The Buyers Guide to Supercharging your Pharma Field Force Sales Performance 

sales team meeting scaled

For Pharma, the pandemic touched and disrupted every part of the business and created a unique challenge for the field force. 

On the one hand, patient need for access and business need to restore and accelerate sales and prescription momentum have never been more critical. On the other hand, HCP access for the field force has never been more challenging. This means that every moment in front of the physician, virtual or in-person, has never mattered more. 

The reality is that leading companies are looking for ways to drive impact that go beyond optimizing reach and frequency. They must focus on understanding and driving both the content and behaviors that result in HCP conversion. When reps and MSLs venture back into the field, they will need to consider a new approach that allows them to maximize every moment they get in front of the physician. 

To do this, they will not only need new knowledge but a substantially better ability to engage, connect and influence the HCP, leading to more meaningful interactions and increased conversion. So, as a Sales, Medical, Commercial Excellence, Enablement, or Training Leader in Pharma, what solutions do you have today to do that? 

In our previous pharma series, we spoke about the challenges in HCP conversion for pharma companies. Now it’s time to look at the six steps to improving pharma sales:

  1. Create learning strategy & knowledge systems
  2. Audit marketing & sales alignment 
  3. Focus on data-based segmentation, targeting & reach, and frequency optimization
  4. Commit to regular sales training & certification
  5. Invest in Sales Coaches
  6. Leverage AI augmentation with advanced sales conversation intelligence and personalized AI-coach

6 Steps to Improving Pharma Sales

Improving pharma sales isn’t a quick fix. It takes some time and planning, plus investment in people and technology. But the result is well worth the effort and expense, particularly as your field force grows or disperses. Manual or a half-baked approach won’t suffice. You need a standardized platform and process to upskill reps objectively and at scale.

Step 1: Create a Learning Strategy & Knowledge Systems

A learning strategy is a cornerstone for creating a field force that can address the needs of the HCP audience. The quality of the information provided can be improved by high-quality training and by utilizing digital supporting materials in the HCP call. 

High-quality training is grounded in adult learning theory and allows the field force to become and remain sharp where and when they want. Combinations of on-demand e-learning and gamification are making the knowledge more fun to acquire and more likely to stick. 

All training should be tailored to the context of the field force. At its simplest, this approach means putting knowledge into the context of needs—the needs of the sales professional to succeed in their job, those of the company to grow the business, and the needs of the customer to improve the lives of patients. 

Having a flawless technical grasp of the medicine is no longer sufficient. Sales professionals themselves believe they need to have improved knowledge of healthcare systems, specialty therapy areas and real-world outcomes data. 

The next boost in performance comes from utilizing digital support materials in the sales call via a tablet or laptop. This access allows reps and MSLs to have easy and rapid access to a wider range of information during the call to tailor the discussion to the doctor’s preference in real time. By personalizing content on-demand, reps can better engage the HCP, leading to more meaningful interactions.  

Step 2: Audit Marketing & Sales Alignment 

The challenge with learning and knowledge investments, like those outlined above, is that they are hard to correlate to either action taken by the field force or sales outcomes. Having invested both time and significant expense in developing factual and compelling marketing communication and then doubling down with training and certification, the next frontier is to assess and strengthen the pull-through strategy.  

How strong is the reps’ belief in the brand messaging, core story and materials, and how are these used during customer selling interactions? Did the reps follow the sales model? The information yielded by these audits is undoubtedly beneficial to the organization but has a number of fundamental challenges. 

First, it has generally required in-person observation which is, by its nature, subjective and not scalable. Second, the data is aggregated and episodic rather than individual and ongoing. This means that these audits are often seen more as a command and control versus an inform and improve the tool by the reps. 

Probably the most important benefit of this approach is the focus on what is happening in the moment of human-to-human interaction between the rep and customer. This is the moment that matters most, but to date, it has been the one with the least amount of data and insight and hence, the least amount of focus. 

Step 3:  Focus on Data-based Segmentation, Targeting & Reach, and Frequency Optimization

We often find ourselves trapped in a data version of Murphy’s law: the data we have is not what we want. The data we want is not what we can get. The data we can get is not what we need. The data we need costs more than we want to pay. 

