How to create enough noise…with fewer reps

Kristiaan Van Woensel

The Story House

As a communication consultant I come across the same situation over and over again these days. One message is consistent whether I am speaking with a major global pharma or a small local pharma, a prescription drugs company, OTC drugs provider or even a generics company. I hear managers tell me the same story…everywhere: sales force downsizing is knocking on our door.

All of a sudden our business model that was so successful over many decades is changing dramatically. Our primary communication channel towards prescribers is undergoing a major metamorphosis since sales reps are being dismissed on a grand scale and marketing managers are in search of that silver bullet in order to close the gap and ensure their brand “survival”.

It’s crystal clear that ‘How we will communicate’ will be key to determining success in the new business model rather than ‘How much we will communicate’, the latter being the pharma industries’ genetic deviation of the past.

Will you still be able to guarantee enough Share Of Noise (SON) in times of decreasing resource on the ground? Let’s think for a moment about some possible solutions when you have fewer horns to blow.

The problem’s here now…but not the solution

It is no surprise that the sales force is bearing the brunt of cost-cutting programs in the current environment, being one of the largest operating expenses and one that has been under question over its return on investment in recent years.

Historically, our industry has not been the first to change and adapt processes and procedures in a hurry, but the situation it currently finds itself in is slightly different. We seem to have reached a tipping point at which we can no longer cope with a fast changing business environment…a critical mass that forces us to execute with a huge sense of urgency (when was the last time we felt that sense of urgency?) the process of downsizing.

Most companies are not wasting any time striving for a healthy financial balance at the year end, creating a downsizing panic that is both dramatic and sad at the same time. Sales forces have always been the number one priority for our companies to ensure the success of their business models. Now, almost overnight the sales force which has always been so business critical isn’t of any value anymore…or so it seems.

Who will deny, certainly not physicians, that we had reached an oversaturation, a completely misbalanced situation…too many reps with too little value? One could tell even years ago that this was an untenable situation, like a time bomb marking the countdown in the sales rep arms race.


“Now, almost overnight the sales force which has always been so business critical isn’t of any value anymore…”


So today our industry is in full on “execution” mode and it’s hard to tell when we’ll shift back to normal mode again. All of this is happening without a well structured and visible alternative in place, no signs of a back-up plan whatsoever. Marketing managers are pretty vague about the tactics that will be implemented to recover from the sales force loss and they stay relatively superficial about where they’re heading to.

Understandable reactions? Absolutely! The traditional marketing mix focused on reps has been easily transferable across brands, limiting the kind of creative thinking that is essential in challenging times. But it all serves to reinforce the notion that whist the problem has been identified, we are some way short of the solution.

So what are the options for maintaining SON?

We don’t have the intention to leave things as they are, right? If marketing departments don’t act, we know it’s not going to end well for anyone.

Should we therefore change our strategies completely? Absolutely not, but we need to execute differently and seriously review our tactics. Let’s not throw everything overboard but instead we need to continue doing the things we have managed to do well over the years, but execute them differently. We’ve always been communicating with the medical world quite intensively, maybe too intensively during the last 10 years since too many sales reps were involved, but in general communication has been our primary focus because of its direct business value. As marketing is all about communication, at least for the major part, we need to analyze all options that could lead to successful communication results. Since a huge part of your primary communication channel has now vanished along with those sales reps, how are you going to maintain your communication level? What could be your options?

Well, here are some suggestions:

1. Continue as normal: Keep going without any situation analysis, change nothing and hope your SON will not decrease over time is an option. Good luck to you if you take it!

2. Improve and increase training of (the remaining) reps: I have no intention of starting a debate about the training quality our reps are receiving. In my 20 years of pharma industry experience I came across fine and highly skilled training managers who delivered excellent scientific, medical, product and selling training. Training will always be fundamental for bringing your sales reps to the next level of their personal development and for effective communication, so should we focus on more and even better training in the future? It can’t hurt, can it? But I’m afraid it won’t be the silver bullet you’re looking for. Remember you should take the extra costs into account as well as the burden at the reps’ side when ‘trop c’est trop’. On top of that you can’t continue to increase the amount of training forever…ultimately every rep has got only one horn to blow.

