Today's pharma reps need the skills of doctors, lawyers, beggars--but not thieves

Cegedim Chief Marketing Officer Pierre Morgon--Courtesy of Cegedim

What makes a pharma sales rep? It's not selling--at least not the same old, same old selling, according to Eye for Pharma's latest Healthcheck survey. More than half of respondents said the ability to sell is no longer the most important skill for a rep.

The survey of industry leaders found that pharma sales is a completely different proposition now than it was just a few years ago. Obvious, of course, what with doctors limiting face-to-face meetings and companies turning to gadgets and data for marketing power. "The rep today is doing almost everything different than they've done in the past," Lundbeck Canada's senior sales director, Domenic Maccarone, told the researchers, adding that Skype, Face Time, and other technology will change the job even more in the near future.

In fact, 58% of survey respondents agreed that technology is a sales tool, not a distraction. But it's not just technology that's revamping the sales-rep role. Pharma sales folks have to be able to talk science, not just promos. Treatments are more complex--with an increasing number targeted at particular genetic mutations--which means explaining how they work and how to use them is complicated.

"As products became more technical and backed by more science, an in-depth scientific and medical knowledge has become mandatory," Pierre Morgon, Cegedim's chief marketing officer, offered as commentary to the survey.

Plus, marketing means explaining not only to doctors but also to increasingly resistant payers--to make sure that reimbursement gatekeepers are on board with a new drug. If insurers raise big hurdles to patients starting a new therapy, it's hamstrung from the start.

"It's increasingly a market access approach," Morgon went on to say. After companies lay the groundwork prelaunch, reps have to work with medical science liaisons and key account managers "to ensure that the novel product is used by the largest number of eligible patients."

Add in a new focus on complying with marketing rules, and these are the "more advanced skills" that reps need now, Actelion Pharmaceuticals ($ATLN) commercial chief Christoph Schmidt pointed out. But at bottom, pharma salespeople still need to know how to sell, he said. "Selling skills are still a critical success factor," Schmidt figures. And as Morgon adamantly stated, "[T]he ability to sell … remains critically essential!"

More change is ahead, at least according to David Laws of Global Partners, who had some pointed things to say about pharma's shortcomings. Drugmakers need to get away from the product-oriented, message-pushing approach and jump on the value-creation bandwagon, which is a "mega-shift" in sales capabilities. Easy to say, not so easy to define, of course. So that's another job for the pharma rep, 2014 version.

- see the Eye for Pharma Healthcheck survey

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