Pharma sales part two – the complete picture

Marie Crespo

In the second of a two-part article, Marie Crespo, CEO of, explains how you can identify and retain key talent when transforming the sales organisation, as pharma evolves from the old arms race to a new model based around key account management.

(Continued from “Pharma sales part one – looking for a new role ”)

There was a time during the so-called Sales Wars of a few years ago that it might have been legitimate to say: ‘May the sales force be with you!’ At the time, rival sales forces were entering the fray with ever-increasing numbers in a bid to maximise their contact with the market.

We’re all too familiar with what’s happened since then. The whole dynamic of the market has shifted: buyers are busier and more savvy and, in many cases, reluctant to meet with salespeople, value is king, and new players are entering the marketplace with approaches that challenge the status quo.


“…buyers are busier and more savvy and, in many cases, reluctant to meet with salespeople…”


Most pharma companies have recognised the need to change and are in the process of transforming their go-to-market operations from something of a blunt instrument to more of a precision tool. Which is not to say that salespeople will be unimportant in the pharma landscape of the future – quite the opposite, in fact, it’s just that the selling will become more sophisticated.

Thus, while sales organisations have recognised the unprecedented changes in the market, they also acknowledge the need to change both their approach and their own composition. The key point to understand is that selling is not a generic role: all sales roles are absolutely not the same. Different roles may have certain characteristics in common, and some of the competencies may be transferable, but people well-suited to one role will not necessarily slot straight into another.

One frequently heard view is that more emphasis will be placed on the account management role in pharma and, of course, this implies an organisation will also need strategic or solution selling specialists to win the initial business. As business ramps up, so the organisational mix between these roles will change. Then, of course, there is the question of what to do in the meantime: how do you transform the organisation from the old way of doing things to the new, especially when there are so many people involved?

Current picture

The absolute priority is to understand the current picture – what talent you have in which roles and their potential to perform in any new roles the organisation has identified as being better aligned to the new market conditions. Sales leaders need to ensure that they have the right people in the right roles to address the marketplace today and for the future, not for what was good enough yesterday. This inevitably means assessing each member of the sales force for their future performance potential in the new role, using an assessment tool that has been shown to predict sales performance accurately. At the same time, the organisation should also be assessing any potential new hires against the same criteria.


“Most pharma companies have recognised the need to change and are in the process of transforming their go-to-market operations…”


We recommend that you test all the factors that influence sales performance. These are:

1. behaviour – an individual’s behavioural preference determines their comfort in performing a specific sales role,

2. skills – functional skills determine how well an individual can perform a role,

3. critical reasoning – an individual’s intelligence and ability to analyse data, evaluate evidence, question methods and reach meaningful conclusions,

4. motivators (what motivates them) – motivation drives an individual’s desire to perform in a role, in turn, desire drives results, and

5. cultural fit (the way an individual slots into organisational and market culture – this is best evaluated face to face at interview, but may not be so much of an issue for existing employees.

Once you have established that picture, you are in a position to understand how to get from where you are to where you want to be, taking into account talent you want to retain and develop for the new role and, just as importantly, the talent that should be redeployed. You can then set about hiring to fill the gaps, again using an effective assessment tool to ensure prospective new recruits are a good match for the role they will be asked to perform.

Retaining the right talent

In the meantime, handling the redeployment and retaining the right talent will be an important consideration. It’s a fact of life that any period of uncertainty causes employees to consider their options. The threat of redundancy and job insecurity are powerful forces, and job satisfaction also tends to diminish in the context of down-sizing as valued colleagues are lost, workloads increase, roles become ambiguous and life becomes more stressful.

Inevitably, those people with the most options – and these may be your highest-performing talent – may be the first to leave. This further exacerbates the situation by leaving the organisation with those individuals who are least likely to be part of plans for the future.


“Inevitably, those people with the most options – and these may be your highest-performing talent – may be the first to leave.”


There are various general solutions and one specific one to this dilemma. The specific one is to identify at an early stage those who are vital to future plans and work to retain them. This brings us to the more general points about navigating any period of uncertainty: communicate more, invest in relevant development for those you are seeking to retain, involve employees in the decision-making process – assessment can at least help people to understand what’s happening and introduce an element of objectivity, and manage their ‘direct motivators’ (again, these can be determined through the assessment process).

Large-scale change

In pharma, the issue of retention issue is complex, given the sheer scale of change we’re seeing in the sector. I’m not sure the industry has necessarily grasped quite how much change will be involved. One thing that is certain, however, is that whatever the strategy, having the right people in the right roles is a priority. This will determine the success of numerous organisations over the next few years.


About the author:

Marie Crespo has been involved in running major business units of Fortune 250 companies and subsidiaries of Fortune 500 companies for more than 30 years. Marie started in the IT business and stayed there for over 20 years, during which time she enjoyed significant success in various business and technical roles including Pre-Sales, Sales Management and Management Consultancy.

Moving on to the Medical and Pharmaceutical sector, Marie has been responsible for a highly sophisticated IT department at EMEA level and been Managing Director of a global division of a major pharmaceutical services corporation.

Marie has an EMBA from Imede, speaks fluent Spanish and French and is qualified by the British Psychological Society.

If you would like to discuss any of the points raised in this article, feel free to email Marie at or contact her by telephone on +44 (0)7713 192005.

You can download our free role definitions here, including various account manager and field sales roles.

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