Wither Commercial Excellence Without Sales Force Excellence?

When I meet colleagues and acquaintances who spent 35-40 years in the pharmaceutical industry, I am always eager to know how things changed over the decades and shaped up the way they currently are. My surprise that things have been more or less the same over all these decades is overcome only by my disdain that there is very little being done even now, to change.

A fundamental and significant shift in the world of healthcare is under way. Healthcare is rapidly evolving from curative to preventive. The driver for this massive change is the emergence of extremely specialized and highly personalized medical treatments based upon one’s own DNA. If you think this is science fiction, then you will be surprised to know that Microsoft estimated as long ago as 2006 that over 50,000 people worldwide were working on a stream in the field of bio-informatics – a field that involves the development of the highly sophisticated computer databases and computational methodologies that analyze a patient’s DNA – a development that is critical to our migration into the era of personalized medicine.


If such radical changes are closer home and not merely on the horizon, how is the industry preparing to usher them in? That we will ride this wave of evolution is a given. The trillion dollar question is will the companies that lead the industry today continue to lead it 25 years from now or will they be swamped by the tsunami of change giving rise to entirely new ones? As ordinary employees (not CXOs), little of this is in our control. What IS in our control, however, is equipping ourselves with the best skills possible and helping talented youngsters who seek careers in the industry to train in the best way possible and be fully prepared for change.

Enough literature substantiates that technology and other developments will serve to complement and not substitute the sales force. Therefore there is a burning need to overhaul the practice of training our sales forces as we currently know it. Companies that will ride the wave will do so only because their sales forces were best trained for the future. So, it will turn out that commercial excellence will arise only from sales force excellence.

As the cliché` goes, we operate in the “Knowledge Economy”. Hyper-growth in knowledge coupled with personalized medicine means that every doctor will become ever more specialized and niche-oriented. Medical knowledge that is currently doubling every eight years is expected to drop to every two years in the near future. For medical professionals, the future is all about “keeping up,” and developing agility for rapid innovation, response, development, and implementation. For sales forces of pharmaceutical companies, it’s about keeping pace with innovation and discovery.

To keep up, sales forces of the future will need 24X7 access to real time information. Just access will not suffice. What is important is the capability to access, assimilate, put into context, glean inferences and articulate it to hyper-knowledgeable customers. Technology cannot do this, only humans can. And since humans cannot be programmed, they need to be trained. A tall ask for sales and training departments that must aim to evolve radically.


Today, most training programs are predominantly lectures and confined to closed rooms. We know from our student experience that lectures in such environments are often the least educational. Research shows that many students, trained in this manner, don’t master basic reasoning or communication skills. Look around you, if you don’t believe me. Young professionals, who are just out of college themselves, are likely to forget most of what they hear in lectures, especially, when they know very little about the topics that are discussed. Throwing in a few role plays and case studies is a not a “revolution in education”.

A revolution in education would be replacing lectures with hands-on learning which is best suited for each individual based on their unique experiences on the job. This would be truly great education that comes from being surrounded by inspiring peers, being coached by world-class thinkers, and spending time solving actual problems. When companies take so much care to ensure that doctors are coached through the best facilities and thinkers worldwide to constantly upgrade their skills, why not ensure the same care for their own customer facing representatives? Why accept such huge differences in skill sets of customers and representatives who, at the end of the day, are the face of the company?

Let’s think of something radical, like allowing sales force colleagues to decide their course schedule, based on problems they face every day, through a neatly organized syllabus of readings available to them through open online course ware. In the past, lectures provided an efficient way to transfer knowledge, but in an era with a perfect video-delivery platform — one that serves up billions of YouTube views and millions of TED Talks on such things as technology, entertainment, and design — why would anyone waste precious class time on lectures in classrooms?


Instead, let us consider an on-the-job “classroom”, where students set their own customized syllabus, based on situations they face on the job. They can review YouTube lectures of the most recently updated medical, sales, product and other relevant information on iPads or other hand-held devices during their spare time on one hand (continuous education) and solve real day to day problems alongside front-line and second-line managers on the job (continuous training). What better way of training them for mass customized customer interaction – a market situation where every customer demands unique information in the real time.

After a revolution, an organization should bear little resemblance to its former self. Currently, “innovation” is about putting the existing selling model (visual aids, leave behind literature etc.) online. What I propose, on the other hand, is completely doing away with the old model and embracing a learning environment that mirrors life forever connected to the world’s information. After all, companies can rarely excel without enabling their sales force to do so.

11 thoughts on “Wither Commercial Excellence Without Sales Force Excellence?

  1. Medical knowledge that is currently doubling every eight years is expected to drop to every two years in the near future.

    Phew – at last an end to it in sight. There has to be an end to it – surely. Where are they pulling all this medical knowledge from? A body is a body all said and done and no-one needs to know sub molecular shenanigans.


    1. Oh, there is an ocean of information yet to be retrieved. A body is a body – sure! But the more we know about it, the better for us all, isnt it?


  2. nicely put Salil. I have spent many years in the staffing industry and was recently involved in helping a very large medical insititution fill a position of a Bioinformatics Specialist, to read dna output from high throughput sequencing machines. There is a website called pbs.org. Cracking the genetic code..great video to watch.

    Totally agree with your views on education.

    good job.


    1. Thanks for reading and for your comments, Shailesh. Will look up the site and the video. This area has fascinated me for some time now!


  3. Excellent Salil. Use of contemporary technology is critical in equipping them with the desired skill sets. Your ideas as usual comes like a breath of fresh air…Worth evaluating…


  4. Excellent article.

    In a related topic in BusinessWorld Prof Homi Bhaba of Harvard bemoans the fact that Indian society has not been prepared to deal with the challenges of a changing economic system. The net result is “islands of excellence” surrounded by “oceans of mediocrity”.

    Indian Pharma should actively engage in upskilling its mammoth field force to make them a FORCE to reckon with.

    Imagine the benefit of an Intelligent field force giving 24X7 feedback from the front-lines.



  5. Dear Salil, a nice article… You have nicely summarized the current scenario & the need of hour – the Sales Excellence. In my opinion before we put our money & resources in Sales Excellence, we need to ensure that as a industry we are in position to attract & retain talent by scaling up the pay structures. At the end of the day, excellence is primarily driven by individual’s “Passion” & “Perseverance” and if we are in position to get Quality people on the board, most of them are loaded with these two qualities. So we need to prioritize on changing the pay scale & attract good talent as Quality comes at price (often at premium price)


    1. Manish, thanks for your comments. I know what you mean, and you’re absolutely right. What I’m saying however, is that we need to build such people. The only reason why talented people dont come to pharma is not payscale. Thats just one. The bigger reason is lack of respect for the job. Medics care two hoots for pharma sales persons today and its the industry thats to blame for it. Give the job some value, create respect and see how many talented youngsters opt for it even at slightly higher payscales.


  6. Dear Salil,
    Its a nice read. I’ve been reading your blog regularly. I request you to give our reply(Pharma’s) to last parliamentary report which in fact tarnish our image. Your blogs inspire me to right some of mine. I request you and your readers to visit once (http://rxnerve.blogspot.in/)


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