In conversation with Sameer Srivastava, VP, Alkem Laboratories Ltd.  With over 20 years of rich experience in the Pharma Industry, he shares his valuable insights and experience on operating and managing sales teams. As a solution centric professional with a deep driven approach, he has previously worked with Zydus (Divisional Head), Cipla (Sr. Director) and today manages one of the biggest divisions of the Pharma industry with 1200 plus field force. He is passionate about strategic marketing and team management. In this candid chat with Anant Sood and Suneel Aiyar, he discusses how pharma sales managers can incorporate coaching, appreciation and a culture of celebrating success to drive high-performing behaviors across sales teams.

Anant: Thank you so much for taking the time for this chat. Could you please start with a brief introduction on yourself and your experience?

Sameer: I have 21 years of experience in the pharma industry. I worked with Zydus, followed by Cipla and now I’m in Alkem. Prior to Zydus, I worked briefly in Cadila Pharma as a Product Executive. Having worked in different level of marketing, and launched Heptiza (Hepatology division of zydus) as marketing head.

I’ve worked in PMO with MD of Zydus. Driving various projects on Sales and marketing effectiveness, biosimilars’ & launch of Lipaglyn – first NCE of Zydus Saroglitazar, etc, that has helped me see things differently & has given me strategic view of organization.

Currently, at Alkem, I handle sales and marketing of two divisions here. we are one of the biggest divisions – both in terms of topline and bottom-line in the industry, my main division is almost 900+ crore the largest one is Pan, which is almost 800+ crores. The other division we are just launching is called Alkem Pulmocare – respiratory venture of Alkem. Initially in the first 6 months at Alkem, I was also a part of the hospital care business. Once it stabilized in July, I’ve been given responsibility to Launch Pulmocare.

Overall, that’s my 21 years – a mixed and very rich experience, full of ups and downs. Learnings from these phases especially when things are not good have made me what I am today – learnings on how to come up, rise & survive those critical phases is key for all leaders.

In sales we always say – when it’s good, it’s good for all. But when the chips are down, how do you bring team up to the level of performance with the least attrition, is key to success and when I look back, I think, I’ve been able to do successfully.

Managing large sales teams v/s small sales teams


Anant: You’ve had vast experience managing teams as small as 80-100 employees to managing a large team of 1200 people today. Are there any similarities in handling a small team vs a large team in sales?

Sameer: There are challenges with both and we need a different approach.

If you look at smaller teams, there is less hierarchy. So as the head, I was directly approachable and we interacted a lot more. Often, I was even involved with the last level as well but largely as a listener.

For me, one of the most important things is the ‘effectiveness of the salesforce’ and ‘how strongly we implement what we design’. That is a little easier to do in a smaller team because controls are very good.

But in the larger team, even in a team size of 300, which I was handling in Cipla or in Zydus, the challenges were largely on the execution piece. The challenges are in driving the desired behavior.

Implementation is about bringing success to people / brands/geographies. However, implementation or right execution itself is a behavior to me. Sales behaviors like calls, call averages, and reporting patterns become very important.

In a larger team, when the reps are 850 plus, and we have five or six layers, it becomes even more challenging. By the time HO message goes to the last level, it takes time and it gets diluted to a large extent. It’s human.

So, getting execution right and driving a particular behavior takes more time.

For a smaller organization, the behavior was very easy to set. Smaller team hence lesser layers and therefore It’s easy to communicate and convince what you expect.

Whether it is large or small team, it takes time and consistent effort drive right sales behaviors along with alignment senior sales leadership. 

Driving change begins with sales managers


Suneel: We all know change is definitely a continuous process. If you have to drive it today, in an organization with a large number of people, where does the change begin? Where is the trigger – is it the managers or the field force?

Sameer: Interesting question.

When I was a BU head earlier, I did a lot of things on my own, I used to drive all hierarchy with same energy. I knew that certain people were responding and some were not. Those who were responding well, were genuinely doing good. I realized that I need push for right behavior at that level, for others we have to induce change in behavior. To drive these people requires lot of energy and bandwidth. 

Most important thing for us is to work on aligning the first five people or six people who report to us.

They need to agree that this is what we need to work on. That is the most important thing. To bring any change my observation is that people first evaluate you, they look at you. Are you capable of bringing this change? “Is it sustainable or not?” It happens across the hierarchy.

In 80% of cases, in our industry, the seniors say something, the next line manager just pass  the messages so everybody is carrying and forwarding the message. I use the term C&F agent.

At Cipla, I had a candid conversation with the 5-7 people who reported to me. At a feedback session, they said, “We look at what you’re driving. We evaluate whether it is sustainable or not. And then we also look at you, whether you are capable of driving it or not.”

Once that alignment happens, then your job becomes easy.

Because in the sales hierarchy, the boss says something and the rep will do that, or the manager would because they have a long-term association.

People work for their managers.

And we need to have our own mechanism for introducing the change. What is the low hanging fruit that will give them the result in the short-term, so team feels it is right change.  Once that is done, then we bring up the conversation on the difficult topics. I need to have my blueprint, so I know the steps on when and how to approach them.