3. Use Key Account Managers with broader accountability and responsibility: This is a communication tactic which is gaining interest more and more and perhaps a logical conclusion for those remaining sales people. Here you need to take all the costs of specific training into account but companies do seem to acknowledge the benefits from Key Account Management (KAM). Making sales people more accountable could lead to better sales in the longer term but more immediately it will only result in a natural selection among sales people where only the best performing reps will survive. As a trend, KAM seems here to stay for the moment, but it’s probably not the ultimate solution.

4. Use alternative communication channels: Like your sales force, which is just one piece out of the marketing mix (albeit an important one) there are a lot of other different means that could support you in your search of business success. Consider Key Opinion Leader (KOL) management, PR, medico-marketing programs, advertising, sponsorships, educational chairs, etc. We could elaborate for hours on the optimal composition of your marketing mix (and many consultancies do!) but each of you knows what’s best for your brand.

However, something that is more than just a fad but still hasn’t found its place in the new world of pharma is ‘social media’ and I think it’s moving pretty quickly. I do see a lot of factors delaying the use of social media in our industry, from the legal restrictions to the ongoing FDA discussions about regulating its use but there’s something what we seem to forget in this ‘hot thread’…is the use of social media for pharma industry purposes about talking and interacting with patients? If we believe so, aren’t we taking that bridge too far? Shouldn’t we better address it to the world we know well already…shouldn’t we talk to our physicians first via e-platforms, internet discussion fora, web communities, webinars, etc. They have been our primary communication partners historically, so why not start implementing social media here in the first place? Learn about your new communication environment, learn about your physicians and how they act/react on social media and when the time is right move on to the next stage, the big unknown…our patients. I would like to emphasize more on this topic in a separate article but for the time being I paraphrase that other industries have already demonstrated the business interest linked to the use of social media extremely well, so why shouldn’t we?

5. Start medico-marketing programs that matter: A recent survey (2009), conducted by Deloitte1, in which 360 senior executives out of different ‘life science industries’ were questioned, has demonstrated that the pharma industry acknowledges its future will depend on the medico-marketing programs it will deliver. Of those interviewed, 52% emphasised that a closer collaboration with patients, clinicians and academics on ‘health outcomes’ would be the main strategy to make their commercialization processes more efficient between now and 2015. So if you could start these programs as of tomorrow together with your medical ambassadors, through a new communication channel, wouldn’t you call that innovation? Worthwhile considering at least!

6. Improve your brand message quality: If you lose on quantity, you’ll need to deliver and ensure quality instead. This is the major challenge for our industry today and a clear area to emphasize, whether it is communication via social media (new channels) or better brand messages through existing channels, there will be no success without valuable content. In other words, nothing for you without added value for your customers!

Looking across these suggestions, making use of social media will be inevitable for marketing departments and it is just a matter of time. However, what is already in your power and what you can start doing right now is reviewing your product message quality. Ensure your remaining horns will be heard and seen by your physicians…make your brand messages powerful and useful, let them break through the clutter of product detail aids and brochures stereotyped by product “features”, “advantages” and “benefits”.


“…in times of economic decline as we are experiencing now this is your key moment to act and do something different…”


Storytelling is not a new concept of communication, except for our industry, but it can change your communication from rather “reporting” towards “inspiring”, without big efforts or major costs! And this is only one of the many options you have to color your message and make it stick at your customers’ pen.

Quality over quantity!

In summary, quality of communication rather than quantity is going to be crucial in the new business model and will surely determine success or failure. The list of options exposed here is just a starting point looking at the main tools that can help you to hold your SON.

The truth is that in times of economic decline as we are experiencing now this is your key moment to act and do something different because the majority of your competitors will play it safe.

However, I’m sure there are many other ways to recover from sales force downsizing and I’m open to your suggestions!


1. The future of the life sciences industries: Transformation amid rising risk. Deloitte, 2009,

About the author:

Kristiaan Van Woensel is founder of The Story House, a business communication consultancy lying on the crossroads of ‘strategic insight’ and ‘storytelling’, co-founder of Medi-Circle, the first Belgian online private community for physicians interested in medical consultancy and medical opinion.

You can reach him directly on or or for more information please visit or

How can share of noise best be maintained with limited resource?