It’s no secret that the pharma sector is undergoing rapid change. As governments and health insurers look to control costs, hospitals and healthcare providers must maintain service levels with smaller budgets, which means pharmaceutical budgets are often cut. These measures are transforming the purchasing process, which in turn is changing the way that pharmaceuticals are bought and sold.

Despite the changes in the selling landscape in the sector, the fundamentals of selling remain unchanged: ‘I want you to buy what I have to sell’. The trickier element is convincing the individual that they not only want your product, but they need it. Historically for the sector this was in some ways an easy task. Physicians knew what they needed, where to purchase and who to place an order with to strike a good deal. Pharmaceutical sales staff spoke the same language as their customers – with scientific terminology often commonplace.

With this in mind, it is essential that sales professionals take a more strategic approach to selling. Below are five critical techniques and considerations that can help to create a more effective sales environment:

1.     Ask questions and apply your research

By asking questions that open discussion around the challenges the client is facing, you can position yourself as a helpful adviser and problem solver. In this case it’s important to understand the brief the team has been given. Are they looking to buy in bulk, what are the key features, how can you communicate this in a straightforward way? This also helps you to steer the conversation – meaning you can apply your research findings and start to build a valuable rapport with the client, in turn this will help to differentiate you from those still adopting the more old school approach to sales in the sector.  

2.     Find the answers you need

While asking clients questions is better than simply talking ‘at’ them about your product features, our research shows successful salespeople ask more of certain types of questions. Situation questions are used to uncover the facts and background of the customer’s existing situation, for example, the type of patients a medicine needs to serve, or what locations they are based in. Problem questions are about customer’s problems, difficulties and dissatisfactions. They identify whether or not something is a problem and should also be used to clarify that problem, for example, how satisfied are they with their present service? Or where does the problem happen?  

3.     Listen to your customer

Our YouGov research found 85% of business decision makers believe a good buying experience involves a salesperson listening carefully to their requirements. This shows a desire on the customer’s behalf to be heard by the salesperson. And if salespeople aren’t listening, it means they’re talking; usually about the medicine or pharmaceutical product they are looking to sell. This is a real danger as it’s a missed opportunity to discover how you could help your customer. Sellers must be careful not to be caught up in the excitement of talking about the bells and whistles of their service or offering.  

4.     Agree a meaningful next step

In a major sale, clients are seldom likely to order something or decide ‘no sale’ immediately; next steps are likely to be what we call Advances or Continuations. An Advance is when a customer commits to take action that moves the sale forward by providing access to a new, meaningful resource. A continuation, on the other hand, is when the customer doesn’t commit to doing anything, but the seller may have to do a lot. We consider Advances to be successful, but Continuations not to be. Successful sellers look for the highest realistic commitment they can get from each interaction to continue in the sales cycle.

5.     Don’t immediately make a counterproposal

Negotiating terms is standard in any sale, but it can be a potential minefield. A finding from our research is that skilled negotiators are less likely to make a counterproposal than the average negotiator. Responding with an immediate alternative to the one proposed by the client often gives the impression that you aren’t listening to your customer’s needs. Successful negotiators concentrate on exploring the underlying causes for the client making their proposal, so that they can discover their customer’s true objections.

Tony Hughes is CEO at Huthwaite International