EPISODE 518: Critical Issues for Pharma Sales Professionals with Merck’s Todd Andrade

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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 June 2, 2022, featuring Todd Andrade, US Chronic Care Sales at Merck.]

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TODD’S TIP: “Think to yourself, “What is the greatest increment of value that I can be doing for my business right now?” Stop what you’re doing and go do that. That’s how you’re going to be successful.”


Fred Diamond: Todd, I’m really excited to talk to you. You’re with Merck, you’re the VP of chronic care sales at Merck Pharmaceuticals. You are the very first, believe it or not, you are the very, very first sales leader I have ever interviewed on the Sales Game Changers Podcast from the pharmaceutical industry. I’m very excited. Typically, we interview sales leaders at technology companies, professional services. We’ve had a whole bunch of people from hospitality companies like Hilton. We’ve even had some people in amusement parks and recreational type of product lines, but you’re the first in pharmaceutical. The first question is, how is working in pharmaceutical sales different than some of the other technologies and other product lines I discussed? Compared to the typical sales leader that I interview, tell us how pharmaceutical sales are different.

Todd Andrade: Thank you very much, Fred, for having me on the show. This is my first too, it’s my first podcast ever so I’m really looking forward to it. It’s a really great question because pharma sales is different in some ways. Let me just outline some of the differences that you might see. First and foremost, the customers that my sales representatives call on are healthcare providers. They’re doctors, they’re nurse practitioners, they’re physicians’ assistants, but those healthcare providers don’t buy anything from us. They don’t buy our products. What we’re really selling is an idea. We’re selling an idea to a physician that when they see a patient that might have high cholesterol or high blood pressure, that we have a product that may be beneficial to them. That’s probably the biggest difference, that there’s no transaction with the customers that we call on.

The second thing that is different, although lots of other industries are regulated, the pharmaceutical industry is highly regulated. Now, if you’ve ever gotten a prescription from your physician, sometimes it comes with that little folded piece of paper attached to it. When you unfold it into as big as a map, it has that number two font. That is the prescribing information. Our sales representatives are bound and obligated to stick to what’s in that prescribing information. That’s why they call our sales representatives detailers, because they’re giving the details of the product to the physician. We can’t speak outside of that. We are obligated to talk about the features, benefits, as well as the limitations of our products.

Fred Diamond: I have a quick question for you. Again, you’re trying to sell an idea to a doctor’s office. How hard is it to get the doctor’s attention? One thing we talk a lot about on the Sales Game Changers Podcast is being of value to your customer. Sales at the end of the day is bringing value to your customer. We like to call it, Todd, extreme value now, because we talk about how technology customers, for example, could find information on the internet. They don’t necessarily need to see a sales rep, but we’re supporting the sales profession. It’s so vital for a company’s success. Give us a little bit of insight into, if you’re in sales, how do you get the doctor’s attention so that they’re going to want to meet with you to listen to your ideas?

Todd Andrade: Another great question, and it is very difficult to get the attention, because remember, we are actually calling on the physicians while they’re seeing patients. You’ve been in a waiting room before and physicians are running from room to room, and for us to interrupt their workflow, we better have something of value. But that’s where even the regulations that we have, features, benefits, and limitations, are so important. I’ve seen doctors stop in their tracks when one of our sales representatives reminded them about either an adverse reaction, or a contraindication, or a drug-drug interaction that they might see, and wanting to remind that physician that, “Hey, it’s flu season and you may be treating, but when you’re using product X, you need to be careful if they’re also on an antibiotic.” That’s really critical and important information that our representatives provide.

Now, if all we are is a talking head TV commercial about why you should be using product X instead of product Y, we have less value. We’re looking for ways to help physicians help their patients as well. That’s an area that I’m spending a lot of time with my team right now, transforming our customer engagement model and changing up our value proposition.

