Developing Better DM's (First Line Managers)
The selling environment has become increasingly complex for pharmaceutical sales representatives. But, with the portfolios of many pharma companies in stagnant or declining conditions, companies are highly motivated to improve rep productivity.
As a result, sales and marketing leaders are depending more on district managers (DMs) to drive rep productivity. Recently, we have seen companies take three approaches to redefining the DM role.
Traditional coach and mentor:
These companies have decided that the fastest way to improve representative performance is to allow DMs to focus on improving representative selling skills. This is what most industry sales professionals would consider a “back to basics” approach.
These companies acknowledge the complexity of the changing selling environment and want their DMs to assume greater accountability for district performance. Their assumption is that increasing the sophistication of the DM as a business manager will lead to better opportunity identification, resource allocation, and pull-through. This approach is a departure from the industry’s traditional DM role but has become a realistic option as companies have moved away from mirrored-district structures (i.e., structures that called for multiple DM’s leading separate teams that promote overlapping products in the same geography).
Coach and business manager:
These companies are hedging their bets. These DM’s must now balance the role of being a coach to their teams with that of being a business manager who is expected to plan for and understand the trends and issues driving business in their local markets.
Unfortunately, most companies have not invested in additional resources
(e.g., field-based selling-skills trainers) or DM training necessary to support these approaches. Changes must be made to traditional DM training programs in order to ensure the success of these approaches.
In a two-part series spanning the Summer and Fall issues of this magazine, we will address the topic areas that require the greatest emphasis for the above DM roles—
Coaching and business acumen:
This initial article will examine the internal and external forces driving changes to the selling environment as well as take a close look at how coaching training should change for DMs.
Situation Analysis: External Forces
Before we can discuss these topics, it is important to understand some of the forces—internal and external— acting upon the industry’s front-line sales leaders.
External forces are as follows:
Managed markets expansion
The increasing ability of managed markets organizations to influence physician prescribing is the single largest factor affecting the pharmaceutical marketplace today. Regional and national MCOs, state Medicaid programs, and Part D participant health plans have all increased the use of restrictive practices (e.g., increased co-pay differentials, preferred drug lists) to drive physician and patient behavior toward the most cost-effective drug therapies.
The selling environment for representatives is much more complex. Reps must now have a comprehensive understanding of formulary status and payer mix to effectively position their products with targeted physicians and staff. DM’s must have an in-depth understanding of their local marketplace, be able to identify managed-market driven trends, and develop action plans to exploit opportunities or negate threats.
For many years, the primary care marketplace was characterized by intense levels of competition (e.g., share-of-voice escalations of the late 1990s), while specialty markets, though competitive, were free from some of the negative effects of “message-driven” marketing (e.g., diminished access to physician customers). However, the number of products and companies vying for share in specialty markets is ratcheting up the intensity of competition in these markets, as well. As specialty products take on increased significance in company portfolios, increased amounts of promotional dollars are finding their way into specialty markets.
Traditional science-based or relationship-based selling in specialty markets is not enough. Reimbursement complexities and increased levels of competition require a renewed emphasis on selling skill development within specialty sales forces. In primary care sales forces, reps must not only be able counter competitive promotion in a tailored fashion, they must also be able to adjust their detailing strategy to accommodate a range of potential obstacles (e.g., abbreviated call durations, disadvantageous formulary status).
Promotional scrutiny and regulation
Government and industry regulations and guidelines continue to limit the scope of promotional activities and increase the amount of effort required to remain “compliant.”
Changing customer dynamics
Today, some physician customers their managers are related to the volume of administrative work.
Increased volume of data, reports, and analysis
The volume of data and information available to industry sales professionals is astounding. It is easy to understand why many DMs feel deluged with data.
Restrictive promotional practices
Many companies have instituted conservative promotional policies that are designed to keep sales representatives on the straight and narrow, but that ultimately constrain promotional dexterity.
Although turnover varies significantly across the industry, for some companies turnover is a very real problem, with rates as high as 16%.
Result: Turnover, and the resulting time taken from performance-based activities to recruit and hire reps, is a very real problem. Also, the time required to constantly bring replacement reps up to speed is significant. DM’s must be expert coaches to minimize ramp-up time for new reps and have maximum impact during time spent with established reps.
Changes in company strategy or approach to selling
Strategy changes or changes in the company’s approach to selling ultimately land on the DM’s shoulders. Sometimes companies do an excellent job of planning the transition to a new strategy or selling approach, but often, the new strategy or approach is implemented before its effects on reps and DM’s is thoroughly understood.
