What Makes an Exceptional Sales Rep?

Time and again I meet with pharmaceutical sales reps who either because they don’t achieve their sales quotas or because they try to find new ways to improve their already high performance, ask me or their team leaders in what areas they need to improve, how can this improvement happen and if there are any general rules (something like a pattern) that guarantee success and exceptional results in pharmaceutical sales.

Naturally any sales rep (as any person) is unique and has his own character, personality, temperament, strengths and weaknesses that he needs to work on. Therefore it would be difficult to express a general rule about what makes a pharmaceutical sales rep more effective than his workmates since this is the result of a wide range of skills, talents, motives, and characteristics overall.

Many times I have attended training sessions or heard sales managers stating the obvious: a successful sales rep knows his product in depth, he is professional in his approach with the clients, he understands the needs of the HCPs (Health Care Professionals), he doesn’t sound “salesy”, he prefers not to answer instead of giving the wrong answer and other truthful yet recurring advices. All these are valuable teachings for underachievers that need to improve their performance and bring average results. However talking like that to professional sales reps striving for excellence sounds like someone talking to mathematicians about basic algebraic equations.

So what are the elements that separate underperforming sales reps from highflyers? Unfortunately to answer this general question we will have to retort with some kind of simplification. However the following features are consistently found in all exceptional sales reps.

Go-getters ask for the sale: In the early steps of my career I heard a top manager talking with a middle manager and telling him: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get”. This true statement sounded at the time too obvious. However as I was gaining more experience I realized that “asking and getting” is more difficult than it sounds. On one hand many sales reps hesitate to ask for the sale (or prescriptions) and if they do the situation becomes very awkward since they aren’t clear either in what they want or in what should be done next. On the other hand some sales reps ask for the sale in such an insistent way that the client (doctor, pharmacist, etc.) reacts negatively and the whole process fails. Talking later with these sales reps they all believed that their way to sell was the correct one. However the most successful sales reps know that “asking” is a very delicate skill since they don’t want to sound neither too aggressive nor too timid. “Asking and getting” is a balancing act that even the most experienced sales reps many times fail to perform.

Effective reps are persistent: Quite a lot of sales reps get easily disappointed when the results don’t come out, when they realize that a doctor who they thought he recommended their products appears not to do so, when an HCP expresses many objections or is difficult to reach, when the competition is ahead etc. What these sales reps don’t realize is that all this is part of the sales process. Then again are successful sales reps who know that by not giving up and by trying to experiment with new ways to approach doctors, they become better than the rest of their colleagues and their competitors. When all others halt, effective reps move forward.

Highflyers remain excited and energetic:  Relevant to persistence is excitement and high energy. A sales rep may be persistent but he also needs to exhume enthusiasm and passion for what he does. The opposite of enthusiasm is routine and this is a trap that mostly experienced sales reps fall into. Even though there is no clear rule about this, a sales rep who communicates the same products, in the same area, at the same HCPs for three years or more runs the risk of becoming monotonous, bored and uninterested. However a sales rep who matches his experience with excitement and high energy manages to take full advantage of his long-built relations with the doctors.

Overachievers are well organized: Currently most of the sales teams are equipped with a CRM system that allows them to be informed on several aspects of their clients’ specifics such as their classification (A, B or C), their availability, their preference for certain products or therapies etc. However no CRM is updated on its own. The sales rep is responsible to record new data and information about his clients in the CRM. By doing so he and the organization he works for have instant access in any information they want concerning health-care professionals. Overachievers, instead of perceiving the CRM as a time consuming process placed by the company merely to control and monitor the rep, see it as a tool to remind them the current situation of each of their clients and as a tool to communicate even more effectively with the company allowing them to resolve most difficulties efficiently and on time.

Do you find the above stated features simple? Well, that’s because they are. Yet many medical or pharmacy sales reps consistently fail to implement these lessons and instead they focus on how to ask more questions (open, closed, probing, repeating, drilling etc.), how to stick with their call plan, how to learn every single detail of their product that not even the doctors are interested in. I’m not saying that a sales rep shouldn’t ask questions. Of course he should. What I’m saying is that he shouldn’t miss the point. And the point is getting more sales. Asking questions and implementing all these nice techniques is useful. Yet they’re just means to the cause. If a sales rep doesn’t ask for the sale, no matter how insightful or clever questions he asks he will never bring results. If he sticks to his call plan but gets trapped in the daily routine, he will never bring results. If he knows his product better than any other in the company but halts in front of every difficulty, he will never bring results.

It seems that what separates highflyers from the rest of the sales reps are the basic elements of sales. Asking for the sale, never giving up, remaining excited and being organized is what many sales reps need to remember and what sales managers need to remind to their teams.