The rebirth of the pharma sales rep


The most successful pharma sales teams will be those that define and service customers in new ways. Those who are the most responsive and relevant to today's customers and influencers will reap the greatest rewards.

Many believe that drug pipeline challenges, structural changes in the industry, and the rise of digital channels are heralding the end of the pharma sales rep role. But, while the traditional role is fading, a new role, requiring fresh skills and knowledge of digital tools, is emerging – and there are many reasons to celebrate this evolution.

The writing on the wall

The writing is on the wall already, with three factors directly impacting the traditional pharma sales rep model:

• Reimbursement models. US healthcare reform is changing the manner in which doctors are paid. For Medicare, 85 per cent of payments will be tied to patient outcomes by 2016. That rises to 90 per cent by 2018.1

• Changing buyer profiles. Integrated delivery networks (IDNs) own more than 60 per cent of physician group practices.2 They define treatment protocols; physicians no longer do.

• Digital technology. Healthcare professionals can digitally access the medication information, which sales reps previously controlled, from a variety of sources, including medical conferences and conversations with their peers.

Digital technologies provide new information in a fast and more convenient way. Our recent research found that nearly one-in-four direct sales force interactions targeting doctors have been replaced with digital interactions.3

Turning negatives into relevance

Many believe these trends mark the beginning of the end for the sales force. But the same market changes and technological advances that are eroding sales effectiveness represent opportunities for reinvention. Reps can play an essential role in helping doctors better serve their patients and deliver improved health outcomes. Leaders that embrace the new reality will reconsider jettisoning their existing sales forces. Instead, they will hire again, and many are doing so already. But it won't be business as usual.

Reframing the conversation

Once sales reps understand the doctors with whom they interact, they'll have to deliver product messages that better address their needs. If a doctor is focused on clinical outcomes and treatment protocols, reps can frame the conversation to describe how certain products and services will help doctors achieve their goals.

We also found that 58 per cent of patients use pharmaceutical services when they are aware of them.4 And more than 85 per cent of patients expect their healthcare providers to inform them of these services. But physicians are extremely busy. Sales reps can add value by evolving into team advocates committed to improving patient outcomes. They can offer tools and solutions, such as patient-focused services, and access and discharge programmes that go beyond the product they are selling.


"Doctors, patients, payers and institutional administrators expect to be part of the conversation"



Pharma companies can amplify the relevance of the sales force when they put talent structures in place that align to the needs of today's buyers and influencers. Doctors, patients, payers and institutional administrators expect to be part of the conversation regarding approved therapies and treatment protocols.

A sales organisation that engages effectively with this wider audience can have a significantly greater impact. For example, one pharma client was helped to identify $1 billion in new potential revenue by understanding the influence that large healthcare systems have on prescribing specific product classes.

Revitalising the sales model

Pharma companies must replace traditional sales models with sales and service

models that help stakeholders achieve their objectives. To navigate this transition, sales organisations must tackle several issues:

• A broader network

The activities of the sales team should address the needs of a broader network of buyers and influencers. Pharma companies must identify opportunities for the sales organisation to add value, but not introduce regulatory and compliance risk. The sales organisation has to work with marketing and other functional areas to develop tools, services and programmes that add value. Coordination and collaboration are critical.

• New rep skills

Meeting the needs of doctors, IDNs, group practices and other pharmaceutical customers requires companies to re-think their traditional sales roles, introduce new roles and responsibilities, and strategically deploy sales resources. It's important to up-skill existing sales reps so they are able to elevate and extend the conversations they have with doctors and other stakeholders. New messaging and digital tools designed to enhance patient outcomes all play a role, but so does a comprehensive understanding of healthcare and training in IDN business strategies, outcome metrics, and healthcare incentive management.

• New sales talent

Pharma companies will also need to hire people with strong B2B sales skills. They need key account managers to manage relationships with institutional purchasing organisations and connect conversations across a non-linear, networked sales environment. These individuals are experts in agile selling. They'll work with intermediaries, channel partners, customers and competitors to extend a company's reach. They are highly adept at identifying or creating new sales opportunities, and managing those opportunities through the sales pipeline -- a skill set few pharma reps currently have.

• The digital factor

Companies must determine how digital technologies can make sales teams more relevant. Applications should enhance face-to-face experiences. If sales reps know that a doctor's performance is measured on adherence to treatment protocols or hospital re-admissions, digitally enabled 'task pathways' can guide the reps to pull up tailored solutions immediately that can help satisfy those goals. By augmenting face-to-face selling approaches with digital tools, sales teams can easily and rapidly interact with unique buyers, and continually optimise the customer experience.

The healthcare industry's focus on delivering better patient outcomes, along with advances in

digital technologies, creates an environment in which sales reps will be more valuable than ever. With new skills and digital tools, they will address the needs of new buyers and influencers and deliver solutions that help doctors better serve patients.


1 Sarah Kliff. Obamacare 2.0: the White House's radical new plan to change how doctors get paid. Vox.26 January 2015.

2 Angeliki Cooney. Examining the Importance of IDNs: Where Their Influence Matters and Where it Doesn't. PM360. 18 November 2013.

3 Life in the New Normal: The Customer Engagement Revolution. Accenture, 2013.

4 Patient Services – Pharma's Best Kept Secret. Accenture Global Patient Services Survey. 2015.

About the author:

James Crowley is managing director, Accenture Strategy, Life Sciences.

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Linda Banks

29 September, 2015