Rebalancing Skill Sets In Pharma Sales And Marketing

A disturbing trend against much needed more job creation across the world, has been well captured in a May 2016 MIT article. It concluded through several complex mathematical models that: “As more tasks performed by labor are being automated, concerns that these new technologies will make labor redundant have intensified.”

However, despite well-hyped concerns in this area, ongoing rapid advancement of technology and other related innovation haven’t yet caused any alarming level of unemployment anywhere in the world, nor it possibly will. Several instances of gradual reduction in the number of routine and traditional jobs due to such automation, are generally related to a lesser level of hard skill sets. As we shall see below, many industries require doing so in the modern times, for long term sustainability of business.

In tandem, promising high tech jobs requiring state or the art hard skill sets are getting created too, though are fewer in number. Nevertheless, the number of brilliant startups has increased by manifolds, during the same period. This change is inevitable, mostly in any science and technology driven industry, e.g., banking sector, where most of human operated bank tellers have made way to ATM machines.

A recent vindication:

Vindicating this point, as it were, on May 18, 2017, Reuters reported that Swiss pharma major Novartis, as a part of its “ongoing global transformation” initiative launched last year to create a unified operating model, will cut around 500 traditional and routine jobs in Switzerland, and add 350 in high-tech areas. Immediately thereafter, for similar reasons, the company announced the elimination of another 250 jobs in the United States.

Jobs are important to all for a living. Any job loss, irrespective of the nature of business compulsion, is indeed unfortunate. That said, whether we like it or not, such evolving trends are the stark realities, and expected to continue or even accelerate in the years ahead for higher growth in productivity, especially involving the routine and traditional tasks.

Pharma industry, though a science-based one, loss of routine and traditional jobs due to technological advancement is fortunately still much less as compared to other similar industries. This is primarily due to the continuation of the traditional business models in the pharma sector, requiring a huge number of human intervention, which call for a different balance of soft and hard skill sets.

However, crystal gazing the future, it appears quite likely that there will be a strong need to rebalancing the required soft and hard skills in the drug industry. The contour of my discussion in this article will be on pharma sales and marketing. 

Skill – the ability to do something well:

The Oxford dictionary defines ‘skill’ as ‘the ability to do something well’. Similarly, the term ‘ability’ has been defined by it as ‘possession of the means’. Thus, ‘skill’ means ‘possession of the means to do something well’. It is an absolute must in all professions, including pharma sales and marketing.

Skills broadly fall into two categories – hard and soft skills. Hard skills involve specific knowledge and teachable abilities that can be defined and measured and are usually quantifiable.

Hard skills are individual proficiency in various scientific, technical, mathematical and even some artistic areas of creation, besides other related ones. In pharma sales and marketing arena of the near future, these include, among others, robust scientific knowledge-base to understand various aspects of drug molecules, content creation with astute market understanding, data generation and analysis through state of art analytics and research, software programing, digital savviness and social media expertise. Many of these skills are related to the Intelligent Quotient of an individual.

Soft skills, on the other hand, are less tangible and quantifiable, such as etiquette or personality development; work ethics, getting along with people, ability to listen patiently, overcoming objections, persuading others and a deep sense of accountability. Many of these skills are usually related to emotional intelligence of an individual.

Which one is more important?

Both hard or soft skills are useful, valuable and important. However, the mix of these two skills for high performance of any individual professional will generally depend on success requirements of a job in a specific macro business environment.

That said, it is important to note that most of the hard skills are taught and learnt mostly before a person’s entry into science, technology or various other craft or design based jobs. The related hard skills are essential for getting selected for specialized jobs. Whereas, softer skills are usually learned on the job, and through experience by all those who want to grow in the profession.

In this context, it may not be a bad idea for all pharma sales and marketing professionals to take a hard look at our own current soft and hard skill sets again, against rapidly changing demands of the business environment. Regardless of where we are now, it will be worth writing down on a piece of paper the type of each of these two skills, in order of their strengths, that we individually possess, which are good enough for achieving sustainable excellence in business performance and personal career progression. It may provide a broad sketch of where we stand today in the VUCA world.

The years ahead for pharma won’t be quite the same:

A strong wind of change has already started signaling that the years ahead for the pharma industry, won’t be quite the same as the bygone years nor like what it is today. Some, industry professionals have picked up this cue, while many are still in pursuit of replicating the traditional past with some digital tweaking here and there, whatever may be the reasons.

