What Can MSLs Learn from Sales?

Now that you’ve picked up your jaw from the ground, you’ve read the title correctly, and I was not being sarcastic. Just as sales representatives can look to MSLs as resources for clinical information, MSLs sometimes look to their sales colleagues for account information or the political scoop between physicians within a region. We all agree that interpersonal skills are as critical to the MSL profession as technical expertise. There are many commercial “courses” on market that can help anyone, including MSLs, become better communicators and conflict resolvers. Yet MSLs only need to look at their sales colleagues to find a valuable resource for various interpersonal skills that can help MSLs become more effective at what they do.

Sense of Urgency

Urgency can relate to “accountability” or “timelines”; two concepts that can plague MSLs. Sales have short business cycles and sales goals focus on short-term or immediate action steps. MSLs are used to months or even years for a project or a clinical study; goals that may not show impact until many years in the future. It can thus be easy to become lax and let time slide. Clinical trials for example, are held up due to poor site qualifications and lack of trial management expertise in addition to poor patient enrollment.

Urgency seems antithetical to the way MSLs should work. After all, developing relationships take time, especially with high-visibility thought leaders. Juxtaposing “sense of urgency” and “developing relationships” may lend more to a stalking story plot than productive business activities. However, MSLs can assign a sense of urgency to goals in developing their thought leaders: what results are you looking to provide to your thought leaders and how will you (both) know it when you’ve achieved it? How will you hold yourself accountable to delivering promises to your company (in the form of objectives) and to your clients (in the form of ways to collaborate)?

Communicating for Results

Sales representatives endure training drills for a variety of communication situations in the field, including objections handling and negotiation skills. These drills arm the rep to get a result (close a sale.) Reps are also given a methodical dissection of a sales call and asked to approach communication as a sequence of events (including probing, getting the buy-in, and checking in) before closing the communication loop. MSLs aren’t applying these principles for sales purposes, but can benefit from learning how to ask questions to unearth collaborative opportunities with thought leaders or how to communicate in difficult situations (for example, non-communicative thought leaders, an angry thought leader.)

Immersing in a scientific discussion will enhance the peer-to-peer status between the MSL and the thought leader, but if by the end of the appointment, you don’t have a result, then it was a waste of precious time. What that result can be is up to the MSL to formulate. On the other extreme, MSLs who have found that they were no longer welcomed by their thought leaders once they stopped bringing honorarium/checks around have a deteriorated relationship or a relationship that never was, because thought leaders have grown used to these MSLs as check couriers and not valuable service providers. Using perks (participation in a clinical study, access to a pipeline compound, opportunities to speak for the company) can be an easy way to gain thought leader access, but as criticisms of current sales models point out, replacing solid communication with commodities will not sustain relationships.

What MSLs Say They Can Learn from Their Sales Colleagues

Handling Difficult Situations and Difficult Physicians

A medical science liaison was observing an interaction between a sales colleague and a physician reputed for rudeness and egotism. The doctor was demanding and confrontational. The sales representative remained dignified and calm, the MSL said. She was not catering to him or dropping everything to please him, yet she was able to stand back and listen to the doctor. I’m not sure I could have stayed that calm.

Establishing Relationships Beyond KOLs

When sales representatives go into the clinic, a majority of them have very good relationships with people beyond KOLs, like gatekeepers. I’m not sure that MSLs usually have that level of relationships with people other than their KOLs.

Keeping Motivated in Demoralizing Situations

Being a rep can often be demoralizing. Just pick up the of PharmaVoice that contains the article, “Carrying the bag with Pat” and you’ll know what I mean. I’m glad our KOLs want to see us, and we don’t experience the kind of condescension that reps face on a daily basis. I wouldn’t know how I’d keep motivated in that setting.

Introductions and Information

A lot of us, especially new MSLs, can learn that

A) at the end of the day, our paychecks come from sales.

B) As scientifically compelling as a lot of ideas are, you really do need to assess and understand the commercial viability of our or investigator’s study ideas, e.g., it’s not too likely that an oncology drug is going to gain a lot of sales from a study in a rare disease, so why should you spend $100,000 on a rare disease study when it’s going to generate sales at a far lower number?

C) You can learn who important customers and KOLs are in your MSL territory.

Another example: I need to get into {a physician research organization}, but only a handful of {those physicians} are actively involved in {investigator-initiated trials}. So, I’m supposed to hit every single {affiliate} office in Oklahoma looking for them? Sales reps are a great for networking and help you mine a lot of data that way. Also, I – personally – do not like cold calling. I like to be introduced to a person; reps often make an initial introduction for me, and then I go from there.

Field-based science teams and sales teams bring different expertise to the organization, and contribute to the long- and short-term competitiveness of a pharmaceutical company. Productive working relationships between science teams and sales teams require an open dialog, and the start of that dialog is to be open to what each can learn from the other.