Result: DM’s become de facto “change managers” and can find themselves in challenging coaching and leadership positions. These drivers combine to produce an extremely challenging selling environment for industry representatives. Success in today’s market depends on the ability of representatives to navigate this environment to engage physician customers in compelling dialogues. The DM, more than any other position in the industry, can help representatives understand the dynamics of their environment and in hone the skills necessary to influence prescribing behavior. That is why many industry executives believe that investments in DM training produce a return many times greater than investments in representative selling skills. The average industry DM has the ability to positively—or negatively— affect the sales performance of eight to 10 representatives.
As mentioned before, coaching is one of the major roles that DM’s are expected to assume. The definition of coaching is “to act as a trainer or tutor.” Pharma companies usually set more specific expectations around that role, including modeling good behavior to reps, observing reps in selling situations, and giving reps feedback on what they did well and what they did poorly. These models essentially provide a road map for the coach in his or her interactions with the person being coached. At a bare minimum, these models provide the “steps” to conducting a successful coaching session. More sophisticated models are designed to align the coaching approach with the skill level or personality of the person being coached, or the unique situation that has prompted the coaching event. DM’s are usually introduced to coaching during introductory DM training. For some DM’s, that is the beginning and end of their formal coaching training. For others lucky make use of a “coaching model enough to work at companies that value coaching skill, it is simply the first step in the process designed to establish them as effective coaches. Ongoing coaching training can take many forms, including
• Advanced coaching workshops at centralized internal training events
• Reinforcement through the DM’s direct supervisor or a management trainer
• Third-party coaching skills courses— delivered internally or externally
• Live assessments of coaching skill
• One-on-one coaching with a trained executive coach
Most individuals need reinforcement of coaching skills over time to achieve proficiency as coaches. That is why some of the industry’s best DM training programs include coaching as a component of each major training phase (e.g., DM I, DM II, DM III…). As DMs develop as coaches, they can struggle in several key areas:
• Identification—Every new DM has a different perspective of what a “good” sales call looks like. Many coaching training programs focus exclusively on the steps related to coaching, without formally communicating or “level setting” the company’s expectations for representative performance during sales call. This is why we can see such variability in coaching skill and effectiveness across a single company’s DM ranks.
• Prioritization—New DM’s often struggle with “what to tackle first” and “how hard to push” during coaching sessions.
• Adjusting coaching style—Many new DM’s focus on the steps of the coaching model more than on the person they are coaching. Understanding coaching receptivity and rep personalities is a critical step in developing as a coach. Some coaching models address personality directly as a core component of the model. Other more basic models may not factor in personality at all. Because these challenges can be difficult to bring to light in a classroom or workshop environment, many companies have implemented or are experimenting with different role play- based formats for coaching skills assessments and training. At a minimum, these formats usually include:
• Defined coaching scenarios (between DM’s and representatives)
• Established criteria for providing feedback to DM’s on coaching performance
• Guidelines for the management trainer or executive coach who is facilitating the coaching training
• More advanced formats can also include the following:
• Live scenarios that parallel the phases of sales call and include the following:
• Trained assessors who play the part of targeted physicians
• Representatives who prepare for and deliver sales presentations to the assessors (physicians)
• Coaching challenges that are not pre-defined, but rather emerge in the context of the representative assessor role-play
• Rep and DM coaching interactions that are observed by an executive coach or management trainer who later delivers feedback to the DM regarding his or her coaching performance
• Opportunities for multiple DM’s to observe representative role-plays or face in the field. Physician profiles should also reflect the common attitudes, beliefs, and personalities of targeted physicians.
• Establishing firm criteria for how DMs and representatives will be assessed—Criteria should parallel the defined performance standards. DM’s and reps need not know the criteria in advance of the training. This will allow interactions to be as close to “real” as possible.
• Training assessors playing the role of physicians to ensure that interactions with representatives are realistic—Assessors must be capable of engaging with reps in a compelling dialogue.
These assessors must be trained on all aspects of the product and market and must be prepared to receive probes and respond with objections during the course of the role-play. Investment in assessor training is critical to success in this training environment.
• Training executive coaches on the standards for DM and representative performance— Executive coaches must understand what they should be looking for and how to place their coaching feedback in the context of the specific selling situation. The more the coach understands about the selling situation, the more valuable his or her feedback will be.
In Part 2 of this article, slated for the Fall issue of this magazine, we’ll look at business acumen as another area of DM training that is receiving greater emphasis across the industry.
Garry O’Grady is Senior Vice President, Sales Practice, at Campbell Alliance.
By Garry O’Grady
In Part 1 of this series on the changing role of the district manager (DM), which ran in the Summer issue of this magazine, we discussed the three approaches pharmaceutical and biotech companies have taken to redefine the DM role. We also examined the internal and external forces acting upon the industry’s front-line sales leaders. Then we took a closer look at coaching as one of the major roles that DM’s are expected to assume and how coaching training should take form. In this article, we will address business acumen as the second area of DM training that is receiving greater emphasis across the industry.