Once they are convinced, then we have five plus one, six people talking on the behavior. Then we used to have a conversation with the larger group where I would be just a moderator. One guy would be asking the questions on those behaviors, other guys would be answering on those behaviors which we have agreed upon. At team level people see that “my boss is talking to me. It is not the BU message coming down. My boss is talking , therefore, I need to do it.”

Those are the first steps for you to get into a larger level of discussion. And then it comes to your communication.

Because the story has to be simple, crisp for the people to understand, absorb, and execute.

And that is how I have progressed over a period of time. And I am still learning, as there many more things we need to learn about people’s behavior. 

Using worxogo to manage large sales teams

One of the examples of similar execution is implementation of worxogo in my previous organization.

What we saw there is that our execution was one of the best, amongst all divisions. The reason why it was better is that my senior team found that it is easy to navigate. And we highlighted the easy navigation and customizing messages for each segment. Matrices for good performers were decided earlier such as new product-good performance, new products-not so good performance. So, we had divided the group into two or three segments and appropriate messages for each segment.

Suddenly you just had to click and appreciate. That was what my people liked.

But it doesn’t happen in a month. Over a period of six months, people realized, “Yes! If I have done well, I’ll get appreciation on this platform.”

So, we used to drive the behavior using an RNR methodology, that is what I liked most about that platform when I was using it earlier.

Instant Gratification & Celebrating Success


Anant: Technology apart, in pharma sales, do you think companies today are tuned to new age reps who need instant gratification and regular coaching from their managers? Or do you think that journey’s slower right now?

Sameer: There has been progress, visible change, in a lot of organizations. Some companies are slow, some are a little faster. However, I feel there is a huge scope for this to grow.

The newer generation / millennials they don’t find pharma a lucrative option. Today the majority of people are getting into multiple fields and they get much better money in the initial stages of their careers. Whereas in pharma while you start slow, it is rewarding for a performing guy over a long period of time.

Our pharma industry has been more of a command driven industry.

But we don’t celebrate success enough.

Today, everyone has stress. Maybe because of career, because of targets, maybe because his boss calls him 20 times, or it may be anything else. Stress comes every now and then but we don’t celebrate success often.

Even if I talk about celebrating success, it doesn’t percolate down to every level. My first-line manager doesn’t know much about how to celebrate success.

For example, even a small conversion is a good to celebrate success and a it motivates. And if we can celebrate it with rep, even with a cup of tea (tapri wali chai), patting on the back – that’s also a celebration of success.

It doesn’t mean that you have to call them into a five-star hotel and recognize them on a stage.

But senior managers largely come from those commands and execute models and so today celebration is not part of their priority and it has been missed by managers We have to do a lot of work on those lines.

As a team, we’re trying to coach people and tell them, celebrate success as much as possible, give them budgets to do that. 

Instant Rejection, Delayed Appreciation


Today there are two sets of organizations – those who have an incentive model and those who don’t. However, in both type of teams RNR plays a large role because that is a motivating factor.

In incentive driven companies, people need to understand that the incentive comes after three months following the sale. So if you talk about the April to June quarter incentive, July is the clause period, August is for calculation, they get that incentive with their salary in September. Of course, over a period of time, it keeps coming in. But there is no instant appreciation for performance or behavior.

The life of a pharma guy is like this: They go to the doctor, he tells him, “No, come later”. The doctor doesn’t respect MRs these days. If he goes to his manager, they are asked for the brand name and get sent out. He goes to the stockist. He’ll ask him to come later and usually says, “Come after 2:00, let me finish my business.” When he arrives later at the stockist’s door, the stockist says, “You are here only for orders. What is in it for me?” Though, the stockist gets 20% but he thinks it’s his birthright. The demand has been generated by that rep. When the MR goes to the retailer, he’s told, “Let me first handle the customer. Don’t come in the morning. You’re wasting my time.”

Point to be noted here is that the rejections are very high and rejections are instant. The reward is 3 or 4 months down the line. And appreciation is often missed.

Managers create the culture

I want the culture that my first line manager, my second line managers should be empowered to spend and have that ability to instantly appreciate the Reps.

Here at Alkem, I’ve joined a division of 1200 strong people. There are people in my team who achieve a hundred percent by the fourth or the fifth of the month. I’ve made it a point to appreciate each rep who has achieved before the tenth of the month. Along with the sales manager, third line manager, fourth line manager with him, I make that call to appreciate them the next day or the same day. I’ve seen the reps overwhelmed and saying, “I’ve always made my targets but this is the first time a BU head is calling me to appreciate me.”

Similarly, at Cipla and now at Alkem, I sent a personalized communication on each rep’s birthday. And the responses are, ‘This kind of thing has never happened to me’.

The problem is I can’t set up the culture on my own. That has to percolate down to the last level. Because for a rep, his first line, second line is his company.

Culture has to be run by the last two layers of the hierarchy, the managers.

We work for our managers. We leave managers and we join managers. We alone cannot drive a culture. It has to be run by the last two layers of the hierarchy, the managers.