When we are lucky enough to access the high-quality data we need, it can unlock critical value for a business. This was the case when the data systems and sources related to physician-prescribing behaviors allowed us to radically improve customer segmentation and targeting. The clear link and attribution between activity and outcome changed the game. 

It allowed organizations to take an objective, data-driven position on optimal message, reach and frequency. The challenge is that with the broad adoption of this approach, it is now table stakes—a must-do rather than a competitive advantage. 

The current frontier on operational optimization has moved to focus on multi-channel touchpoint optimization to evolve the use of data from single activity optimization to the orchestration of customer engagement across all available touchpoints. Again, the requirement for optimization is the availability of high-quality, clean data sets and requires a considerable lift to rewire how organizations capture and record activity and outcome data. The bigger and more global the organization, the bigger the upfront investment required. 

Step 4: Commit to Regular Sales Training & Certification

Having segmented the customer base into distinct personas (e.g. the innovator, the conservative, and the patient champion), organizations can tailor their messaging to resonate with that particular customer, whilst being mindful to always be fact-based within the label and balanced. 

Having made this significant investment, it is critical to ensure that there is seamless alignment between marketing and sales. Therefore, leading organizations have moved to regular sales force training, such as quarterly and salesforce certification to ensure teamwide readiness. In addition to product and messaging knowledge, this regular training can also be used to ensure familiarity with the selling model. 

Equally, certification can support compliance, fair balance and consistent inclusion of important safety information. Again, organizations face four familiar challenges: 

First, these are trainer, evaluator, and time out of field-intensive programs and are costly to scale. Second, they are not personalized and delivered as a one-size-fits-all that is conducive to learner engagement. 

Third, they are episodic, which means they are largely seen as a one-off hurdle and not as continual improvement. Finally, they focus narrowly on the “what” the rep knows and ignore the “how” the rep shows up in front of the customer. 

Broad research supports the view that the “what” you say accounts for perhaps 10-20% of the customer impact, and the “how” you say it, such as the tone, emotion and body language account for 80-90% of the impact. Despite this, few organizations today have either the data or the processes in place to effectively coach for these critical softer yet essential skills. 

Step 5: Invest in Sales Coaches 

Undoubtedly, personalized, situation- and need-specific coaching are the most sought-after and effective ways to enhance performance. Research by CVI shows that 87% of salespeople want more field-level, just-in-time coaching and Miller Heiman showed that dynamic coaching increased sales win rates by +19% and quota attainment by +21%. 

This clear need and proven impact for coaching is not a new finding, CSO Insights run an annual report that has confirmed over the past five years, Sales Coaching has been the #1 impact driver of sales performance. However, despite this compelling case for coaching, 47% of sales managers spend fewer than 30 minutes per week coaching each seller. There are five common challenges to unlocking coaching’s full potential:

  1. Managers are not trained in coaching. Typically, we promote our best reps to become managers, but this doesn’t mean they are great coaches and, too often, there is no systematic coach-the-coach program.
  1. There is not enough time, and coaching is driven by the manager’s schedule. Typically, manager coaching is driven by the manager’s calendar— “I’m doing a ride-along with Cindy on Wednesday and I’ll provide 10 minutes of coaching then.” 

    Ideally, Cindy would identify her highest-potential opportunity in the next month and then receive specific, sufficient coaching, practice and feedback to ensure she was ready to make that a winning customer conversation. Managers intend to coach more but there is a large gap between intention and action. Given the other pressures managers face, coaching is often a priority that does not get actioned.
  1. Coaching should focus on the impact behaviors that drive a successful outcome. Here, we have a choice of “hard” skills and “soft” skills. Hard skills are job-specific skills and technical knowledge, and soft skills are social ability and how people relate to and interact with other people. 

