Field force excellence in India – are we kidding ourselves? The journey so far and the way ahead

Anup Soans


Anup Soans questions whether field force excellence in India is actually being achieved.

Field Force Excellence (FFE) can be defined as field force – doctor engagement wherein:

1. The doctor experiences tangible value in their interaction with pharma field force leading to better patient outcomes.

2. The field force experiences satisfaction with their career and meaning in their daily work.

3. The field force – doctor engagement results in increased productivity for pharma companies.

“Field Force Excellence, are we kidding ourselves?” This remark by a senior SFE professional from a reputed MNC summed up the thoughts of some of the delegates at the first ever Pharma CEO Roundtable on Field Force Excellence on June 16, 2012 at the JW Marriott, Mumbai.

In response, veteran CEO, Narayan B Gad of Panacea Biotec took the question head-on by saying – “Excellence might seem like a utopian idea, but we can certainly move forward from efficiency to effectiveness, which together will take us closer to excellence as envisaged by MedicinMan, the organizers of FFE 2012.”

FFE 2012 was conducted in the backdrop of deteriorating quality of pharma field force in India. On stage and in the audience were senior Indian pharma industry professionals including CEOs, who had risen from the ranks of field force in the preceding 25 years. Where had the Indian pharma field force gone wrong so dramatically that it was now struggling to find quality people to shore up the ever-expanding front-lines and sales leadership positions?

The rise of Indian pharma both in India and globally is matched only by the Indian IT and BPO sector, which gave the Indian professionals a great opportunity to build careers at a hitherto unknown pace. Twenty somethings were becoming General Managers and VPs and acquiring houses and cars within 5 years of working. The rise of IT and BPO had a cascading effect on the increase in job opportunities in Retail, Insurance, Finance and Banking and a host of other Greenfield sectors. Pharma became a laggard in attracting talent at the entry level and this has had a negative effect in building a sales leadership pipeline in an industry that was growing at thrice the speed of Indian economy.


“Where had the Indian pharma field force gone wrong so dramatically that it was now struggling to find quality people…”


Feet-on-street was the logic of many Indian pharma companies that were growing at a break-neck speed from the 80s and forwards. MNCs and many Indian companies tried swimming against the prevailing trends by recruiting and training people to perform at earlier levels of competence. But it was a losing battle – the fast growing Indian pharma companies were liberally poaching from the MNCs and other well managed Indian companies instead of nurturing their own field force. Medical Reps in MNCs who had to wait for 10 years and more for promotions now found themselves moving up the steep ladder at the rapid pace of IT companies.

Just as prosperity comes with a price of obesity and a host of related lifestyle disorders, the price of rapid growth in the Indian Pharma has been the decline of quality of field force people. Indian Pharma companies not only reverse engineered and copied IP products of MNCs, they added their own ‘Jugaad’ in creating rational and irrational combinations that had the doctors reeling from an overdose of too many branded generics (60,000) and their combinations.

Along with Jugaad drug combinations, came the Jugaad promotions that did not need much talent. Carrying expensive gifts and booking exotic tour locations required as much talent of a street-smart pizza delivery boy. Irrational drug combinations, irrational copycat promotions – nobody questions the sanity of methods when the growth is assured. Ethics went for a toss as MBAs competed with veteran field sales leaders to prove their worth through get-quick-rich MLM like strategies, which unfortunately led to decline of field force – poor quality recruits, little training, promotions without development and high pressure management. Talent fled the pharma industry in large numbers and mediocrity ruled the day. No wonder veterans look at the present scenario and remark – “Field Force Excellence, are we kidding ourselves?”


“The rise of Indian pharma both in India and globally is matched only by the Indian IT and BPO sector…”


But the darkest night is also just before the dawn. The declining productivity of field force, increasing social activism against pharma-doctor nexus, governmental regulations and an uncertain global economy are forcing Indian Pharma to rethink their way of doing business.

The transactional relationship with doctors has run its full course and the returns are diminishing steadily. To reverse these negative trends and bring about a transformation in the relationship with doctors, Indian Pharma will have to reinvent its field force again. The new generations of students coming out of campuses are coming equipped with some unique skill sets – they are the digital natives. The rise of technology enabled doctor and social media will provide Indian Pharma with unique ways of engaging the doctors – from fatigue to fun. Both doctors and field force have been experiencing a high level of dissatisfaction in their interactions. While field force will remain the lynchpin of doctor-pharma equation, it will be the technology enabled Medical Rep and Front-line Managers who will re-create trust and build relationship by understanding the doctor’s business and adding real value.

The repositioning of Field Force has to be well thought out and must address the needs of patients and doctors and not just the promotional interests of Pharma companies. There is a lot that pharma field force can do in this regard as they are on the field where the action is. Social media has the potential to engage, build trust and communicate effectively in a media format that already has the patients and doctors tuned in. Gadgets like iPads have the potential to take CRM and other customer engagement models to effectiveness levels not possible earlier. These gadgets also have the potential to make learning an ongoing practice instead of periodic events.

iPads have the potential to transform the Med Reps learning process and make them more knowledgeable about the therapy areas in which their customers operate. A seamless loop that connects Med Reps, Front-line Managers, Training Managers, doctors, chemists and other stakeholders has the potential to go beyond the present silo approach and bring HR, Sales, Medical Affairs, Admin and other function including finance on the same page. It can bring about beneficial changes in neglected areas like ADR by systematic reporting and response in real time, adding much value to medical practice.


“Carrying expensive gifts and booking exotic tour locations required as much talent of a street-smart pizza delivery boy.”


In short, the scope for field force excellence is enormous if Indian Pharma takes the leap and re-configures its field force strategy from recruitment to management.

The results of a MedicinMan Poll with more than 400 respondents on LinkedIn are instructive of the aspirations of employees. Learning and Development was the No.1 job satisfier for employees in the 18–29 age group – For details and comments of the poll: This is very heartening indeed. Entry-level employees are aware that Learning and Development is the key to success in their career. Presently most Indian Pharma companies pay scant attention to learning and development needs of Medical Reps and Front-line Managers. The high attrition rate serves as a dampener on investing in people. This has led to the entire ecosystem of field people being ill equipped to handle the new challenges of healthcare marketing.

With the advent of Cloud Computing and the high involvement of Gen Y in social media and the emergence of cellphone as an ubiquitous device, it is possible for pharma to engage its field force on a regular basis and bring about field force excellence in the near future.


‘Jugaad’ means an improvised arrangement to overcome lack of resources. Jugaad is a vehicle, found in rural India, made by fitting a diesel engine on a bullock cart. Jugaad colloquially means a creative idea, or a way to get around commercial, logistic or legal issues. Jugaad has a community of enthusiasts, believing it to be the proof of Indian creativity and a cost-effective way to solve the issues of everyday life.



About the author:

Anup Soans is Editor of MedicinMan and Author of three books on Field Force Excellence.

What examples of field force excellence in India have you seen?