Fred Diamond: It’s interesting, like we’ve said, this is the first time I’ve interviewed somebody from the pharma space. Ideas are popping into my head about other questions I’ve asked and how this applies. I know we had some preset questions, which we’re going to get to, but ideas are popping up. Todd, one of the big terms that we talk a lot about on the Sales Game Changers Podcast is that of being a trusted advisor. Talk about how trust comes into play. You just mentioned sometimes a doc will see your sales rep walking in the hall and then the sales rep will give some information that they need to know. Talk a little bit about the concept of trust. Is that a term that you’re familiar with, trusted advisor? Is that something that you guys talk about in your sales process?

Todd Andrade: We do. We talk about it a lot. Now, I will say that, again, we’re bound by the prescribing information within our label, but when it comes to things like social determinants of health or health equity, those are really important concepts that physicians are struggling with right now. Coming out of the pandemic, they’re doing a lot more in virtual engagement of their patients. We’re trying to engage our customers as well through different channels, with improved content, and even offering services. Like in the rare disease space, the ability for a patient to get access to medicine is critically important. How can we help them do that? If we’re able to help our customers meet their needs, we do become that trusted advisor.

Fred Diamond: We’re doing today’s show, it’s in June of 2022, almost two years and more into the pandemic. Tell us a little bit about how things are going right now. How are things going in your sales organization? You just mentioned virtual, of course, which everyone’s had to deal with in the sales world, but what are some other ways that you’ve had to shift to be successful right now?

Todd Andrade: It’s extremely busy time right now. Everybody was trying to figure out through the pandemic, but it probably hit the healthcare industry, which pharma sits in, a little harder. Physicians’ offices, you remember you had to almost call as a patient before they even let you in the doors that are there. It was incredibly hard for our sales representatives to get access to physicians, and face-to-face access was the primary access that we had pre-pandemic.

Post-pandemic, we had to find ways. We had to find the channels that our customers, our healthcare providers wanted to engage with us on and see if we could provide value that way, which really accelerated how we’re thinking about the future of our customer engagement model. What could it be? What content do we need? What channels do we need to have at our disposal? As well as what services that we’re going to be able to provide are critical.

I’m going to say it again, we’re a regulated industry, and how we promote is regulated by the FDA. But when you talk to the FDA about having a chat bot or having text messaging, they’re like, “We don’t have any regulations on that.” We are working with the FDA currently to ensure that we can be in the channels that physicians are in. But I would say that I spend the majority of my time thinking about that representative of the future, and maybe that they’re going to get a text right to them. Then they’re going to pop into the office. They’re going to follow it up with another digital engagement to meet the needs of the customers.

Fred Diamond: I want to talk a little bit about Merck and what Merck is looking for from sales organizations. One thing that we talk a lot about at the Sales Game Changers Podcast and the Institute for Excellence in Sales is helping sales organizations build out diverse sales organizations. We have a very large Women in Sales Program, for example, at the Institute for Excellence in Sales, and it’s a global program. It’s one of our main initiatives that we do. What is building a diverse sales organization, what does that mean to Merck?

Todd Andrade: Critically important, because what’s the most important aspect of that is we need to have an organization, Merck, and a sales organization that mirrors our customer population and our patient population, that is incredibly diverse. That we need to show up in a way that we understand the patient and the customer’s needs that are there. What we instituted just recently is a skills-first program. It’s skills first. Now, when I started, many, many years ago, a high science degree out of a four-year college was the minimum requirement if you were going to get into this field. Now we’re really looking for motivated, curious individuals that understand data and analytics with a growth mindset. Even if you don’t have a college degree, if you have a high school diploma, but you have at least four years of experience, either in the military, in another leadership program, in the healthcare field, you can be a Merck sales representative. That’s how we’re going to get after the diversity and the representation that we need.

Fred Diamond: I was going to ask this question a little bit later on, but as a follow up, what are some of the characteristics you look for in potential sales reps selling into your space? Associated with the question is, we’re doing today’s interview in 2022, what are some of the great characteristics of a great pharmaceutical sales rep today?

Todd Andrade: There’s two pieces to that. I would say that the first piece really starts with that motivation and that mindset of curiosity that’s there, and continual learning. Our best sales representatives are experts not only in their products, but in the therapeutic areas, as well as they clearly understand the needs of customers. They understand what the customer is actually out there going through right now. If you’re not motivated and curious and constantly learning and investing in yourself, you’re going to struggle within this industry. But in addition to that, comfortability with technology, data, analytics, and having a growth mindset, because our healthcare ecosystem is a dynamic one. You can’t do the same things that kept you successful five years ago and 10 years ago and think that that’s going to work today.

