EPISODE 536: Sales Success in Pharma with Merck’s Head of US Oncology Sales Bruce Cellura

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Sales Game Changers virtual learning session sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on July 13, 2022 featuring Bruce Cellura, Head of US Oncology Sales at Merck.]

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BRUCE’S TIP: “Stay focused, control the controllable, make sure you live your personal mission and your company mission, because they should be aligned. Make sure every interaction, regardless of what sales team you’re on or what you’re selling, has impact so your customers can take action, whether it’s buying a product or servicing patients. If you do all of that right, it’s going to ensure a high level of trust and make sure more importantly out of everything that there’s a speak-up mentality. If you have a question, comment, concern, tell your boss, tell your peers, speak up. Everyone’s listening and we all want to do better. “


Fred Diamond: Bruce, I’m excited to talk to you. Again, we interviewed Todd Andrade from Merck a couple of weeks ago, learned a lot from him. You’re the second sales leader that we’ve had on the Sales Game Changers podcast in the pharma space. I’m really excited for our conversation here.

Let’s get started. I’ve interviewed tons of people from tech, hospitality, entertainment, services, how is working in pharma sales different than some of those other areas of sales? What does it mean to be a sales leader? You’ve been in this space your whole career? What do you think about what does that type of sales look like?

Bruce Cellura: First, Fred, thanks for inviting me to your Sales Game Changer podcast. It’s just a pleasure to be here and for all the great work you’re doing in the Institute for Excellence. Working in the pharmaceutical sales side of the business, sales is sales. I started my career, believe it or not, at PepsiCo 30 plus years ago, and then I transitioned over to the pharmaceutical industry.

Our customers primarily are physicians and health care providers at both the institution and private practice locations and our sales reps are out there each and every day, talking about our therapies, therapies that may be best for patients living with different types of cancers. They really have to inform doctors of what the therapies are, what the new therapies are, any changes to our package insert, which really details how the drug has worked in a complete fair balance. It’s been a great ride. I’ve been in the industry 31 plus years. Twenty five specifically focused on oncology, and knowing that we really make a difference each and every day is what keeps me going.

Fred Diamond: I have a question for you. Sales is about getting the conversations with your prospects. In this case, you said it’s physicians. How easy is it for your reps, for your team, to get in the door? Again, the number one drug on the planet, and Merck, one of the top pharma companies in the history of the world. Is it easy to get these appointments or do you still have to motivate the prospects to want to spend time with you?

Bruce Cellura: Before COVID, before March 13th in 2020, access, we would schedule appointments and we’d be able to see our customers on an as-needed basis. Fast forward through COVID, starting March 16th, we asked our teams to stay home. I’ll give you a perfect example. My mother was a cancer survivor for 10 years. She received treatment every week, my dad would take her. On March 15th when she went in for her treatment, the hospital said, “Stay in the parking lot, call when you get here.” That my dad couldn’t go inside.

So could you imagine a caregiver had so much difficulty, even up till today to go in with their significant other to make sure that they were getting the treatment and they were there to hold their hands? Imagine what that means for a sales rep coming in interrupting a doctor’s day, their staff is busy, they were overwhelmed with COVID.

What we saw was before COVID, about 100% of our interactions were face-to-face. Then once COVID hit, we stayed home, we wanted our people to be safe at Merck, our families to be safe, our customers, their staff and their patients to be safe with all the unknowns of COVID. Fast forward almost two years, and now about 80% of our interactions are now live again with customers, 20% are remote and those are for the customers that will see us. There’s still some customers that say, “We’re not ready yet.”

We’re trying to make the best out of a really tough situation and to compound it, where we used to see doctors X number of times a year, that’s been drastically reduced as their staff have really come down in numbers and it’s just very difficult for patients to get in even today in this environment we’re living.

Fred Diamond: I have a follow up question to that. You’re representing drugs that are continuing to evolve. You had mentioned in the prep call that there’s more things that the drug is now being able to take care of and you want to educate the doctors, you want to educate your customers. Actually, one thing we talk about all the time, Bruce Cellura, on the Sales Game Changers podcast, is the sales professionals’ job is to be of service and to educate the customers to give them more value so they can satisfy their customers. How has this made it easier or more difficult to get those messages across to the doctors that you’re trying to serve?

Bruce Cellura: First, it starts with building strong relationships. Our sales team is made up of sales professionals. These are professionals. No different than if you’re going to watch an athlete on a professional baseball diamond, or on a football field. When our people show up, they are the best of the best. They are looked at when you talk to a customer, a doctor, a nurse, physician assistant, a nurse practitioner, a pharmacist, almost as a peer, because the information that we can share is so valuable. We all know doctors read all the information that’s breaking on a regular basis. If we were to look at just our portfolio alone, the one drug that you mentioned, we cannot get across all those indications, nor does any one doctor know about all of our indications.

