can't hack it,” says Schmidt, “it is when you have the tenured individuals who are looking to leave because they don't feel satisfied; studies have shown that the biggest reason for leaving a position is lack of developmental opportunities, so that is what companies can really focus on—retaining talent through demonstrating the career pathways available and providing developmental opportunities to continue to build and enhance skill sets.”

Dan Blue, executive director of the Pharmaceutical Institute, agrees.

“Companies are going to have to start looking in more long-term fashions at their reps,” he says. “They need to make sure that their reps are on a continuous track for improvement and learning, which means regularly getting the right education and information opportunities in front of them as opposed to just investing heavily at the beginning and then letting it trail off. There is a cost to not having a rep out in the field, but there is a tremendous cost to not bringing them back to the fold and re-educating them and making sure it is a continuous process.”

A good example is the ever-changing regulatory environment. “Compliance is a zero-tolerance game,” says Schmidt, “so companies are building that into their training programs now.” 

To maximize interactions with physicians, companies need to differentiate their reps, ensuring they exhibit clinical proficiency and the ability to hold conversations about the range of patient types and treatment options. To do this, companies are focusing on job competencies, tightening hiring profiles, spending more time and research on therapeutic area training and working to guarantee standards of training and execution once reps are in the field by increasing training touch points through distance learning and manager-peer interaction. 

Schmidt believes that this leader-led learning—verbalization sessions and training sessions in the field—is on the rise. “Most of learning in the workplace happens on the job,” says Schmidt, “and companies are recognizing that. If you can get the leader involved, it establishes a learning culture and has benefits for everybody.” 

However, Blue is seeing self-paced learning becoming more prevalent, through IT based solutions and learning management systems  “Companies are realizing that taking people off-line and having seminars or large auditorium meetings with inspirational messages, while it is good and effective, it is not always the best way to present a lot of information that sales reps need,” says Blue. 

The Campbell Alliance also recommends shifting focus to the home-study, and then leveraging the in-house national training to pull through skills and do application based training, enabling a more interactive and realistic training environment. 

 Out in the field, knowledge and confidence are linked. And unless a rep has both, they won't be able to create and maintain the necessary relationships with physicians. Busy physicians will only make time for a rep who brings value and new knowledge to every interaction. “Product knowledge is great,” says Blue, “but doctors realize that sales reps are there to sell. Therefore reps get more time with physicians when they are able to act as a resource and develop a peer relationship.” And that means having the best possible therapeutic knowledge.

SIDEBAR: Self-led learning

IT-based solutions and learning management systems are becoming increasingly prevalent sales force training. Online courses allow reps to engage in self-paced learning. They can be tracked and assessments can be delivered to ensure that reps are getting the maximum out of the program. The Pharmaceutical Institute has seen an increase in interest for courses on reference material, leading into live-workshop and interactive role-play environments, which then direct back to post-course assessments. Shifting focus to the home-study and then leveraging the in-house national training to pull through skills and do application based training, enabling a more interactive and realistic training environment.

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