Thursday, July 9, 2009

Lessons in Marketing, Communication and Life from a Medical Sales Rep

My first advertising job was with Hindustan Thompson Associates - HTA (aka JWT) Ogilvy is the other agency where I spent over ten years (WPP put up with me for over 12 years!)

One of my clients at HTA was the Ethicals Division (Prescription Drugs) of SKF - SmithKline&French. They had just merged with Beecham and had been rechristened SKB – SmithKlineBeecham – and were launching Augmentin, the largest selling antibiotic in the world.
Pharma companies are not allowed to advertise prescription drugs and the budgets being too tiny prefer to work with smaller agencies. The work would be considered ‘un-glamorous’ – brochures, flip-charts, poster and other items in the sales kit.

Since HTA was already handling the consumer side of the business, they managed to convince SKB that they should use the service of a large agency for such a prestigious launch. The whole ‘integrated marketing communication’ know what I am talking about, don’t you?

SKB agreed and rightly felt that a large agency might not know the nuances of pharma marketing and communication. They wanted a key member of the team to work with one of their best Medical Sales Rep, Ramesh, for two weeks to understand their specific communication needs. And in typical agency style an ‘important integrated campaign’ was assigned to an Account Exec, Me!

I worked with Ramesh every half-day for nearly a fortnight. Little did I realise that this interaction was going to help me understand marketing and communication in ways no classroom or workshop can. These were lessons that I put to good effect in my career and continue to do so even today. I have tried to capture some of the key ones below:

Intuition it is and it can be honed

Before meeting a doctor, Ramesh would visit the nearby pharmacy. He would find out the ailments ‘in vogue’ at that time from the pharmacist and the drugs that the particular doctor was prescribing. This was something he did before meeting every doctor without fail. He has to see at least 10 doctors a day!

I then realised that he was not only soaking the doctor’s behaviour, but by making this a habit he was unconsciously honing his intuitive powers. This enabled him to take radical decisions in his job as and when required.

Shut up, listen and help people

Ramesh kept tabs of competition through the pharmacist as the pharmacist knew them best. He was a keen listener and had enormous patience. He used to help the pharmacists get fresh stocks and remove slow-moving drugs from the shelves even without being told. He built a personal rapport with some of them. They would confide details in him as though he were part of their family.

He would also get tip-offs about competition. New drugs, doctors being ‘friendly’ to competition and all other details were known to him.

Take risks, follow your instincts

The moment of reckoning is when he used to make the sales pitch to the doctor. At any given point in time Ramesh had over 20-30 drugs that his company wanted to promote. However, most doctors would allot only 3-5 minutes at best to the Sales rep. The choice of the drug was critical.

Just when I used to think that he would go for the most obvious drug based on his ‘research’, he would pull a surprise and go for something that was not part of the equation. I would ask him later why he did that. He would say that he was getting a ‘different kind of buzz’ at the clinic and decided to go with the flow. According to him competition would also be pitching the obvious kind of drug. Therefore, to remain on the doctors mind and win big sometimes it is best to bet on the horse least expected to win!

If you don’t get them at first, you don’t get them at all

After choosing the drug, Ramesh still had to combat the extremely low attention span of the doctor. A typical flip-chart would contain 7-10 benefits of the drug. Ramesh would always go for the most dramatic. This was his opening line for Zentel, an anti-worm drug with a formulation aimed at children.

“Doctor, Zentel can help increase the memory of children.”

That got the doctor’s attention and remained that way for the entire duration of the sales call.

Never show your discomfort, no matter what

On one of the moments when we were having a cigarette and coffee break, he showed me the photograph of his 5-year old son in his wallet. He said that he did not want his son to become a ‘Medical Sales Rep’. Instead he wanted him to become a ‘big officer’.

There were moments, he said, when he wanted to walk out of a doctor’s place because the doctor was behaving like an ass-hole. It was true. Some of doctors would treat the medical reps like dirt. I noticed that ‘Asshole Quotient(AQ)' was high amongst those with very poor capabilities. That brings to my next theory, ‘Big Asshole = Low Capability’.

He said if one showed even a degree of discomfort it would mean that they (the arseholes) won. Therefore, one should never give them the joy of winning. No matter the treatment or the surroundings - and hospitals can be as depressing a place as you can get - Ramesh was unflappable. The bag that he carried around with him containing sample drugs and sales collaterals would be weighing a ton by the end of the day(after nearly 10-12 calls), but his spirits outwardly was always positive.

BTW, here’s a tip. Whenever you are stuck for ideas, just chat up with the best sales guy. Some of them are creative in their own way. They can probably help you. David Ogilvy was also a great salesman. Read this little known but awesome book on salesmanship written by Ogilvy for selling Aga Cookers. It is applicable to any product or service.

It is more than 15 years since I last saw Ramesh. I do not know where he is or whether his dreams for his son got fulfilled. This post is my way of saluting him and people like him who go about their jobs tirelessly and under conditions that are not exactly friendly (more so in a country like India). They are the backbone of any economy.

The last page and specifically the last line in Luke Kennedy’s awesome book "Hey Whipple! Squeeze this" comes to my mind. He sees workers going to work at construction sites and other places doing tough jobs as part of their daily routine and which seldom get acknowledged. He realizes how small we really are. He therefore requests us to,

‘Be humble’.

(Image courtesy: hyperspace328)

1 comment:

  1. Superb post, being in the pharma industry it naturally struck a chord with me. Pharmaceutical selling has become even more tough now. Commoditization has geometrically increased. Yet the industry remains heavily dependent on the MR's in-clinic and retailer related activity to bring in the business.

    You could also get to read my thoughts and experiences at