IN RECENT YEARS there have been radical changes in the prescribing landscape. Nowadays, customer contacts are frequently made in group situations and pharmaceutical sales representatives can find themselves in many different selling environments in the course of a single day, speaking to a wide range of buyers and influencers all with their own agenda and priorities. Consequently, representatives need to have greater flexibility and the skill to adapt their approach, often at short notice. In this article I will offer some techniques to help you adjust to the new landscape.
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
The better prepared you are, the more easily you can make lastminute changes. Prepare to speak to a group the way you would plan a one-to-one discussion – sell to the customers’ needs. Spend time thinking about your audience – their expectations and needs, their likely attitude, the ‘hot buttons’ they can relate to. For example, consultants in coronary care might be led by clinical detail and papers, so make sure you know your stuff. Rehabilitation specialists have a longer-term relationship with their patients, so with them you may want to focus more on improved quality of life.
It can be useful to think beyond the people you are talking to directly to their eventual audiences. Prescribing advisors, who have to make and enforce prescribing decisions, can be a tough audience to win over. They have to get buy-in for their decisions from the clinicians, so it might help your case if you include some examples and benefits that are directly relevant to that secondary audience.
The biggest difficulty I have when I’m running courses in the pharmaceutical industry is persuading speakers to limit the detail and focus on a few key points. I encourage them to imagine that they have to summarise their entire presentation in one minute for the chief executive – this ensures that they identify and emphasise the important messages they want the listeners to take away. Once you’ve identified your key messages, prioritise them for your audience For example, with a new inhaler, the key question in the minds of nurses in the asthma clinic might well be ‘Is it easy to use?’, so your first point would be ease of use. Practice managers might be more concerned about cost, so you would bring price higher up the agenda for them.
Bare facts don’t win hearts and minds; you must bring your talk to life with examples that the audience can relate to. Turn your monologue into dialogue by involving the listeners’ minds with rhetorical questions or phrases such as ‘Picture this’ or ‘Remember the last time a patient presented with …’ Match the examples to the audience. Get the GPs visualising patients walking in through the surgery door; remind the nurses of the benefits of a drug that doesn’t cause constipation in children; quote respected regional or national experts to the consultant. References to topical issues or recent media coverage show your knowledge of the industry and create a link with your listeners.
Finally think about your visual aids. Laptops might sometimes be too formal, but are very useful for larger audiences. But limit the number of slides and make them as visual as possible. They are not there to remind you of what you want to say, but to help the audience – perhaps by showing the results of clinical trials in graph form. Always print out hard copies of your slides and number them. This way, if your time is reduced at the last minute, you can display only the key slides by typing in the slide number and pressing enter. Whatever equipment you use, always have a backup plan in case of failure.
Try to anticipate the likely questions – the easy and the hard ones. It’s particularly important to be aware of any myths the competitors might be putting around about your product, so that you respond confidently to such comments as ‘your drug is too expensive to be mainstream’. Ask questions to establish what they’re comparing it with, and then give them the facts and figures. Knowledge of your audience is especially valuable during the discussion phase so that you can redirect questions – a clinician who doubts the efficacy of your drug may be convinced by hearing of a colleague’s experience of using it. In my next article I shall be giving more tips on handling group discussions.
On the day
However thoroughly you plan, you can’t anticipate everything. Lastminute changes can really throw you off balance, but if you’ve done your preparation, you should be able to cope. Below I have identified some of the common problems which you might encounter and suggested some solutions.
Reduction in time
Your ten-minute slot has been cut down to five. You can’t get through all the information and slides you’d originally planned just by talking more quickly! Remind yourself of the key points; cut out the detail; keep in the examples. Arrange follow-up sessions for anyone who needs more in-depth information.
Change in audience
You are expecting to speak at a prescribing meeting; when you arrive you learn that the objective of the meeting has changed and your audience now includes GPs, nurses, health visitors and practice managers. The chances are that the presentation you planned for the pharmacists will be much too detailed so you’ll probably have to abandon it. You can play for time by opening up the discussion right at the start and asking them which issues they’d like to discuss. Identify the key ones, and address each one in turn using relevant examples and benefits.
Faulty or missing equipment
You plan to show a patient video; the hospital has assured you that they have a video player – only it doesn’t work. Or your laptop crashes just as you display the first of your PowerPoint slides. You should already have a contingency plan. Don’t waste valuable time fiddling with the equipment; if you can’t fix it quickly, abandon it. Be matterof- fact about this – it’s not the end of the world. People don’t remember problems so much as how you cope with them. Open the session up; use vivid examples to create pictures in the audience’s minds; use handouts or a desktop presenter.
Body language and voice
However good the message, the packaging will carry its own story. In other words, you need to consider the impression you are creating with your body language and the way you sound. Standing increases authority, credibility, visibility, and helps breathing, but isn’t always appropriate. If you are sitting, be careful not to slump in your chair, and lean slightly forward in an open position. Avoid fidgeting with pens, clothes or spectacles; keep your hands away from your face. Eye contact is very powerful – try to make direct contact with as many individuals as possible for two to three seconds.
Smile at your audience to show that you are pleased to be speaking to them. Nervousness can make you speed up, but breathing lower and slower can help reduce tension and give power to your voice. Replace ers, ums, and ‘you know’ with silent pauses, which add to your credibility and allow the listeners time to absorb what you’ve said.
Above all, show your enthusiasm – it’s highly contagious and will stick in people’s minds much longer than a recitation of facts and figures.