Five ways to make the most of your streamlined sales force

Maureen Shaffer

Good Promotional Practices

50,000 jobs were cut by pharma in 2010, and in July 2011, “Thanks to Merck, pharma’s July job cuts outpaced layoffs announced in every other industry, Challenger, Gray &amp, Christmas reports. The drug business accounted for 13,493 announced cuts – and 13,000 of that was Merck”, according to FiercePharma. Dire reports of “soon robots and drones will rule” in the comments fueled the raging flames.

Pharma reps are trying to cover more territory with less money while driving more written prescriptions. Lacking a fairy godmother or a magic wand, what can you do? As a sales manager or a marketing manager, how can you accomplish more with less pharmaceutical sales reps? There are no easy answers, but here are five steps for forward motion towards that goal:

1. Look at the data / Raise the bottom: Work with sales operations or IT to analyze troves of sales and written prescription data. Look at your highest and lowest performers both in sales and in writers.

a. Bring up the bottom: Set up informal mentoring programs pairing the lowest performers with the highest performers, especially where you have seen a recent shift in performance. Have weekly calls and monthly ride alongs, both of which include role playing in areas of identified weakness(es). Consider internal collaboration software to capture and share best practices such as Jive’s.

b. Turn around low writers: Dive into the written prescription data pre and post layoffs. Uncover where prescription writing habits have changed for the better or worse. Determine what made each happen. Pare list to those which can be helped and apply best practices from the best performing writers to the lowest writers.

“Pharma reps are trying to cover more territory with less money while driving more written prescriptions. Lacking a fairy godmother or a magic wand, what can you do?”

2. Look inside / If sales were manufacturing: Think like manufacturing and look at every step of the sales process as a closed loop. Be relentless in stomping out inefficiencies that deplete selling time.

a. Write down all the activities associated with each selling and maintenance step. Tag each activity as value-added selling time, non-value added selling time and non-selling time. If you are feeling ambitious, then tag the value-added selling activities in rank order of importance as well as ranking by time consumption. For example, possible vendors to maximize sales-customer interactions while saving follow up time include Reprints Desk and Prolifiq. (Disclosure: I work for Prolifiq and Reprints Desk sponsors my blog.)

b. For non-value added selling time and non-selling time, find a way to eliminate it or locate a less expensive resource or software / technology to handle it.

c. For value-added selling activities where the time consumption ranks higher than its priority, brainstorm similar solutions. Have a goal of maximizing sales reps’ selling time by minimizing paperwork and non-selling time throughout the organization this quarter.

3. Look to the field / Ask them what they need: Sales is marketing’s first customer. And, everything is changing for them. What do they want now that physicians are harder to access? What different support do they need now that they are covering larger territories? When was the last time you systematically asked them and did something about it? And, a new brochure doesn’t count.

a. Following on #1 and #2, ask the highest and lowest sales performers what they need to sell more. Ideally, pick up the phone and talk to them first hand. It is likely different things. Do something about it.

b. Also, ask them what frustrates them, what they would do if they were CEO to increase sales, what would they do if they were in charge of marketing? Leave these questions open-ended if possible. Make it anonymous. Use or similar. You may uncover lurking resentment and anger but you will definitely hear their true feelings. Compile, publicize with graphs and charts and communicate your response.

c. For extra credit, call the best sales folks who left the company over the last 12 months, repeat a and b.

“…ask the highest and lowest sales performers what they need to sell more.”

4. Look far afield: Consider out-of-the-industry thinking.

a. Search Harvard Business Review or McKinsey Quarterly’s sales and marketing section for non-pharma examples of sales and marketing best practices. Read software VC blogs discussing the use of inside sales or customer service to call and set appointments or take care of B and C accounts that will be difficult for your streamlined sales force to reach. Read about best sales practices for Apple, American Express and Google.

b. Have a focus group, for free, with your friends who don’t work in your industry. Ply them with food and beverage. Give them the top three challenges your sales force identified and let them brainstorm solutions.

5. Eat the elephant one bite at a time: Develop a plan around 1 –4. Set measures for success and a time frame. If it cannot be measured or proven, don’t do it. Ensure it is sustainable. Pilot one or two things with a small group of folks at a low cost and measure. Refine and improve or throw it in the fail-fast learning pile and try another two on your list.

The pharmaceutical industry is changing rapidly. Pipelines, sales forces, compliance rules and selling strategies are all in motion. Ask a ton of questions from all those great data sources like your very own sales reps, select a worthy path and get moving. Win fast or fail fast and move onto the next idea. You are bound to find some innovative approaches that will win you sales kudos and, more importantly, more revenue for your company.


1. Cutting Sales Costs, Not Revenues. McKinsey Quarterly, 2009.

2. Drugmakers will expand which teams? Pharmalot, February 2011.

Part 3 of this series will be published 26th September

About the author:

Maureen Shaffer is the Founder, Publisher and Executive Editor of, a forum for learning about the practices and technologies that lead to a balanced approach to sales, marketing and compliance. Good Promotional Practices (GPP) ensure that Life Sciences companies successfully promote their products and solutions to the health care community and comply with applicable laws, codes of ethics, and accepted industry standards. Maureen hosts the GoodPromotionalPractices LinkedIn group at

Concurrently, Maureen Shaffer is Vice President of Life Sciences for Prolifiq, a provider of mobile applications that help sales representatives find, share and discuss information that supports and accelerates their sales processes. Maureen is responsible for strategic leadership and definition of products, services, and strategy for the pharmaceutical, medical device, and biotech space. She focuses on providing mobile software and solutions to help sales and marketing professional drive sales, save money and comply with the increasingly complex web of regulations governing sales communications.

Maureen has more than twenty years of experience in developing and launching frontier technologies in industry-leading medical device companies. Most recently, she was Vice President of Marketing at InSet Technologies, Inc. (now Medasys), a developer of implantable pumps for targeted intraspinal drug delivery to treat chronic pain. Prior to that, Maureen was Vice President of Marketing at AtriCure, Inc. (ATRC), the market leader in minimally invasive cardiac ablation. She drove marketing and cross-functional initiatives to support the company’s growth phase from a 12-month run rate of $16M, through a successful IPO to nearly $50M in revenue.

Twitter: @GPPNews

What do you think optimises your sales force?