Therefore, apart from technology. I guess people have to upgrade, sensitize and bring a culture of appreciation because rejection is routine, appreciation is not. If we increase appreciation by 10% or 20%, it will be overwhelming for that rep.

Putting Appreciation over Fear


Suneel: Do you think managers are sometimes afraid to appreciate their teams, thinking it’ll impact their ability to drive them to do better?

Sameer: Yes and no. You need to have the matrices to decide on these elements, and this has to be communicated.

If you convert a doctor, I will appreciate you. But if you’re doing 11 calls, where the norm is 11, do I need to appreciate you? No. But if you’re doing 11.1 average or 11.5, I’m there to appreciate you. We have to set up a marking of where I have to appreciate them.

The reps are the smartest people on the earth, then it’s the first line, then second line He/she knows when they have worked & when the manager is appreciative, they realize it is genuine. But if he/she has not worked well, and they receive appreciation, he realizes his boss is saying this to everybody.

Therefore, it’s very important to decide who you will appreciate, for what and how transparent you are when you’re appreciating.

I have seen people appreciating a rep who hasn’t done much of the work because he’s appreciating three other people in his team and he doesn’t want to upset that particular rep.

There you’re setting up a wrong culture. It’s not a spray and pray. Only appreciate those who have genuinely worked hard and exceeded the benchmark.

People fear, “If I don’t appreciate them, that person might walk out or leave”. But I don’t think that is what happens. Actually, the reverse happens and puts a positive pressure on the person to work according to what his boss evaluates. He looks for those 5 parameters that his boss evaluates and asks himself, ‘Can I do one to get that appreciation?’

I’m not talking about the targets at the month-end, here I’m talking about day-to-day appreciation or that instant appreciation for a behavior.

Driving Behaviors Through the Nudge Coach


Suneel: You have a bit of experience using worxogo Nudge Coach in Cipla. So, what changed after nudging people over there and using technology to appreciate people?

Sameer: There are multiple things which we were able to drive though that. Nudges have complimented my requirements to communicate right behaviors, as I mentioned earlier, I conduct zero hours and Samvad to provide guidelines for desired behaviors.  It helped in reinforcement. My language or my managers’ language was similar to the language of the nudges and the parameters.

We had chosen only those matrices or lead indicators which we would want to drive, that was important. And as a leader, it was my priority to finalize that point.

Like, one behavior could be coverage. Call averages are easier to manage but coverage was problem. In many places you seem to have desired call averages because you can meet the same doctors multiple times, but coverage is a real challenge.

Our communication was that we expect 95% coverage. An individual who is a less than 90, I used to send message that this is ‘below desired norm’. For 90-95, we used to send ‘Good, but we can reach 95’. At 95, he was appreciated very well. If you take this example, we have created 3 categories where nudges were helping me to drive the desired behaviors.

When we started using the worxgo nudge coach for our newly formed division, largely the team was at 85 to 90% of customer coverage. All India, the division was at 88% coverage. But when this thing started, we saw that the graph had started moving up.

At a divisional level, we reached between 92% – 93%.

And that was important for me, because that was one of the behaviors I wanted to drive in my team. The reason why I was focusing on coverage was to enhance Rxer base. Once team meets right doctors, productivity will definitely go up.

Second thing, I remember I used to have a unit-wise productivity drive for my new introductions. Conversion was also one of the things we were driving. But for me, the major indicator was incremental PMPM month after month. I used to say, “I need a hundred PMPM.” So, whether the PMPM was 80, 50, 250 or even 0, each one got a message that was relevant to them.  We were able to drive key priorities using worxogo nudges.

Nudges have complemented my KRAs.

For nudges, I had my schedule. At the beginning of the month, a hundred percent of the congratulations used to go, usually by the first week. And then on NI and Lead indicator as the month progresses.

I’m a hundred percent sure what works is what you Ask, Remind and Review.

What you review is what people do. What you remind and ask is what people start thinking about. I used nudges to remind them of their KRAs. All the three need to be aligned with what you want as a leader.  

Complement your work with Nudges


Anant: What would be your advice to fellow business leaders, from a decision & adoption point of view regarding the Nudge Coach?

Sameer: For me, it’s a good-to-go kind of thing because it complements your work in a very efficient way, provided you use it properly. Those matrices should fit your priorities. Otherwise, the three key things  – Ask, Remind and Reviews will work in different directions. It will not yield any results. Alignment helps in reinforce our thoughts, our priorities, and helped me to deliver my objectives much better.

It will reinforce the lead parameters or the behavior which you want.

At the end of the day, you have to decide which nudges and matrices you want. But reinforcement is required.

We use WhatsApp and broadcasts. But what happens in a broadcast is that you don’t have the numbers in front of you to segregate people. Every month my numbers are changing and the cluster of people is changing. So there, my messaging used to be very generic.

But here (nudge coach) I am able to customize it to that set of people. Anyone in that cluster knows I’m talking to them – either appreciating them or letting them know they need to do better.

Nudges and the technology helped me manage my KRAs.

Nudges help you drive those behaviors so that you can deliver those numbers.   

Photo by Tara Winstead from Pexels

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