Business acumen means very different things to different people. Here are three examples of what three different companies consider “business acumen” training
• Training on standard sales reports, including a fundamental understanding on the underlying data sets
• Training on standard reports and the manipulation of underlying data using Microsoft Excel to conduct basic analyses of district and territory performance
• Training on methods for analyzing market, district, or territory performance using a combination of quantitative and qualitative data.
Methods focus on analyzing data and information to identify the root causes of a trend or issue and prioritizing district activities to address the trend or issue. As you can see from these examples, there is no consensus on the definition of business acumen training. And, depending on the company’s definition of the DM role, any of the examples above could provide “appropriate” levels of acumen training. Remember, many companies remain committed to the DM’s role as “traditional coach and mentor.” Senior sales executives from these companies do not want their DM’s spending time “doing an analyst’s work.” Rather, they want their DM’s in the field coaching representatives, so their expectations for DM’s in the area of business acumen are minimal Having said that, the third example is probably the most representative of the trend in DM business acumen training. With the number of forces— internal and external—potentially influencing product performance within a district of territory, DM’s must be capable of diagnosing a performance problem and allocating resources—as appropriate—to address the problem. DM’s often go into their role at a disadvantage when it comes to business acumen. Most companies push a large volume of standard reports to their representatives and do not expect reps to do much more than review and interpret report data. So, many new DM’s are not exposed to business acumen training until they enter formal DM training. Interestingly, business acumen is rarely a component of early DM training phases (e.g., DM orientation, DM I). So, a new DM might be in the field for up to several years before having formal business acumen training. In the interim, much acumen training is informal in nature and is largely driven by the DM’s direct supervisor during discussions about district and territory performance. New DM’s are typically good at identifying trends or issues but are less prepared to:
• Develop a hypothesis regarding the origins of trends or issues
• Analyze data or information in a logical order to prove or disprove hypotheses
• Prioritize trends and issues requiring action
• Allocate or re-allocate resources to address key trends or issues.
To address these types of training needs, most companies are designing business acumen training for classroom settings and are using workshops, case study formats, or both. These interactive formats allow trainees to “go deep” into specific aspects of business acumen training in a controlled, low-risk environment. Here, we have listed some of the keys to developing effective business acumen training events.
Developing case studies or workshops that address typical business problems and that emphasize potential pitfalls of analysis.
Too often, business acumen training is either too narrowly focused or is focused on an aspect of analysis that is not relevant to trainees. Trainers should work with senior sales executives to identify the most common challenges that DM’s are facing and build case studies and workshops that address these challenges.
Aligning training with the data and tools that the DM uses or has access to on a daily basis
Business acumen training should enhance the DM’s ability to affect the performance of his or her district and territories immediately. Therefore, the data and tools used in the training environment should be the same as those used by the DM on a daily basis. This ensures that the DM’s understand how best to use the tools and data that they have at hand and prevents the training from taking on an “academic” feel.
Ensuring that the methods taught (e.g., method of analysis, method of prioritization) are clear and are aligned with the priorities of senior sales managers.
In developing case studies and workshops, companies often discover that they have no standard methodologies for district- and territory-level analyses. Trainers should work with senior sales executives and representatives from Sales Analytics, SFE, or SFA groups to develop and validate these methodologies.
Using seasoned facilitators who have a robust understanding of the marketplace, applicable data sets, and core methods of analysis
This type of training is best facilitated by an experienced hand—one that has been in the shoes of the trainees. For this reason, many companies prefer to use a management trainer with DM experience, a senior DM, or a second-line sale manager (e.g., regional director) to lead training
Ensuring that the training can be built upon and reinforced during the execution of the DM’s duties in the field
Too often, training can take place in a vacuum. Business acumen training works best when the expectations for using the newly acquired skills are high. When companies align business acumen training with already established processes, such as reporting, performance management, or annual business planning, there is a greater potential for reinforcement and skills transfer.
Pharma companies should understand that changing the role of the DM requires them to provide more and different training so that DM’s can excel in that role. DM’s who are required to take the lead as coaches for their reps need rigorous coaching training that is focused on a solid coaching model. This training is most effective if presented in a real-world environment, where DM’s are evaluated on their coaching skills and given feedback to help them improve. DM’s who are asked to be business managers in their districts should be given business acumen training that is aligned with the company’s expectations of the DM’s business related activities. Training that is specific to the tools the DM is required to use and that explores realistic situations that DM’s might face will prepare these first-line managers for the challenges of the marketplace.
By preparing DM’s for the challenges they will face, pharmaceutical companiescan build a force of first-line managers who understand the business and can support the development of high-performing reps.
Garry O’Grady is Senior Vice President, Sales Practice, at Campbell Alliance. For more information, please visit