Fred Diamond: Todd, I’m going to take a question here. It might be a little bit from the outfield, but I think you’ll be able to answer it. One of the things we talk a lot about on the Sales Game Changers Podcast is knowing your why. Of course, that’s made famous by Simon Sinek and his famous TED Talk. We talk about it almost every single Sales Game Changers Podcast. Do you need to have a why about patient care, or health, or making the world a better place to be successful in pharmaceuticals? If you’d like to answer with your why, I’m not sure how much thought you’ve given it, but I’d be interested in that as well.

Todd Andrade: Do you absolutely have to? I don’t know. I can tell that it’s really important to me. I can tell you that my why is the Merck mission. Merck’s mission is to help save and improve patient lives. That gets me up in the morning. I feel like I have a reason to try to stop a physician, or ask my team to stop a physician in the middle of their workflow, because I believe I have some really important information that could help save and improve patients’ lives. That mission statement is really important. I would say that most people within our organization feel a greater purpose that’s out there. I do think it’s critically important. Are there any successful representatives in pharma that might not have that why? Maybe, but it certainly drives me.

Fred Diamond: What are some of the key things you’re focusing on right now? Again, people are listening well into the future, but we’re doing today’s interview in June of 2022. What are the two or three top priorities for you right now?

Todd Andrade: First and foremost, with any sales organization, this really cuts across all industries, is achieving our business objectives. We have business objectives for products that are in market or just launching right now, and ensuring that we deliver for the organization is always a key priority. But in addition to that, it’s really building out and transforming what that customer engagement model of the future is. What does that pharmaceutical representative of the future look like? What capabilities do they need? What content do we need to be giving them? What services do we need to be able to talk about to really redefine our value proposition? The pandemic really accelerated our need to get there. That’s where I spend most of my time, is achieving our current business objectives and really thinking about what the next decade of pharmaceutical representatives is going to look like.

Fred Diamond: You mentioned before that you’ve modified some of the requirements for people to move into pharmaceutical sales at Merck. What would be your message to somebody to entice them to come into pharmaceutical sales? Again, you’ve been at Merck for close to three decades. I’d imagine a lot of people who are in pharmaceutical sales who have reached your level have spent 20, 30, 40 years in this space. What would you tell people? If someone said to you, “Hey, Todd, I’m thinking about taking a job as a pharmaceutical sales professional,” what would you say to them?

Todd Andrade: It’s a fantastic role. That’s where I got my start 29 years ago up in New England as a sales representative. I’d say first and foremost, it does start with the why that we already talked about. There’s really a purpose in really educating folks to help patients. That’s what we’re all about. But like a lot of other industries, it’s focused on the customer, it’s focused on the end user. But I think that it does start with that why and that true purpose that’s there.

In addition to that, Merck specifically is a really big, good company. I’ve had over 16 different roles, even outside of sales, but it was a great entry point. Whether I was in sales, or marketing, or operations, or global strategy, even doing ex-US assignments, and then coming back and leading a team at a very high level than I started at, it has really proved to be a fantastic career. If you’re interested in learning more, interested in human health and really being part of the solutions that are out there, I think that pharmaceutical sales is a great, great place to start.

Fred Diamond: I’m curious on you as a coach. We’ve all had to deal with the pandemic. Mental health challenges are going to be, I think, the biggest result coming out of the pandemic, from an overall perspective. How are you coaching your people right now? I’m curious, how are you coaching your junior people? I’m also curious on how you’re coaching your senior people. The one thing that we’ve all learned in this pandemic is everybody’s had to deal with the COVID, the lockdown, the homeschooling, everything related to that. Everyone’s had to deal with the financial implications.

The world has changed. Some industries, not yours, but some industries have gone away for large portions of time and are just beginning to come back. Then everyone’s had to deal with whatever they’ve had to deal with. Maybe rethinking where they want to live, or rethinking what they want to do as a career, or rethinking the status of their relationship, so to speak. As sales leaders, we have to understand that and know that there’s probably things going on that may not be obvious. How are you coaching your junior people and how are you focusing on coaching your senior people as well?

