The eye of the beholder: how do customers see salespeople?

A necessary evil or a valued business relationship? New research has revealed how buyers from various industries view salespeople, and it isn’t pretty. Pf takes a look at the findings.

We have all seen him on TV, the pushy, smooth-talking suitclad salesman, confident in the belief that his sheer charisma and persuasive technique could convince anyone to purchase the latest shoddy and unnecessary item he is touting. He was a familiar figure in the Eighties, brief case and over-sized mobile phone in hand, ever ready to charm his next potential customer.

This was the perception of salespeople about twenty years ago, and most people would assume that this stereotype has long since become out-dated and irrelevant. However, recent research has suggested that this perception is still alive today and, like the mobile phone, the salesperson of the noughties is just slightly better presented and capable of more advanced applications, but ultimately performs the same function.

DDI’s 2007-2008 Global Sales Perceptions Report does not make comfortable reading for anyone involved in sales. It reveals a perception of salespeople as lacking knowledge and understanding, unwilling to listen and more interested in their own bonus than the customer’s needs.

This article will look at the conclusions of the report and ask whether they can be applied to the medical sales industry. Has pharma been successful in breaking down old stereotypes and revolutionising the image of sales?

The report

Business leadership consultancy Development Dimensions International (DDI) surveyed 2,705 people across six countries about how they feel about their interactions with sales professionals. Those surveyed were buyers or people who interact with salespeople and are involved in buying decisions, and represented a wide range of industries, job levels and age groups.

The research was designed to provide answers to the following questions:
• What qualities do buyers truly value in a salesperson?
• Have their expectations of salespeople changed?
• What value do salespeople add to buying organisations?
• Do buyers really want a trusted business advisor or just an ordertaker?

The overwhelming conclusions of the research were that buyers generally have a poor perception of salespeople, that their increasingly high expectations are not being met and that salespeople are not becoming business partners.

We spoke to some industry managers to find out if the same can be said of pharmaceutical industry salespeople.

A necessary evil

“We need to ‘help people to buy’, rather than ‘sell’ to them. Medical sales specialists need to have a longer-term approach to achieving a successful outcome versus a more traditional consumer orientated ‘sign on the line now’, with a relationship built on trust between customers and sales people”

Nick Edwards, Head of Sales Excellence, Roche

The most common perception across all countries was that sales is a ‘necessary evil’. A typical attitude amongst respondents was that salespeople are more interested in making money for themselves than in providing a service for the customer. One went as far as to say that they felt “conned and cheated” following interactions with salespeople.

Regrettably, it seems the stereotype of the ‘pushy’ salesperson is still a reality today, though there has been some improvement – 40% of UK buyers said that expertise has increased.

“There is still a long way to go,” comments Paul Hughes, Director of Strategic Accounts at DDI and co-author of the report. “Fortyone per cent of UK buyers said that expertise has stayed the same and 19% say it’s getting worse. At the same time, 44% of buyers have increased expectations of sales people. The gap between expectations and delivery is getting bigger.”

Although medical sales is not necessarily a victim to sales stereotypes to the extent of some other industries, the pharma sales professional has other prejudices to contend with on a daily basis. As Andy Holgate, Business Unit Director at Ashfield In2Focus explains: “The anti-industry PR is pretty significant in the UK, and the controversy created by recent reports of inconsistent disclosure of clinical trial outcomes will have shaped opinion, whilst totally outside the control of any UK salesperson. In some respects, the representative is starting from a negative stance with many HCPs (healthcare professionals), and this is one of the reasons for reduced access.”

Great expectations

Could it be that the perception of the sales industry is so low because buyers have higher expectations? There are several different areas where buyers seem to expecting more from salespeople. Firstly, the customer expects the salesperson to understand their business and what their needs are. Secondly, the customer expects the salesperson to listen and provide sound advice. Thirdly, the customer wants to create a ‘win-win’ situation, where a good compromise is reached and both parties benefit.