We hone in and we’re really specific. When we send a representative into an office, they have a specific indication that they’re focusing on. When they have that dialogue with the customer or their staff, they are spot on. They know everything about the therapeutic area, the product, the balance. As you know, in the pharmaceutical industry, we’re highly regulated, so we use a package insert. Our package insert really says what you can and can’t do, creates that balance that’s necessary, but also provides clinical data that really is exactly what the doctors are looking for but we can give it to them in layman’s terms.

Fred Diamond: I want to ask you another question. A big part of the Institute for Excellence in Sales is building diverse sales organizations. One of the programs that we’re most proud of is our Women in Sales program. I know that Merck is trying to do a lot of things to expand, bringing diverse audiences into sales. Can you talk about that for a little bit? What does that look like and what are some of the initiatives that you’re trying to do?

Bruce Cellura: Absolutely. We have a reverse mentorship program for our employees that are here that we line up with diverse employees. Someone like myself, who’s not considered an a diverse employee really can help walk in someone else’s shoes and better understand. Our recruiting teams are at the universities. They’re out at the national sales conferences, really talking about Merck and reasons why someone might want to join Merck.

We’ve opened up our environment to the folks that are candidates to come work at Merck. In the past, you had to have a four year degree. You had to really understand the bioscience market. You had to understand a lot of the business of oncology, especially in this world we’re living today. Merck’s now adopted a skills-first mindset. You can be in any industry. Think about me, 30 years ago, I went from the beverage industry to pharmaceutical sales. Today, we have a real strong emphasis. When I look at our customer portfolio and the types of customers we call on and our patient population, we want our salespeople and members at Merck looking like our customers do, and like our patients do. We have a real strong effort.

If you have a great skill, tremendous talent, strong depth for knowledge, there’s an opportunity at Merck. It might not be starting at Merck oncology, it may start in chronic care, and that’s where we form a lot of our great people. They come in through our earlier pharmaceutical stage positions, and then they work their way up to specialty and then into oncology.

Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about a career in pharma sales because again, I’m really intrigued by this. Again, most of the guests we’ve had have been in high tech. We’ve had some in beverage. I’ve had some people at PepsiCo who have been guests on the show years ago. What should someone expect? You just mentioned you go to colleges, and you go to sales conferences and things like that. What should someone expect if they’re starting their career in pharma sales? For example, in tech, you’re going to be on the phone trying to get appointments as a sales development rep or something. What do the first couple of years look like for someone who’s moving into pharma sales?

Bruce Cellura: Well, you have to be a quick study. You have to be a sponge. My son just this week accepted his first job in pharmaceutical sales out in the field. He did one over the telephone. Now, most recently, he was in medical sales. He just accepted his first pharmaceutical sales job. We talked a lot about it. Do you want to come into the pharmaceutical business? It’s a business that’s highly critical on what you can deliver to your customers, the kind of communication skills that you need, the level of study, and really preparedness that you must have.

When you get in front of a customer, your communication style is clear, concise and effective. Anyone that’s thinking about pharmaceutical sales, if your goal in life is really to help others, and to really put patients first – and that’s my mantra, and that’s the mantra at Merck – everything else follows if we take care of our patients, and we do the right thing. If you want to give back in that way, I would say the pharmaceutical sector is an outstanding way to do it.

I look back on 31 years and I think about how great it was being a rep, and moving through every facet of our business, from training to operations to leadership, frontline, second line management, and really helping form where we are today as an industry, and it’s highly reputable. If you work hard and you really want to make an impact, this is the place to be.

Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about what elite performers are doing. We talked about people new to the sales career. We’ve been through a challenge the last couple of years, obviously, things have changed. You just mentioned that now 80% of your calls are back in person but the world has gone through a huge challenge and so many things have changed at some levels. For someone who’s elite, let’s say someone who’s 20, 25 years, 30 years in, what do they look like? What do they exhibit to show and continue to be elite as a sales professional in the pharma space?

Bruce Cellura: They wake up in the morning, they have a plan. They may walk into their customer’s, whether it’s a scheduled appointment, or a drop by and they know their customers. They know everything about their customers. The types of patients they may treat, everything about the clinical data. They know how that office is managed, how it’s run. They know what their greatest impact has to be. They know what information that doctors want to receive, what real life evidence is necessary.

The folks that have been doing this a long time have the greatest and strongest relationships and the beauty is, as we bring new people in, they fall right under their wing, and they work really closely together. Most recently, we have a lot of nurse educators, nurses coming on board, physicians, assistants, they never sold before, Fred. Imagine, all the clinical data in the world, if you can’t communicate it effectively, it’s a problem. What happens, we take our experience reps, our sales professionals, and they partner with these other folks, even our newest people to our team, and they make them even better. That’s where collaboration and coordination is critical to the success of a team, especially when you’re working on a team. At Merck we work in teams.

