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, Sameer discusses sales challenges, the need for instant appreciation and how to drive behavior across your sales team.

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.

Evolving Generations in the Pharma Industry


Suneel:  Over the period of your vast experience across leading pharma companies, what do you think has changed within the field force over the two decades?

Sameer: There are huge changes. Fundamentally, in conventional Pharma we have to physically meet the doctors to generate prescriptions. But as humans, the generations have evolved. At sales also, we are seeing behavioral changes over the years.

Earlier, in our times, when we were in the field, or during PMT role, we had to do whatever our boss told us. It had to be implemented. Period. There was no questioning back.

However, today, one of the major differences is that the team does simply execute what they are asked to do. They need to understand, absorb, and accept that it is needed and only then you can get it done. Since they’re from a different generation altogether, so we have to adapt to learn how to get things done, we have to involve them in decision making process. Tell them why they need to do this, what benefits will they get and how soon will they see success.

The second issue I see is that people want fast success, unlike our times. We were taught, “There’s a long, hard journey towards success”. And it is ingrained in us. In Pharma, if you have to become a vice president, for example, you’ll have to work for 18-20 years. Only then it is possible for you to climb that ladder. Pharma is still a very hierarchical kind of setup. However today, the definition of success is different. The motivation is totally different. The way they spend their money is totally different. And therefore, the way they interact with you, they converse with you is also totally different.

Only one thing we need to remember is that we have to change. They will not change, that’s a new generation. We have to adopt newer ways of having a conversation with them.

Multiple follow-ups are needed to bring right behavior in team.

We have to repeatedly tell them why we have to do it. Reiteration becomes very, very important.

For the last 5-7 years I have been practicing it and learning it . First, I write a mailer at the beginning of the month. It talks about what we’ve achieved, where we have been successful and what is our next step. Now I conduct a zero hour on the first working day, for my second line managers. We celebrate success,  we appreciate everyone’s efforts, their work, their performance for about 70-80% of the time. And for 20% of the time, we talk about the things I want them to work on.

On same day evening, we do a webcast, which is called ‘Samvad’ (meaning Dialogue). Here a similar message is delivered at a larger level to all sales team.

So, there are three level of messages, which are going just to reiterate same messages, ‘This is what is required’.  My purpose is to say, “What is your priority this month?” “What are the three non-negotiables I’m looking for?”

Survival of the Pharma in the Pandemic


Suneel: How have the reps in general, across the pharma industry have coped with this pandemic and subsequently the nature of interactions with the doctors?

Sameer: It’s been a huge change and physical interaction with doctors has become more difficult. Earlier the call with the doctor used to happen across the table. Now, between the table and the doctor, there is a screen. After the screen, he asks the rep to stand far off and talk. The size of the visual aid has to increase substantially because of the social distance.

Secondly, if a rep goes to multiple hospitals in a day, is he he a carrier of virus? Doctors were very apprehensive. Now with vaccinations it is helping him get a better response.

But during the last year and a half, it was a real problem. We removed all those lead parameters as evaluation criteria. Rather we said, “Whatever you’re doing is good.”

And third is the stress. Because this guy is going to the hospital, and he’s coming back to his home. The family is stressed. Forget about anybody else, I’ll tell you the first time when I went out and came back home after my travel, or even when I first came to the office, I was worried for the next five days. Am I or my family / friends are showing any symptoms?

A major issue was the anxiety of the family. I know for sure there were many people who brought viruses back home. Maybe they were immune because they used to visit hospitals frequently. But their parents, some of them died. People have left the profession. They could not just bear the stress.

It has been traumatic, if I can use that word. At that time, big organizations like Alkem supported their people.

There was a very friendly approach.  Whatever the expenditure was, it was paid by the company. Insurance limits were canceled and people were provided the aid.

We can only reduce the anxiety; we can’t take it away. Earlier at a stockist’s place, they used to have a room just for the pharma people or a cabin. Now he doesn’t even allow anyone to step inside. There’s a huge shift which is happening.

Consistency in a Crises


Anant: How are the reps and the teams handling the situation in terms of the nature of sales, and the changing nature of relationships?

Sameer: My observation, wherever the rep had good relationship, it has been strengthened further, during these tough times. Reps were providing the doctors all the kits and whatever they needed immediately and the relationship was getting strengthened.

Though doctors weren’t allowing anybody to come for calls (he has his own criteria for selecting companies for call). He has reduced total number and prioritized based on his experience during covid.

There are doctors, who had stopped practicing because of age, it’s a loss for the rep as that was a key account. In those cases, as business leaders, we should help the team. What can we do for them to generate next gen 3-4 doctors, or convert those doctors?

Today, there’s a strong relationship between the reps and the doctors because they both were dependent on each other.

The doctors were helping the reps to get the slots / beds. While reps were helping doctors get multiple instruments and medicines, which they were not getting in the open market.

The market was closed. Doctors needed the medicines. The reps used to go to the stockist to get medicines. Those who helped the doctor in the time of crisis, their relationship became much stronger.

I mean, every one of us was going through that bad patch and whosoever has come out and helped, I see their journey in the future will be much smoother. Wherever they needed help from the organization, we were always there.

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 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.

In 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.

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

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *