Change management: An essential competency for sales leaders
The ongoing reality of constant change within the pharma industry means sales leaders can no longer view change management as a periodic duty or a one-off event but must intentionally develop diverse change-related skills, behaviors, and mindsets.
Sales reps rely heavily on leaders to communicate change and guide them through it with empathy, wisdom, and stability.
The challenges of organizational change in pharma sales
I’ve seen how disruptive change can be for sales reps, whose job security and compensation depend on consistent performance. For example, at one pharma client, a new competitor was poised to enter the market where there once was none. This triggered concerns about job security, market share, and how to effectively position their value against the competition. Proactive change management and communication could have mitigated much of this disruption.
As noted in the line graph below, organizations with excellent change management are seven times more likely to deliver projects that meet objectives.
Change can cause uncertainty, fear, plummeting engagement, and drops in productivity. Some other common challenges I’ve seen sales reps face during transitions include:
- Learning curve challenges: These arise as new systems, products, regulations, and processes roll out. It takes time to ramp up skills, and sales numbers inevitably dip during this adjustment period. Reps can feel burned out trying to constantly learn new systems and strategies in a landscape that sometimes shifts before new skills are even mastered.
- Resistance to change: This stems from skepticism or comfort with the status quo. Sales reps are no different than the rest of us. They get set in their ways. They think things are fine how they were. They were comfortable doing it the old way. They’re afraid they won’t succeed doing things the new way.
- Communication breakdowns: Sales teams can feel left in the dark if crucial information about changes is not shared in a timely, transparent manner. Without guidance, familiar sales processes get disrupted as teams scramble to adapt.
- Morale and engagement issues: These issues emerge when reps feel directionless or overwhelmed amidst change. Uncertainty causes some to disengage, doing just enough to get by rather than excelling.
- Retention challenges: The uncertainty of change can cause your talent to leave for perceived greener pastures.
- Company culture erosion: This can occur if changes are implemented without care, empathy, and a supportive environment — chipping away at the cultural traits that previously created collaboration and unity.
Proactive change management from sales leadership is crucial in mitigating the challenges that result from constant change. According to Prosci benchmarking data, organizations with excellent change management are seven times more likely to deliver projects that meet objectives.
Best practices for managing change
Over my career, I’ve identified some best practices for equipping sales leaders to facilitate smooth change.
Create Opportunities for Personalized Learning and Coaching: Robust, effective coaching, mentoring, and learning opportunities in the flow of work help teams adopt new systems, products, regulations, and processes, and adapt to market changes. Personalizing the learning journeys of your reps and offering a blend of modalities caters to different learning styles and knowledge needs.
Initiate Consistent Communication and Feedback Channels: Clear, compassionate two-way communication prevents confusion throughout transitions. Town halls, email updates, FAQ documents, and one-on-one meetings keep reps informed. Involving sales reps in planning and rollout boosts engagement. Feedback sessions, pilot groups, and surveys allow reps to share input and feel ownership. Validating reps’ anxiety through an empathetic tone breeds trust.
Obtain Buy-In from All Organizational Levels: Successful change management requires engagement and buy-in from executives to the front line. Buy-in at all levels smooths the way to adoption. Visibility from executives allows change to cascade smoothly. Encourage executives (sponsors) to communicate the strategic rationale behind changes, allowing middle managers to translate these strategies into actionable plans for the sales teams.
Model Behavior: To operationalize change, desired behaviors must be modeled, rewarded, and celebrated by sales leaders. Set appropriate expectations, reward and recognize achievements, and track progress.
Process Reviews: Simplicity is a best practice that is often overlooked. Streamlining and simplifying processes can significantly enhance clarity and reduce the complexity that often accompanies change. When implementing new systems or workflows, consider whether there are opportunities to eliminate unnecessary steps or complexities. Providing sales teams with straightforward, easy-to-follow processes can minimize resistance, accelerate adoption, and ultimately lead to smoother transitions.
Tailored Onboarding: For sales reps hired mid-transition, provide extra coaching, personalized learning journeys, mentorship/shadowing, and more ramp-up time to reduce time to productivity.
Monitor Impact and Morale: Leaders should monitor cultural impact and morale through surveys and one-on-ones. Preserving cultural continuity will keep engagement high.
Ensure Accountability: For true change to happen, people need to be held accountable. From establishing roles and responsibilities of overseeing the change process to monitoring and ensuring that individuals and teams adhere to the changes introduced — accountability helps maintain the integrity of the change initiative and ensures its successful implementation.
Measure and Adjust: Finally, tracking adoption metrics, sales performance, and team sentiment provides visibility into change efficacy and allows for iteration and refinement, if needed.
Change is constant in pharma, but with exemplary leadership, reps can stay focused on their mission of bringing lifesaving products to market, no matter how the industry evolves. Sales leaders who embrace change management as an essential competency will undoubtedly set their teams up for continued success amidst disruption. The payoff is certainly worth the investment.
Dan Snyder is a seasoned sales and business leader in the pharmaceutical/biotech industry. Currently serving as the Senior VP of Sales for Performance Development Group (PDG), Dan has held leadership roles at Astra USA, Diachii Sankyo, Shire, Nitromed, Clarus Therapeutics, Syneos Health, and Delta Point. Adept at overcoming challenges, Dan is known for his passion for sales, commitment to coaching excellence, building high-performing teams, and ability to achieve outstanding results.