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The Evolving Role of the Sales Rep: A Conversation with Jill Padgett

May 24, 2022

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The COVID-19 pandemic sparked an evolution in physician engagement. Jill Padgett, EdD, Head of Training, explores what this means for the sales force and shares her advice for succeeding in a digital world.

Traditionally, the foundation of pharmaceutical sales has been in-person visits between sales representatives and healthcare professionals (HCPs), which include events, conferences, dinners, and in-office visits. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, this came to a grounding halt—all face-to-face visits were canceled, and reps had to find new ways to engage HCPs.

As a result, meetings took place online, through Teams and Zoom, and engagements became more digital. Two years since the start of the pandemic, HCPs have shown a preference for digital communications, and now, biopharma companies are re-evaluating the role of the sales representative altogether. According to a trends report by MM+M, 29% of biopharma companies are cutting back on rep spending while almost 50% are increasing their spend on engaging HCPs.

What does this shift look like for the role of the sales rep moving forward? Is there still a need for sales reps to pound the pavement with HCPs and focus on getting out more product? Or is it better to have a smaller, centralized sales team that focuses on fostering strong relationships and improving education and patient care?

How the Role of the Sales Rep Has Changed in the New COVID Era

In a recent conversation with Jill Padgett, EdD, Head of Training, she explains how today, “sales representatives are engaging with more customers who do not have an MD behind their name such as the Reimbursement Specialist, Practice Manager, Nurse and Patient Educators, etc., as they do with HCPs.”

This means that a sales force must be just as well-versed in building relationships with payers and other nonphysician customers as they are with traditional doctors. Sales representatives still have immense value for biopharmaceutical companies, but in a new COVID era, they can play a key role in helping HCPs navigate the complex and evolving pharmaceutical landscape by being better armed with digital communications, tools, and analytics that can provide an extra layer of support and personalization.

“The impact of the pandemic has made significant changes,” says Jill. “For example, it has been said that as a result of the pandemic, the use of digital technology has been accelerated by 6 years. Biopharma industries feel that acceleration in the way HCP engagement has changed. Some HCPs realize that they like fewer interruptions from sales representatives and they limit their contacts. In fact, research by Veeva shows that access to HCPs dropped by 57% in 2021. Others predict that a new HCP engagement norm may shift from in-person to digital by as much as 80% digital vs 20% in-person.”

Jill believes that this change brings about the need for biopharma reps to reskill in 2 critical areas. First off, there needs to be a focus on what Jill and others in the learning community call “Power Behaviors,” such as empathy, listening skills, and overall emotional intelligence. Secondly, there needs to be an emphasis on the development of a sales rep’s digital skills.

What Biopharmaceutical Sales Reps Can Do to Improve their Skillset and Add Value to the Industry

Moving to a Patient-centric Strategy

Another important factor to include here is that the traditional sales rep environment its changing and moving away from from a physician-centric model.

“Sales reps are seeing more physician group practices and more diversified stakeholders such as nonphysician customers,” Jill explains, “so sales reps will have a larger customer base with a need to be well-versed and empowered in the use of digital marketing. There is also an increasing shift in the need for the sales rep to become much more patient-centric and relationship focused.”

Fighting for the attention of one person through a computer screen is hard enough, let alone an entire group of people scattered across the country or the world. Then again, that’s why Jill feels that shifting to a new informational and empathetic mindset is a strategy that sales reps must prioritize.

“Yes, a successful sales rep’s focus should be on digital savviness, being able to use the marketing tools to communicate to a variety of stakeholders, but none of that is useful without having the emotional intelligence to empathize, listen, and ask insightful questions to clients to better understand their needs and the needs of their patients.”

Unfortunately, this is an area in which many sales reps need additional training. “Those Power Behaviors I mentioned earlier are forgotten,” says Jill. “We automatically think someone knows how to be empathetic, but they don’t. And those who can critically think, listen for purpose, ask good questions, and tell a compelling story are going to be at the forefront of the movement.”

The Influence of Sales Managers and MSLs

Jill also believes that a lot of responsibility falls on the role of the sales manager to help pull through the training received by their sales reps.

“From a training standpoint, managers are critical in providing ongoing leadership, coaching and feedback, and motivation to their sales teams. Managers are working with reps on a day-to-day basis—providing coaching and feedback, helping improve their performance, etc.— so providing the sales manager with the right tools to do their job creates a trickle-down effect that will lead to a more capable sales team.”

In addition, the role of the Medical Science Liaison (MSL) or Regional Scientific Manager also keeps evolving. “The number of MSLs has increased, and they play a key role in communicating complex scientific information to providers, being seen as a scientific partner.”

Changes in the traditional sales rep model, moving from a physician-centric approach, and the changing role of the sales manager and the MSL present great opportunities to train and reskill sales managers, sales reps, and MSLs.

Biopharma companies look to Fishawack Health to provide robust training designed for sales and medical teams. This includes an emphasis on the way the training is delivered to engage the needs of the modern learner, through modalities such as video, e-learning, microlearning, and the type of training needed.

Embracing the Digital Age to Add Value

Rather than biopharma companies and sales teams thinking of these roles as separate entities, they really need to treat them as a collective whole that aids and supports one another. After all, “technology is changing how the biopharma industry promotes its products,” Jill says. “Sales teams need to be able to embrace the use of digital tools to educate a variety of customers with patient-centric content for HCPs and other promotional resources targeted to the nonphysician stakeholders. And they need to be able to communicate their message to customers in a very short time of 5 to 6 minutes or less, which is a huge challenge.”

Another challenge will be to adequately address the digital skills gap within the sales force to be more efficient and effective.

“Digitally savvy sales reps will continue to be in demand,” says Jill, “and the other shift needed is a patient-centric type of approach—working with physicians and educating the physicians from a patient standpoint. A sales rep should understand the entire patient journey, what the patient goes through from both a treatment and emotional perspective, what issues they face from a reimbursement standpoint, and what their recovery may look like. Sales reps add value through clinical education, and they have to build trust before they talk about their product.”

An example of how a rep might provide a value-add is by helping customers and, if appropriate, patients understand the reimbursement process for their product. Sales reps could also help by promoting patient services and other ways to build care and genuine relationships. “Power behaviors like empathy and emotional intelligence are paramount to the process of harnessing digital tools. Doing so will only benefit biopharma sales forces, teaching them how to function efficiently in the healthcare ecosystem.”

The Role of the Biopharmaceutical Sales Rep is Here to Stay, but it Has to Change

As of now, the role of the biopharmaceutical sales rep will continue to be in a hybrid space. It’s still evolving because of the pandemic, and some physicians prefer the virtual call over a face-to-face conversation. But, like Jill shares, there needs to be flexibility and emotional adaptiveness for both.

“Reps need to know what customers they’re targeting—certainly the HCPs, but there’s a much broader target within that audience. It used to be that if you went into a doctor’s office and told them about a product, they might agree for a single patient, but in a group practice, that decision is made as a group, and now more than ever, that group discussion is taking place on a video call.” How can a sales rep get everyone on board?

“A sales rep who is digitally savvy and has the ability to understand the wider ecosystem of their audience will be successful. I don’t think that the role of the sales rep is dying—that role will always be here—but how biopharma companies look at that role and that model moving forward is certainly a work in progress. Other types of industries have had similar changes like this occur, and they adapted, so biopharma companies have to adjust to what this role will look like as well.”

Get in touch to find out how we can help you upskill your salesforce.

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