The changing role of the pharma sales representative

Conversations have been building around if the disruption caused by COVID-19 will finally force the pharmaceutical industry to catch up with other sectors and truly digitalize customer engagement.

In reality this evolution has been a consideration for pharmaceutical companies for a long time with some being further ahead than others. Selling strategies within pharma companies have needed a shake up to address challenges that existed long before COVID-19 and we now expect things to accelerate as we move towards “a new normal”.

Over the short term pharma sales rep visits/interactions will remain heavily reduced to accommodate more pressing needs, but it will now be pertinent to think about long term considerations and how pharma companies can start planning ahead.

There are four key challenges we hear about consistently from our clients and from the physicians who interact with them. Now is the time to address these, leveraging the disruption to the status quo.

1 / An increasingly competitive pharma 2.0 world

The pharma industry has transitioned from the growth or commercial stage (pharma 1.0), to the mature or competitive stage of its lifecycle (pharma 2.0). This means that the launch environment is tougher, the price pressure is more prominent and communication challenges are more difficult with more pressure from competitors.

There is now an increasing need to think beyond specific product benefits and consider the needs of the customer you are targeting and the right way to frame the story. A remote environment also brings along storytelling challenges; especially for reps, who have to create a well thought out narrative which works over longer but less frequent discussions.

In storytelling there are seven plots (Ibsen) and it is how you tell the story that makes it more engaging for the audience in front of you. Good storytelling helps take rational data points and make them emotive, memorable and more distinctive and competitive. Reps need to feel comfortable in developing a narrative arc for individual customers and the situation in which it is being delivered.

Regardless of setting, telling a good story really relies on reps being empowered to ask the right questions. Getting this right will help them deliver three key storytelling elements across their discussions:

  • Empathy – Through understanding their customer and exploring behaviours and behavioural biases influencing their decision making.
  • Transformation – In selection of the right messages and interventions to overcome behavioural biases and being comfortable in repeating one strong core message.
  • Resolution – Ability to reach a commitment with the customer on how their behaviour will change.

2 / A reduction in valuable, meaningful face time with customers

A widely circulated figure (ZS associates) states that as of 2016, only 44% of US HCPs were accessible to call on by a rep face to face. This has of course been reduced to almost nothing during the COVID-19 crisis, forcing reps to deliver remote calls and utilise multi-channel marketing to access their customers.

In order to stand out in the noise of increasing video calls for HCPs, sales reps need to be able to adapt their skills for effective selling within this environment.

There are some vital considerations when running calls remotely, including; spending more time doing the call preparation to create a true emotional hook (which works without being able to fully react to HCP changes in body language) and to work harder to gain trust and credibility over time. This means respecting the physicians time, delivering a consistent message and sharing agreed follow up in a timely manner.

3 / Detail aids hindering effective selling if not used in the right way

We hear the same stories from reps and their sales managers, which is that detail aids are left on their shelf or in the car because they get in the way of making a true connection with their customers.

In the era of remote calling, creating that connection on a webcam is even more challenging. The decision of when to show slides is a fine art. It needs to be carefully thought through before a call.

In effective selling the aim should be that your customer is doing the vast majority of the talking. In a remote setting, this can mean spending the majority of the time with nothing being shared on the screen. Enabling reps to use all their skills in reading body language and tone of voice to negotiate with the customer and gain a really in-depth understanding of their situation, before picking and choosing the right slides to share or sending the data as a follow up.

4 / Disconnect between sales rep training and rep motivations

The best sales reps want to be autonomous and often use this role to gain valuable experience to feed into more commercial roles. They are pushing to have more of an impact on commercial success. Gone are the days where they would learn a script with little flexibility.

The way in which training is thought about from a sales force effectiveness stand point needs to be adjusted. It is now key to provide truly interactive training which instils reps with confidence and gives them permission to adapt to the customer in front of them.

The best training is flexible for all types of sales reps and recognises their motivations, as well as providing them with the knowledge of why they are communicating in a certain way. Ensuring they are more likely to be engaged and challenged in a way that constantly develops their skills and helps them to push themselves to positively impact the company they represent.


Digitalizing the sales force opens up a lot of opportunities, providing reps with a different level of access to HCPs, as well as less time travelling which can be spent preparing or reaching a wider range of physicians.

Pharma companies that are open to learning about evolving best practices, are reflective about their own performance and are willing to upskill reps to be autonomous storytellers, will ultimately be the ones that have the best chance of capitalizing on the new digital status quo for rep-HCP interactions.

We have worked with clients to help them to overcome these challenges through training and selling story development. If these challenges resonate, I would love to hear from you to discuss our experiences and your individual challenge in more detail, please do get in touch.