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from Systema

Future Issues in
Pharmaceutical Selling:
Facing the Challenges of Consultive Selling

By Brian Snader

Not too long ago the pharmaceutical sales message was the province of men, mail, and magazines. Now the messages come to doctors and others in healthcare through women and men, mail and magazines, luncheons, dinners, and consumer promotions aired on prime time television.

This glut of selling messages, covering the same news about any single product, means that today's pharmaceutical rep must do more than a short song and dance that delivers the "details" about the product's features and benefits.

Recently 55 sales vice presidents from a cross-section of industries met in a series of focus groups. These VPs agreed on a number of challenges looming in the future of selling as a whole. Some challenges are immediate; others will arise in the longer term.

Immediate Challenges:
  • Improve sales productivity per person
  • Grow sales volume significantly
  • Improve relationships with customers
  • Increase sales force profitability
  • Find a better way to measure performance
  • Improve customer service
Longer term challenges:
  • Open new channels
  • Continue to broaden the scope of the sales job
  • Expand the sales force
  • Re-adjust the sales process to meet the demands of new technologies as they arise

From these observations, the vice presidents concluded that the lives of sales executives will be entirely different in the future...and that they, as sales executive, need to redefine what is meant by selling, before someone else redefines it for them.

Their role is not the only one that's changing. The biggest trend in selling today is toward a consultative approach, and pharmaceutical representatives are using it to redefine their roles.

Consultative refers to a style of selling in which the pharmaceutical rep devotes more time to investigating and analyzing physician needs and less time in presenting products and service. The term comes from the consulting professions in which clients hire professionals to analyze problems and offer recommendations. It involves much more than asking good questions and listening to the answers although both are critical to successful consultation.

Consultative selling requires adding value through the expertise of the sales person and/or company. It demands high levels of knowledge, strategy, and skill all grounded in a thorough understanding of the pharmaceutical selling process.

Who are Top Pharmaceutical Reps?

To isolate the factors that make a pharmaceutical sales representative effective is not easy. The best pharmaceutical reps have:

  • excellent selling skills and behaviors
  • exhibit consistent performance
  • build pipelines
  • contribute to their teams
  • focus on the most profitable accounts
  • open new accounts
  • and win customer loyalty

However, when you ask the best representatives what makes them best, they often don't know which skills and behaviors set them apart. And when you ask sales managers who observe sales representatives, they're usually so focused on helping to close deals that they cannot concentrate on the subtleties of the rep's process.

Finding the Top Reps

A look at sales results in terms of quarterly numbers may not always reveal these top reps, either. That's because even pharmaceutical reps with poor selling skills occasionally sell the most-when they happen to have a great territory or have taken over from a previous salesperson who was outstanding, when their products have the lowest prices or the weakest competition, or when they're just plain lucky. Some sales are made in spite of, not because of, the salesperson.

So how do you identify top pharmaceutical salespeople? Look for the representatives with the ability to learn continuously from experience, to take full responsibility for professional development, to size up each situation, and to apply the most effective skills for that encounter. Most often, they will be the ones using consultative selling dialog techniques.

Systema Research

Systema conducts on-going research by gathering and analyzing ratings and comments from physicians on the selling behaviors of their pharmaceutical representatives. Our research indicates that consultative selling is the most effective selling approach to engage and sustain the physician's attention. With this research, we also provide assessments that clearly identify top individual representatives and indicate which of their skills and behaviors are critical to success.

But if consultative selling is the trend of the future, why do many pharmaceutical marketing departments continually push the concept of "delivering a message"? We don't know. Would you like to be sold by a song and a dance?

To learn more about the dialogue approach of consultative selling and to find out about our pharmaceutical representative assessments, contact Systema Corporation by e-mail at

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