Team of sales leaders sitting in conference room raising their hands
CEO Insights

Taking Pharma Sales Teams from Good to Great

Written By: Dave Manning

May 15, 2024 – 7 min read

How Coaching Fuels a Culture of Continuous Growth

To excel in the competitive arena of sales, organizations in the pharma/life sciences sector must cultivate a “get better” culture centered around continuous improvement. Coaching is the cornerstone of this ethos, offering a blend of personalized guidance and robust accountability. While formal training programs lay the groundwork by sharing vital knowledge and equipping teams with strategies and tools, it’s the strategic implementation of coaching that truly amplifies the skills of field sales reps. This structured approach to feedback and accountability isn’t just an add-on; it’s the secret sauce that boosts performance levels and drives exceptional results for the brands they represent.

Effective coaching can be the key to addressing performance gaps and fostering a climate of continuous improvement and accountability within a sales team. It acts as a conduit to helping field reps continuously sharpen skills, overcome obstacles, and cultivate strong client relationships. Coaching is a long-tail activity that sustains brand success and market dominance.

Coaching is a straightforward concept: managers work in close collaboration with their reps, observe their interactions, and provide tailored constructive feedback. Yet, many sales leaders grapple with its practical application and fail to harness its full potential.

Cultivating Success Through Coaching

In an effort to “get better,” many leaders continue to rely on familiar strategies—emphasizing the pursuit of bottom-line results as their primary goal rather than focusing on enhancing the development of their sales reps to overcome challenges and foster long-term success. Consequently, they often dedicate the majority of their time and resources to helping their team on how to achieve sales targets, while neglecting the valuable opportunity to invest in coaching their sales reps. By doing so, they miss out on identifying and solving persistent issues that could be limiting their reps’ performance.

This old-school approach tends to foster a culture where sales leaders focus on addressing issues reactively, dealing with challenges as they arise rather than nurturing an environment that empowers reps to manage any situation confidently and effectively on their own. Ideally, a leader’s objective should be to develop a highly capable team that operates effectively, even in their absence. The key measure of success isn’t solely about how a sales rep performs while being observed, but rather in the reps’ ability to consistently improve sales interactions independently, especially throughout the periods when they’re navigating the field solo.

Sales team looking out window as one points

Ideally, a leader’s objective should be to develop a highly capable team that operates effectively, even in their absence.

In my experience working with commercial leaders, they often mistake training for coaching. While training aims to provide knowledge and build skills, coaching is what happens after the training. A good coach does not provide answers to questions or solve problems. Instead, through listening and insightful questioning, they facilitate the reps to overcome challenges on their own and remove obstacles that may be holding them back.

Coaching is a blend of art and science, requiring top-notch communication, compassion, and empathy. Sales leaders aim to evaluate their reps’ skills and attitudes, ensuring they can perform well. The goal is to provide clear, helpful feedback to help reps overcome challenges and grow, thus boosting their performance in line with their goals and the organization’s objectives.

But, how do you know you’re coaching with quality or if it’s effective? Establishing clear metrics is crucial for maintaining accountability. Begin by identifying the essential attitudes, skills, and outcomes that are critical to success. Develop a rubric that delineates what constitutes good, better, and best performance levels. With this framework, you can monitor progress over time, recognize improvements, and address persistent issues more effectively. This structured approach ensures that your coaching efforts are impactful and measurable.

Hallmarks of a Great Coach

Many of us remember the impactful coaches we’ve encountered in our lives—parents, teachers, sports mentors, managers, or colleagues. Regardless of their role, these standout individuals possess unmistakable traits and habits that define excellence.

To be a great sales coach, here are some skills you’ll want to work on:

  • Exceptional perceptiveness —You must be able to not only ‘read’ your reps but their customers as well. This will spur insightful dialogue and encourage ongoing improvement.
  • Active listening —This communication practice requires you to be ‘in the moment’ and ask insightful questions in order to gain understanding. Here you may be guiding sales reps to grasp the subtleties of interactions with healthcare professionals (HCPs) or to identify and overcome personal motivations, obstacles, or apprehensions that may impede their progress. 
  • Empathy —So often, barriers that are holding someone back stem from their own fears or self-doubt. Creating a safe space in which both you and the rep can honestly examine the factors that may be at work behind the scenes will yield the best results.
  • Resist the urge to “fix it”—When we see someone struggling, it’s tempting to jump in and offer advice or just “fix” the situation. A better approach is to use insightful questions and listening to help reps recognize, understand, and overcome the barriers they may be facing on their own.
  • Consistent feedback — Regular, constructive feedback is an essential aspect of growth. Not only does it provide individualized, actionable insight, but it also helps to pre-condition expectations for the next situation. The goal is to set clear expectations, check in regularly, and track progress to ensure continuous improvement over time.

Sales leader talking to smiling team member

Use insightful questions and listening to help reps recognize, understand, and overcome the barriers they may be facing on their own.

Break the Status Quo

It’s true that many of us choose the least path to resistance. Change can be hard; however, instilling a robust coaching framework is a key differentiator that separates mediocre teams from highly successful ones.

Failure to instill a robust coaching culture creates a tremendous, missed opportunity for pharma leaders. Such a commitment must come from the highest level of management and must be communicated and modeled throughout the organization.

Sadly, there will always be sales leaders who don’t necessarily have what it takes to be effective coaches—either because they lack the right personality traits, skills, or mindset or because they were brought up in a professional environment that did not place a high premium on coaching. Those individuals must be coached themselves to improve their abilities, or the organization should consider moving them to other roles within the organization where they will thrive.

At the end of the day, nothing changes if nothing changes. It’s action and accountability that drive behavior change, and creating a culture of coaching provides a mechanism to make a difference for everyone in the organization while helping field reps deliver solid returns for the brand teams.

CEO Insights Article Series

PDG CEO Insights is an article series that provides a deeper dive into some of the most pressing challenges commercial leaders in the life sciences sector face in developing effective sales teams. The series will discuss strategies and recommendations to help commercial leaders foster and empower a more tightly integrated sales organization—one that is able to create a competitive advantage in the field and deliver a demonstrable return on investment for the company.

The Power of Coaching—How to Drive Field Force Performance Excellence

Identifying and Nurturing Effective Sales Leaders in Pharma—A Blueprint for Success

Never Miss an Article from PDG