Todd Andrade: It’s a very timely question. I actually just recently was looking at the analytics of my organization, and we have about 500 individuals in my organization. There’s a bimodal distribution of how long they’ve been in role. About 50% are 15-year plus. Those senior individuals that are there and have worked in a certain environment are used to jumping in their company car and driving around to the doctor’s offices. They know the receptionist really well and they’re getting back behind to talk to the doctor. But then I have another 30% that have less than two years in role. The only thing they know is this hybrid approach. They started never even driving around. You got to coach to those individuals differently. I would say what everyone needs to really focus on is flexibility and adaptability. It’s those individuals that adapt the most in a changing environment are the ones that are actually going to end up being the most successful.

For those senior individuals, they need to have a growth mindset. They need to think that just because they did it a certain way, they’ll be successful that way moving forward. We also survey our customers a lot and we feed back to those senior individuals how customer perceptions and expectations are changing over time, and we need to change there. But then when you get to that junior folks that are there, they need more of that blocking and tackling. They haven’t been out there in front of their customers. It may need to be a little bit more directive as well as supportive in a way that they need to upscale what their interpersonal interactions and face to face interactions might end up being. Those are two elements that we’ve been spending a lot of time on, and there’s a lot of discussion at the senior leadership level at Merck.

Fred Diamond: Todd, I’ve had some guests on the show who’ve worked for the same company for 30 years from Oracle and IBM. One of the interesting things that they talked about was that they progressed with their customers. Their customers were in similar roles for 20, 30 years. Now, we had mentioned that you’ve been with Merck for close to three decades. You mentioned you’ve had 16 different roles. Have you had a similar journey where you’ve had some customers that have been with you for the whole journey, that you’ve seen them progress in your career and you’ve helped them along the way? Or does it change every couple of years? I’m just curious.

Todd Andrade: I would say customers have changed for sure. As newer physicians were coming out of med school, how they were even trained is different than when I started how physicians, and a lot of physicians were already in practice for a number of years when I got to the scene. You absolutely have to adapt and change with the times, how they digest and consume information, what their priorities are. But I’m going to add one thing, Fred, to this as well. Not only had the customers evolved, but throughout my time at Merck, employees and employee expectations have evolved as well. As you think about the question about how I coach to senior and junior individuals within my organization, I would say that the expectation of Gen Xers and baby boomers versus millennials and Gen Z are very, very different. It really is a challenge and an opportunity for leadership that, how do you set a vision and build a culture when there are different expectations across generations? As we’re going through a real ramp up and hiring coming out of the pandemic, it’s something that we have to give a lot of thought to, because we do have that bimodal distribution within our organization right now.

Fred Diamond: Well, let’s talk about that for a second. What are the younger sales professionals that you’re trying to bring in, what are some of their expectations that you as a VP of sales need to be conscious of?

Todd Andrade: First and foremost, they generally have a greater good, they want to work for a company that has a purpose, and also takes positions on important social issues, that wants a company that is investing in diversity, equity, and inclusion. That is speaking up when there are social events that are taking place and taking a position. Whereas, not always, I’m really painting with a broad brush here, but that Gen X baby boomer generation is used to, “Well, you keep politics and other things and social things at home. You don’t bring them into the office. When we’re at work, let’s just talk about work.” Younger generations are not looking for that. They’re looking for something with a greater purpose. It is something that leaders are going to have to really think through how you can attract and retain the newer generations coming into your organization without alienating your older generation of your workforce.

Fred Diamond: Obviously, if you’re in sales, no matter what people say, you’re in sales to make money, and it’s a great profession to make money. But that may not be the number one driver of why someone’s going to work with you or for your company. Like you just said too, we see that all the time, where the younger sales professionals, they want to have more of a mission. They want to feel good about where they’re going. They want even things like flexibility or obviously now with a lot of people working from home over the last couple of years, there’s some hesitancy on things like going back to the office and some of the traditional things. In line with that, Todd Andrade, what do you see salespeople doing wrong all the time?

