One of the many reasons pharma sales differs from sales in other industries is that the "customer" can be thought of in two ways. Although the US allows direct-to-patient advertising, the pharmaceutical rep is more likely to interact with a physician, nurse, pharmacist, or even a formulary manager than an actual patient. And yet the patient is the eventual customer, because if he or she doesn't want a drug, doesn't like the side effects, or finds that the benefits don't sufficiently outweigh the risks, that prescription won't get filled.
Being "patient-focused" isn't as straightforward for pharma reps as it is for, say, a doctor who wants to market her clinic. But when sales representatives can present relevant information representing the voice of the patient, he makes a stronger case for his product and keeps the focus where it ultimately rests: on the patient.
Are Sales Practices Really Patient-Focused?
It's easy to say that sales practices are patient-focused, but in many cases, patients themselves might be surprised to hear this. Of course sales professionals must make the sale by working with the clinician, pharmacist, or formulary manager, and this takes time. It's not hard to see why the opinion of the patient gets lost in all the surrounding action. Being patient-centric largely requires interaction with patients before, during, and after clinical trials.
In order to truly put patients first, pharmaceutical reps must develop the knowledge necessary to sometimes say to doctors, for example, "Patient surveys said they don't mind twice-a-day dosing, because they don't have as many side effects." Doctors generally do know their patients well, but there have been cases where the conventional wisdom as espoused by physicians is contradicted by what patients themselves tell clinical researchers.
Ideally, Patient Centricity Begins Before Clinical Trials
Patient focus should begin well before clinical trials start. Potential trial participants want to know what a product is designed to do, and how, specifically, it is expected to benefit them. Was a drug designed to minimize another drug's side effects, or was it designed to directly address a patient's illness? Whether or not they have a scientific background, they are the ones living their lives, and they want some idea of what to expect when deciding whether to commit to a clinical trial.
Gathering patient input even before trials begin is ideal, because it can then offer a more comprehensive picture of the patient experience at multiple points during the trial, as well as afterward. What's more, patients want to understand why trials are structured the way they are. In particular, they may want to know why there's a chance they'll get a placebo when the drug being tested is supposed to treat a very real and painful illness that they must live with. In some cases, patient input has prompted researchers to redesign trials to address these fears and help ensure more participants benefit from a drug.
Pharma Reps: Listening to Doctors and Listening to Patients
Pharma sales professionals are in a unique position of having to be patient-centric while also having to make the technical and clinical case to the doctors that patients work with. It means listening to both, even if there's no direct contact between reps and patients. This could be done in several ways. End-of-trial questionnaires are one way researchers listen to patients, and they can be quite revealing, because patients often point out things that researchers simply don't think of, including fundamental factors like scheduling testing so that it's compatible with public transportation for patients who don't drive.
For patients involved in clinical trials, letting them know trial outcomes, in non-technical language, and asking for their own patient-related outcomes in their own words can open up new insights. Researchers may focus on, say, the level of a marker in the blood, but the participants can put it into straightforward terms, like "I can walk farther without getting short of breath." Paying attention to these insights from clinical trials benefits the sales professional and physician.
Patient Centricity Must Continue Beyond Product Launch
Incorporating better patient centricity isn't always straightforward the way a testing protocol is, but it's becoming more common. After all, the reasoning goes, it's not easy to know the return on investment for the comments that come from a physician advisory board, yet those comments matter. As patient input becomes more mainstream, the pharmaceutical companies that don't listen to patients will be the exceptions.
Another issue that could emerge in coming years as pharmaceutical companies sell off older product lines, is extending "beyond the pill" support to patients taking more established medicines rather than just the newer, more exotic drugs. This will require a directed effort, however, from the pharmaceutical companies that buy older product lines. But it could represent a new differentiator for companies that sell these products.
Squaring Sales Training and Technology with Patient Centricity
As patient focus becomes more prominent in the pharmaceutical sales conversation, it will become more important for reps to be trained on how to incorporate these elements. It may require the creation of new marketing content that's more patient-focused, or new modules for physicians that emphasize patient experiences. And it will mean that your learners will have to appreciate the importance of patient focus and practice potential conversations and using relevant materials. This may be an excellent opportunity for coaching, particularly for the rep who hasn't had to emphasize patient experience much in the past.
In pharmaceuticals, "the customer" isn't as discrete an entity as it is in other fields because the products must be accepted and prescribed by healthcare providers. Drug developers are discovering, however, that what actual patients have to say can be tremendously informative, and indeed can become a brand differentiator if incorporated appropriately into sales and marketing materials. Sales trainers will be called upon to prepare reps to assimilate patient-focused information into the sales conversation. We invite you to peruse our areas of training expertise as you continue to develop your training programs to meet new challenges and opportunities.