How Field Teams, Legal and Learning Can Work Together
Feature Story – By Krista Gerhard
As far as anyone knows, the first philosopher to say, “the only thing constant in life is change” was Heraclitus of Ephesus in about 500 BCE. One wonders if he was talking about the life sciences industry.
It’s no secret that the environment in which field representatives and first-line managers operate is changing dramatically (and has been for a while). These changes are forcing field roles to adapt and use a broader set of strategic skills they’ve not traditionally had to develop. To deal with these changes and ensure success in this evolving environment, Learning and Development (L&D), field personnel, Legal and Regulatory and senior leadership must work together. Companies that fail to do so will suffer for it.
Here, we take a look at what changes are taking place and what biopharmaceutical companies can do about it.
The Changing Environment
Consolidation throughout the U.S. healthcare system is the root cause of these changes. Independent physicians forming larger medical groups or the acquisition of hospitals, outpatient clinics, long-term care, pharmacy and health plans by integrated delivery networks can make the selling environment extremely difficult to navigate. Gone are the days of most customers being independent physicians with ultimate decision-making authority regarding treatment selection. Today, individual physicians are typically not the final link in the decision-making chain.
Instead, treatment decisions are often made within the context of an integrated system of stakeholders, each with different motivations, needs and challenges. Issues related to access and reimbursement, treatment guidelines and other factors can have a powerful impact on physician prescribing behavior. As a result, a representative’s ability to optimize account team performance and drive business in a given territory is limited when a full understanding of the dynamics at play is lacking.
For representatives (and first-line managers) to succeed, you’ll need to bring a new range of skills to the table. Simply put, the old approaches to selling — and to training — will no longer get the job done. Continuing to rely on traditional field training tactics would be akin to training Navy SEALS in the shallow end of a pool, then sending them out to swim with the sharks in rough seas.
Changing Roles and Skill Sets
In the “old” environment, field reps like you could be successful if you had the core competencies related to:
- Disease and product knowledge.
- Traditional selling skills (message delivery, objection handling, closing, etc.).
- Business acumen (e.g., the ability to interpret brand strategies and understand market share or utilization trends).
District business managers (DBMs) also had to have a few additional skills layered in, including coaching and personnel management skills. All those skills are still important today.
However, in addition to the skills above, field teams will need to expand their current array of knowledge and skills to include:
- A deeper understanding of the healthcare system, the relevant stakeholders in it and their motivations, needs and challenges.
- The ability to recognize what influences stakeholder decision-making.
- The ability to effectively deliver a comprehensive clinical and economic value proposition.
- The ability to navigate their own internal organizations and work more effectively with matrix teams.
- Stronger critical and strategic thinking skills.
Helping field reps and DBMs develop all those skill sets sounds like a big job, albeit straightforward. However, it would require several key groups within a life sciences organization to shift mindsets.
As a field person, you must understand and embrace that more is expected of you. You can take a more active role in helping learning, senior leadership and others understand the nature of the changes you’re seeing in the environment, as well as the implications from the field’s point of view.
Field leadership will increasingly need to redefine the competencies required for each customer-facing role in the future. L&D must effectively and clearly translate those competencies into actionable curricula — with both guided and self-directed learning components — more systematically and scientifically.
Historically, one of the Legal and Regulatory (L&R) department’s key jobs has been to control and minimize risk. That’s why the typical L&R department prefers training programs that are decidedly unidirectional: “Here’s the information, learner, now go and repeat it verbatim in the field.” That approach to training may be low-risk, but it’s not that effective, especially in today’s selling environment. L&R must understand that field reps and DBMs will need stronger critical and strategic thinking skills – and a bit more autonomy in how those skills are leveraged.
As a field person, you must understand and embrace that more is expected of you.
To foster a more effective field force, everyone must work together to determine how much autonomy is the optimum amount in field force learning and development. You’ll need to strike a balance between field effectiveness and risk mitigation, while remaining compliant.
For example, it can be dicey from a regulatory standpoint for representatives to engage in economic discussions with customers (i.e., to make statements that a product will make or save a customer money, such as through reduced hospital readmission rates). However, you increasingly must recognize that these types of factors that can affect prescribing decisions, and at least be able to navigate the conversation, bringing in other team members as appropriate.
In keeping with the idea of “right customer, right message, right resource,” field forces need to know when to initiate those discussions, how far to carry them and when to bring in other team members. L&D, field personnel, senior leadership and L&R can collaborate to figure that out.
The Need for an Initiative
Bottom line, we all know things are changing rapidly. For life sciences companies to chart a successful path and achieve business goals, they will need to adjust how customer-facing field teams are trained to navigate the complexity of the current and future healthcare landscape.
To be truly proactive, a company should launch a strategic initiative to understand the changes facing its field teams and ensure that learning programs are aligned with the new realities in the marketplace. The initiative should involve the stakeholder groups mentioned earlier to do four things:
- Assess current field roles and the environment(s) in which they operate.
- Catalog the competencies required for success in each role.
- Develop customized learning pathways that empower and motivate the learners.
- Ensure that the roles’ expectations and competencies and related training curricula strike the proper balance between business effectiveness, risk mitigation and compliance.
As a result, companies will improve their opportunities to succeed by building learning solutions designed to appropriately “prepare field teams” to navigate the “deep end” of the U.S. healthcare selling environment.
Krista Gerhard is head of client services for Salience Learning. Email her at