Fred Diamond: Bruce, I want to ask you, you’re obviously passionate about this. Again, you’ve reached a great level, so obviously, your career has gone very well. This is a question that comes up all the time and we might not have talked about this ahead of time, but what is your why? That comes up a lot. Simon Sinek, of course, did his famous TED Talk and the great sales leaders that I’ve spoken to have always said to me that their why is whatever it might be. If you don’t mind sharing a little bit of that, I’m curious, what gets you passionate about this every day? Where does your why come from?

Bruce Cellura: Fred, even though we didn’t talk about this, that might be the easiest question for me to answer. My why has not changed in 31 years, and it’s as I just mentioned earlier. Since I’m in the pharmaceutical industry, it’s always putting patients at the center of everything I do, and everything that my team does. I’m working every day on a mission that’s going to bring hope to improve the quality of life to patients living with cancer and their loved ones and family members. If I wake up every morning and I have that thought in mind, that’s the fuel that keeps me going.

Fred Diamond: That’s a great answer. What do you see sales reps doing wrong? Again, we talked about what the elite ones are doing right, and we talked about what people should be doing first part of their career. You’ve managed hundreds, if not thousands of sales professionals. What do you see that they do wrong that really irks you and that you wish they would improve upon?

Bruce Cellura: I’m fortunate. I’m surrounded by sales professionals that are the best in the industry. I wouldn’t say they’re doing things wrong. We have a highly skilled team, so you really have to vet through what’s working, what’s not working. I would say this, everybody needs to get rid of the COVID hangover. Whether your office is back open like at Merck but people are still magnetized to staying and working from home to going out in the field and calling on customers. We know if we’re talking live, face-to-face, it’s a greater impact than talking remotely, either over the telephone or over a webcast.

I think what everyone can do a little bit better, not that anyone’s doing anything wrong, is knock those cobwebs off. We got to get back to the new normal which we’re still trying to identify what it is. If people just turn their key to their car in the morning, went out to their customer’s, and turn on that extra doorknob that we thought may be closed but may now be open, that can be a game changer for any patient living with cancer that potentially can receive our therapies.

Fred Diamond: So much happens when you’re in the room with somebody and even people who do want to stay home and have perfected the Zoom, which nobody really has, to be honest with you, you definitely got to get out there and things really happen. We talked about your customers before, and we talked about how now there’s more openness to meet with them. What do people need from you right now? What are people expecting from you? What is the value they’re seeking that you can bring for them? The other thing too is as we’re talking here, we’re talking cancer, man. We’re talking about the most serious of illnesses. Like you said before, everybody has had cancer touch their lives. Even if you have the kid down the street, but obviously someone in your family, they’re talking to very serious stuff here. There’s like 0% failure rate, unfortunately. Tell us, what are your customers expecting from the great sales professionals right now at Merck?

Bruce Cellura: They’re expecting when you walk through the door that you add value on hello. You understand their business, you understand their patients, and then you bring them the information, the data, the clinical acumen, you understand the space that they’re operating in. Then our job as sales professionals and what the doctors want us to truly do is help them change their behaviors. So often they get into just the constant.

Every time our people walk through that door and they have a conversation with a customer, the expectation is that from that customer, they’re going to learn something new. Otherwise, there’s no need to stop by. They need to learn something new. I could tell you, with our portfolio and with the competition out there, things are changing on a weekly basis. This isn’t once or twice a year there’s a change. It’s happening weekly. If you look at the number of new FDA indications across the therapeutic areas that we’re in, including our products, it’s mind numbing, it’s amazing.

When you walk through that door, we need to be able to talk to a doctor about what’s important to them, what’s going to help them change the way they practice, but more importantly, what’s going to give patients a better advantage, a better opportunity, and how do they understand everything they can about our medicines? If our medicines are the appropriate medicines, then we did our job and we got our message across.

It’s not a one and done. You can talk about it, doctors want to try medicines on their patients, and when they get a good experience, they may continue on and on. Our job throughout that whole journey is to make sure any new information – and data changes for the same indication yearly, there’s always updates. It’s going in and refreshing their rolodex on their information that they know about our products to make sure that there’s no reason to change if indeed we have the best option on the market.

Fred Diamond: I want to ask you, you talked about the fact that you need to start providing value the moment you walk in the door, and probably before that. Talk about, if you don’t mind, doctors as a customer. Obviously they’re smart, obviously they’re in demand, obviously they have very, very difficult jobs especially in the segments that you’re working on here. How do your people interact with doctors? Are they all like abrupt, quick to the point kind of like in an emergency room or an operations room, or do they want to talk about yesterday’s game, or do they want to be treated to dinners? Give us a little bit of a perspective on selling to the medical professional.