    Historically, training and coaching have focused on hard skills like teaching and checking product or marketing message knowledge. Soft skills were viewed as subjective and hard to measure. In reality, this means we have missed the opportunity to improve the most business-critical skills: soft skills. A study by Stanford Research Institute and Carnegie-Mellon found that 75% of long-term job success depends on people skills and only 25% on technical knowledge.

In summary, managers often don’t have an objective way to assess individual sales rep performance on the most critical impact behaviors and skills. And they don’t have the time to develop the personalized feedback and personalized coaching that truly drive behavior change and business outcomes.

Step 6: Leverage AI augmentation with Advanced Sales Conversation Intelligence and Personalized AI-Coach 

If you want to maximize your impact to make every moment in front of the customer count, one exciting new opportunity is to use technologies like AI, sales conversation intelligence, high fidelity sales simulations, and AI-powered coaching. In combination, these technologies mesh to create an always-on learning system that enables companies to get ahead and stay ahead. This AI-powered performance flywheel is made up of the following:

  1. AI observation of behaviors in actual sales calls or high-fidelity simulations. This 360° assessment of sight, sound and language provide the behavioral baseline data about the actual sales person-customer interaction that we have been missing.
  1. Assessment and analytics are based on the response of an “audience digital twin” and benchmarking across a range of performances, providing meaning. When you use these specific behaviors— the words you choose, your tone of voice, and your body language, you can expect an audience (the customer) will find you more likable, more trustworthy, more confident, more engaging, etc. Benchmarking allows you to make the link between input behaviors and performance outcomes explicit. It allows you to identify what behaviors top sales performers exhibit that less strong performers don’t.
  1. An AI coach creates a personalized learning journey based on skill gaps and upcoming customer opportunities. A critical element of this is to have the opportunity for personal practice and rehearsal of a sales call in a safe space with confidential feedback. Another success factor is simple, short, easy-to-digest coaching and practice that can be done in the flow of work. 
  1. Finally, to close the loop and create a performance flywheel, you need to continually collect the voice of customers and sales data to allow you to incrementally improve the specificity and precision of the coaching. 
Platform Features Intelligent Virtual Coaching

AI enables unprecedented, continuous data capture of individual rep selling behaviors. This information forms the basis of personalized, context-specific coaching, delivered in the flow of work, at an unlimited scale by an AI coach. When combined with the voice of customers (VOC) and sales data, organizations can create a closed-loop, always-on/always-learning environment that enables them to continually improve winning behaviors and sales outcomes to get ahead and stay ahead.  Scalable, personalized AI-powered coaching to improve.

“As a communications leader and coach, I know that how someone shows up is often more important than the content they deliver,” says Mark Chakravarty, advisor at “Yet, while we have focused and invested in optimizing content, we have not, to date, had a science-based, objective and scalable way to assess and improve communications delivery. 

“As a communications coach, my main aim is to close the knowledge and performance ga, but even with 20 years of experience as a communications coach, I have a limited ability to accurately capture exactly what you say, if you varied your voice’s pitch, how you made eye contact or your body language. 

“Based on my experience, I might pick up and coach you on one or two behaviors, but the choice is highly subjective and personal. Without the ability to have an objective and consistent assessment of the content and visual and vocal delivery behaviors, it is impossible to coach in a data-backed, consistent and scalable manner. 

“Nirvana is knowing what behaviors impact audience response— making the listener more likely to leave the conversation with a changed belief or commitment to action. This ability would allow us to coach with precision rather than guesswork and really connect soft skills to tangible, hard business outcomes.”

Mark Chakravarty
Mark is a senior business development, communication and, strategy leader with a unique breadth of global, cross-cultural experience. His career spans life sciences, healthcare and, consumer goods, in leading organizations, including Novartis, Procter & Gamble, and the NHS. A truly global executive with 20+ years’ international experience covering corporate and product communications, digital communications, advocacy, public affairs, crisis management, brand strategy, and marketing. Mark was previously a member of Novartis’ global Pharma Executive Committee, leading the Global Pharma Communications and Advocacy function, and is in his second term on the UK National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence’s (NICE) appeal panel. Mark holds degrees in Medicine and Pharmacology from the University of Manchester and studied business at Manchester Business School.