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Why Home Study Modules Fall Short in Pharmaceutical Sales Training

I recently chatted at an industry conference with a learning strategist at a pharmaceutical company. He was interested in improving the efficacy of home study modules — specifically, he was looking for ways to translate the highly technical information covered in these modules into the top three or four things a rep needs to remember when detailing to a physician.

Around the same time frame, I read the cover story in the Spring 2017 issue of LTEN Focus on Training magazine. It was a case study on how Grifols created a certification program that armed its sales reps with MD-level knowledge. One of the reasons cited for starting the effort was to make reps more valuable to the physicians they interact with. Physicians are more difficult to access than ever before, and growing the clinical knowledge of sales reps is one potential strategy for showing enough value to make it on their calendars.

Not every drug, device or marketplace warrants a certification program to the level that Grifols pursued. However, all life science companies put their sales reps through vigorous home study programs to learn about their products, competitors, disease state, etc. Over the last several years, paper manuals have been replaced or supplemented by interactive eLearning modules that, in theory, enhance the learning experience.

It can be tempting to rely on home study programs to make reps clinical experts. But cramming clinical content into eLearning modules will not prepare sales reps to have value-added conversations with physicians or hospital decision-makers. To do that, a learning strategy that includes needs analysis and training reinforcement is required.

Frequency, Difficulty and Importance

Training needs analysis is often the first step to ensuring critical knowledge and skills are used on the job. In addition to gathering content from product management, sales and marketing, you will want to gather input from a group of exemplar sales reps via surveys and/or focus groups. Find out what types of tools they think they need and what resources they would like to have.

A job task analysis is also useful. Through interviews, shadowing and stakeholder conversations, you will determine which knowledge and skills reps will need to use most frequently, which are the most difficult and which are the most important that they know or do correctly.

• Make special note of the knowledge and skills that are rated as frequent, difficult and important. These are the topics that you will need to cover multiple times via home study, live training and a training reinforcement strategy.

• For knowledge and skills not used frequently that is considered important, you should create easy-to-access reference materials and guides. These are most likely to be accessed if they are mobile-optimized and available on smartphones.

• If a topic is considered not important, not very difficult and not used frequently, consider eliminating it from training entirely (unless it is required for regulatory purposes, of course).

Home Study Is Just the Foundation

Home study pre-work modules are terrific ways to introduce a clinical foundation of knowledge. Use it to build a depth of knowledge, but do not assume that the content covered will be easily recalled at the moment of need unless it is used frequently or subsequently reinforced.

For those particularly difficult concepts:

Use Live Training for Practice

As you are likely well aware, live training does not need to be in person. There are many ways to create and facilitate an effective virtual session that incorporates roleplay and skill practice. Whatever the setting, plan to spend the majority of your training time practicing the knowledge and skills identified as most important, difficult and frequently used.

Use Reinforcement for Coaching, Performance Support and Messaging Alignment

Live office hours or coaching sessions can be highly effective if you have the personnel to deliver them. An added benefit is the feedback you will receive from sales reps who have been in the field selling.

Performance support materials, as mentioned above, should be mobile-optimized and easy for reps to access. Be sure a plan is in place for keeping them up to date as needs change.

Even if all of these other pieces have been done correctly, there still is the challenge of messaging alignment. We often design and deploy mobile training reinforcement that reps can complete in short bursts on their smartphone. Ideally, this form of reinforcement is adaptive and highly engaging. It should adjust what content reps receive based on their confidence and competence.

Steve Boller is director, marketing and product management, for Bottom-Line Performance. Email Steve at

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