This more consultative approach to selling is nothing new to the pharmaceutical industry. Changes in the structure of both the NHS and the industry have meant that it is more important than ever that pharma sales professionals build relationships with their customers and are able to speak knowledgably on their therapy area. According to Paul Hughes, however, training the sales team is not enough, a sales organisation needs to have these three expectations at its core: “Sales organisations have to realise that some salespeople are going to make that transition more easily than others. It is crucial organisations first assess and select the people with the potential to deliver what buyers want from a modern sales force and then structure the sales teams so that the sales leaders can take the team in the right direction.”

Ian Wrathall, Head of Primary Care at AstraZeneca, agrees that the move to an account management approach is not going to happen overnight and will require more than just a change in sales force structure: “To move to a true account management approach takes a huge change in mindset. I believe it will take a while before the industry moves away from the old model-thinking such as share of voice and coverage and frequency.”

Changes in the NHS customerbase are also demanding more from representatives, as Ian went on to explain, “Decisionmaking has moved away from the individual GPs to local and regional bodies like PCTs and PBCs, hence the strong relationship a representative might have had with an individual GP has less leverage than it once did.”

Valued business partners?

Despite the fact that popular sales training programs today do focus on more consultative selling, UK sales professionals are failing to become the business partners they aim to be. Just 42% of UK respondents said that they consider their sales contacts as business partners, with only Australia scoring slightly lower out of the six countries. In contrast, 84% of German and 64% of French buyers feel they have this relationship with salespeople.

In keeping with these findings, there is some feeling within the industry that old mindsets and a lack of ‘customer orientation’ are preventing pharma sales professionals from being seen as trusted business advisors. Ian Wrathall explains: “The medical representative role in recent years has been driven by centralised brand strategies. This has led to a tick-box culture that measured the success of representatives by the number of times they could deliver key selling messages to individual target customers, irrespective of customer needs and environment.”

Nick Edwards, Head of Sales Excellence at Roche, expands on how the attitude of pharma needs to change: “We need to ‘help people to buy’, not ‘sell’ to them. All salespeople need a thorough understanding of their product and their customers so they can target and tailor their messages in the right way. Medical sales specialists need to have a longerterm approach to achieving a successful outcome versus a more consumer orientated ‘sign on the line now’, with a relationship built on trust between customers and sales people.”

One disadvantage with this type of selling, however, is that if a sales professional moves to another company the client relationship goes with them. Nick Edwards describes the attitude an organisation needs to have as a more joined-up ‘one company approach’. He suggests that accurate customer records will ensure that each sales contact will have knowledge of what has gone before. “In turn the customer feels valued and the relationship with the company is not only maintained but potentially enhanced,” he concludes.

“To move to a true account management approach takes a huge change in mindset” Ian Wrathall, Head of Primary Care, AstraZeneca

Most valued qualities

Respondents were asked which top three qualities they value most in a salesperson. UK respondents voted pricing/price negotiation, product or service advice and trust as the most valued qualities.

Trust, in particular, is an essential in the relationship between medical rep and HCP. However, the UK scored lowest in trust across all industries. When UK respondents were asked if they felt salespeople had their best interests at heart, just 13% said ‘definitely’. It would be impossible for the pharma industry to function without the trust of its customers, as Andy Holgate went on to explain: “Giving the wrong advice about dose, side effects and contraindications could have catastrophic effects, and therefore the pharmaceutical industry representative must always be conscious that their first duty is to that unknown patient that their medicine may be able to help.”

A never-ending mission

The pressures on pharmaceutical sales might be different to other sales industries, but the customer’s perception of the sales force is equally as important, if not more so. The challenges of selling to an ever-changing customer base and overcoming the perceptions generated by negative media coverage have forced the industry to re-evaluate its attitudes and approach.

Andy Holgate feels that this has resulted in a positive change: “I see far more realism from the industry about where companies position their brands, and far more understanding of the financial and rational environment GPs are operating within. This is a never-ending mission, but I would like to believe that overall HCPs would admit there has been a significant change in the way most companies operate.”

So has pharma been successful in changing the image of sales? To some extent. Although not many representatives could be described as experienced practitioners of the consultative selling advocated by DDI, this is certainly the approach that most companies aspire to and are moving towards. As the results of this report indicate, in just realising the need for change, pharma is a step closer than many other industries to achieving the mindset necessary for true account management selling.