Bruce Cellura: The industry is highly regulated, Fred. The days of ‘let’s go play golf and have dinners’, that ended 30 years ago. So now it’s highly scientific and it’s real world evidence, real world data. Depending on the relationship you have, someone may come into the office and say, “I just got back from a vacation at Turks and Caicos.” Another may say, “I just watched my son go off to college.” They’ll talk about that but then they get into the sale, and they get into why we’re in the office.

At times you can walk in, we have an iPad detail that we use, really is technology driven. It helps us get to our points in a quick and effective manner. But at times, we may have 30 seconds with that doctor. No different than getting in an elevator, and if you have 30 seconds, what do you want to stick in that 30 seconds? When we get in front of our customers, it can last from 30 seconds to two hours, and we really need to effectively manage our time and we have to know what our agenda is at the same time. We have to be able to be agile and move to the doctor’s agenda if they want to go to a different tumor indication or maybe a side effect profile discussion

Fred Diamond: You’ve talked about how some nurse practitioners and other people in the medical field might be moving into sales and how Merck is looking to bring some people with that type of background into sales. You mentioned you came from products, from PepsiCo into Pharma. What if somebody was moving into other B2B type markets like tech? We have a lot of people who listen to the Sales Game Changers podcast who are in IT, selling software, maybe professional services related to tech. Is pharma something that they can move into, and if your answer is yes, what are some of your recommendations?

Bruce Cellura: I think any industry. When I was younger, if I wanted to get into information services, I couldn’t do it. But I want to get into pharmaceuticals or beverages, I can do it. Regardless of where someone is today, the beauty of the diverse culture and nature that we’re building within our organization, and that’s happening, frankly, across all companies within the pharma industry, is we’re looking for folks that are seasoned, that are successful.

If you can sell a highly technical product, there’s a really good chance that you’d have a lot of success in the pharmaceutical market. You have to be masters at your craft, so it all depends. If you say, hey, there’s a job at Merck, or there’s a job at another company, and I’m interested in doing that job, and you read the criteria and the qualifications, and you meet them, and then you prepare and you get focused, you can do anything. The sky’s the limit. The only limitations we have are ones we put on ourselves. I think the pharmaceutical industry is good for anyone that really wants to do good for patients, do good for their career, do great for their family, and really add something that’s special in what they do each and every day.

Fred Diamond: Before I ask you for your final actions step, again, I want to thank Bruce Cellura with Merck. Bruce, before I ask you for your final action step, I got time for one more question. What are your expectations for sales professionals? You made a good point before that we need to get the COVID cobwebs off. Everyone’s trying to figure out what that means and people are starting to open but we’re not quite there yet. It’s probably going to take us another six months to possibly get even further down the path. What are your expectations? Again, you manage a lot of people, what are your expectations for the sales professionals on your team right now?

Bruce Cellura: It’s simple, you can’t give up. You have to continue to knock on the door, you have to get in front of your customers, and I almost sound like a broken record, we need to ensure that our customers have all the necessary clinical information and data so they can make a clinical sound decision on how they’re going to treat their patients. If we do that well, and our portfolio is stellar and truly second to none, and our product is the right product, patients will have an opportunity. That’s all I ask for my team each and every day. Wake up, know what you’re doing, stay focused, and go deliver the results that we need, not only for our organization, but more importantly, for the patients that are looking for opportunities.

Fred Diamond: Bruce, I just want to acknowledge you. I didn’t remember that you were at Pepsi in the beginning of your career, but I’m not going to go down the path. But I worked for Apple Computer for a long time and of course, Steve Jobs famously said to John Sculley, “Do you want to change the world or sell sugared water the rest of your life?”

I love the way you talked about your passion, about your why. Just want to acknowledge you for the great work that you and your team have done. The drugs that you’re bringing are obviously saving billions of lives, and they’re so crucial for people out there listening who have had somebody who has gone through cancer and has been cured of it. Just want to acknowledge you for the work that you’ve done. Give us one final action step. You’ve given us 10, 15 great ideas. Give us something specific people who are listening to today’s show can do right now to take their sales career to the next level.

Bruce Cellura: Here’s what I say to my team when I sign off or if I’m having a one-on-one. Stay focused, control the controllable, make sure you live your personal mission and your company mission, because they should be aligned. Make sure every interaction, regardless of what sales team you’re on or what you’re selling, has impact so your customers can take action, whether it’s buying a product or servicing patients. If you do all of that right, it’s going to ensure a high level of trust and make sure more importantly out of everything that there’s a speak-up mentality. If you have a question, comment, concern, tell your boss, tell your peers, speak up. Everyone’s listening and we all want to do better. I appreciate your time today, Fred. This was a great experience and anytime I can help, I look forward to listening in on future podcasts as well.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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