Todd Andrade: I’d say not investing into themselves, thinking that, “Hey, I know my product. I went through the training. I passed the online test,” and never going back. The very best people practice their craft all the time. Whether you are a golfer or a violinist or whatever you do, you work at it to be good. That’s what you have to do as a sales representative. You can’t think that, “Hey, I’m pretty charismatic. I’m a good communicator. I know my product. I’m just going to sort of let it happen.” The people that take that approach are doing it wrong. The people that continually work to get better, invest in them, practice their craft, those are our best sales representatives.

Fred Diamond: Actually, those people are listening to the show right now. One of the things that we learned right away when the pandemic kicked in when transactions stopped for a number of months, is that if you’re a professional, what should you be doing as a professional? Learning the industry, learning in your industry, learning all about the drugs, learning how healthcare system works. Where’s it going, like you mentioned before? Last question before I ask you for your final action step. You’ve given us so many great ideas. I have probably another 50 questions. We can probably go for another hour or two, but I want to be respectful of our listeners here.

We have a lot of listeners who are in tech or professional services. Again, most of the members of the Institute for Excellence in Sales come from companies like Amazon, and Oracle, and IBM, Red Hat software, Cvent software, mostly in tech services, B2B complex sales. Can someone move from tech or professional services into pharma? Is that something that people can achieve? I’ll be honest with you. People are rethinking, what do they want to do if they’re able to live, for the next 5, 10, 20 years? Is moving into pharma something that someone from a sales professional, not someone who’s brand new, like we talked about before, but maybe somebody who’s 10, 12 years, 15 years into tech, can they move into pharma? Or is it really something that’s not going to be likely to be successful?

Todd Andrade: Without question. The principles of selling are the same. I think that historically pharma companies typically look for those high science individuals, folks that came out with a degree in biology and chemistry and was a bench scientist, or maybe was a nurse before. Not anymore. Like I said, if you have that growth mindset, you’re curious, you’re motivated, and you’re willing to really understand patients’ and customer needs, absolutely you can make that conversion. A lot of the principles are the same. What’s different is what I said. You’re not selling a piece of software, or a hardware, or a service. You’re selling an idea, and you’re doing it in a way that’s providing the balance, the features, the benefits, and limitations, so that physician can make the best decision for the patient when they see it. There’s a little bit of a difference there, but the skills, absolutely transferable.

Fred Diamond: Todd, before I ask you for your final action step, what gets you most excited about what you do? Again, you’ve talked about working with customers and your why. We’ve covered a lot of ground today, which I greatly appreciate. Once I said, this is the first time I’ve interviewed a pharmaceutical sales leader, and this is the first time you’ve been on a podcast. You’ve done a great job. What gets you the most excited about what you do?

Todd Andrade: Two things, and I’ll be quick because I know we’re coming up against the hour. First and foremost, it’s actually building a culture. It’s setting that North Star, creating a vision, empowering people and building a culture. We all know what Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Being able to build a culture really gets me going, but we are in a really critical time right now and transforming that customer engagement model, actually building something new and for the future, innovative, that’s what gets me going each and every day.

Fred Diamond: Todd, I want to thank you. I want to thank Paula with your organization for reaching out and introducing us to you and a couple of other Merck sales professionals that we’re going to have on the show in the upcoming weeks. I want to thank you so much. You did a great job for your first time. The answers were great. I greatly appreciate it. You’ve educated me on a lot of things, which I appreciate. We like to end every Sales Game Changers Podcast with an action step. You’ve given us a good 20, 30 things for people to implement and to think about, but give us one specific action step, something specific people should do right now after having just listened to today’s Sales Game Changers Podcast.

Todd Andrade: There’s a lot of things that people could be doing every day in their sales role. What I ask my team to do is what is the greatest increment of value you can be doing right now? And do it. It’s not getting caught up on your emails, or it’s not, “Hey, I’ve got to read this.” Think to yourself, “What is the greatest increment of value that I can be doing for my business right now?” Stop what you’re doing and go do that. That’s how you’re going to be successful.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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