The current mix of skill sets of the sales and marketing professionals, quite perceptibly, tilts more towards sharpening the softer skills of the employees, as the traditional pharma business models prompt so.

Future need – rebalancing the skill sets:

To be a successful in the days ahead, pharma companies would need to dive deep into the cyberspace – just to be on the same wavelength with its important stakeholders, including, the Government.

Looking around, one witnesses many patients going digital at a faster pace than ever before. They enjoy the cyberspace while embracing the new ways of living life, such as – communicating digitally, chatting in WhatsApp sharing patient’s experience, interacting with online patient communities, and preferring data mining to know more about anything of interest. These activities also get them a sense of the differential advantages of various health care products, services and their cost, before or while consulting doctors and deciding what they can afford.

Similarly, many medical professionals are also not depending solely on the company representatives now to get relevant details on any medicinal product, device or services. Besides frequent interaction with their peer groups, they get such detail information from various websites run by independent, and credible expert groups.

Thus, one of the common arena for pharma stakeholder engagement and interaction would soon be the enigmatic Cyberspace. As the changing days come nearer, there is likely to be greater emphasis on the acquisition of talent having specialized hard skills in this area of sales and marketing.

This emerging scenario prompts rebalancing the mix of soft and hard skill sets with much greater care, and hire young sales and marketing professionals, accordingly to give shape to it. This process should commence now, as the present makes way for the future. This is so important because, the current trend of tweaking with many digital tools and devices mostly as interfaces, or for complementing in-person product detailing or for better field management, or even to draw up marketing and sales plans, may not yield the desired business results any longer, even for survival, as we move on.

Becoming digital natives?

According to the 2015 A.T. Kearney Report titled, “Time for Pharma to Dive into Digital”, pharma sales and marketing professionals must also become digital natives, providing content that is both up-to- date and appropriate for multiple digital channels. Moreover, they will have to be familiar with advanced analytics to monitor and measure actual consumption pattern, besides capturing in real time a huge sample of relevant data for deeper customer insights.

The new normal:

One of the biggest challenges would be in the approach to content development and management. Creating an interactive detailing toolbox for truly responsive customer engagement, requires a good deal of thought and quite complex coding. This would necessitate centralization of marketing content production, which is traditionally decentralized in many sales and marketing organizations. Similarly, the major focus of the sales force will shift from maximizing physician-call rates, to becoming a team of digital communication specialists, and coordinators who would ensure that the right channels are used at the right time.

As the November 2016 Accenture Report titled, ‘The Rebirth of The Pharmaceutical Sales Force’ underscores, the most successful pharmaceutical sales teams in the future will be those willing to define and servicing customers in new ways… and will use digital advances to change the conversation, and position themselves as committed to helping physicians improve health outcomes.

This expected change, I reckon, will put in place a new normal for pharma sales and marketing success in the years ahead.

In conclusion:

Young aspirants wanting to make a career in the pharma industry, may wish to take note of this evolving trend of inevitable changes. They may wish to get well-considered views on the same of a couple of experts’ having no conflict of interest, for a careful and independent personal assessment. These budding strivers should realize that the final actionable decision on developing requisite hard and soft skill sets for a successful take off in their respective working lives, should preferably be taken only by themselves, and none else.

An August 2015 article of McKinsey & Company titled, “The road to digital success in pharma” articulates that the pharma companies, though can play a central role in the digital revolution of healthcare, are running hard to keep pace with changes brought about by digital technology. But soon there may not be any other option left for achieving business excellence.

While the nation is taking strides to transform itself into ‘Digital India’, the pharma companies operating in the country can’t possibly afford to remain far behind. Willy-nilly, they will soon need to realign their business processes accordingly, as there may not be any further scope for individual pharma players to operate within the same old cocoon of tradition bound activities, and still survive.

To meet the new and tougher demands for excellence in pharma sales and marketing, the urgent need of the changing time lies squarely outside the box. To usher in a requisite transformation in the current business model, it calls for a series of well-calibrated, much researched, and bold steps – skillfully rebalancing the crucial soft and hard skill sets, achievable within a realistic and self-determined timeframe.

By: Tapan J. Ray   

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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