And Now, Let Us Review

By Malcolm Fleschner

One of the fundamental rules for trial lawyers is, “Never ask a question unless you already know the answer.” The point is that a good trial attorney should never be surprised during a cross-examination. Although the circumstances are different, the same basic rule holds for pharmaceutical sales managers conducting performance reviews: there should be no surprises, either for the manager or the sales representative under review.

When properly conducted, a performance review represents the culmination of a lengthy process that begins months before the formal review takes place – it’s during this time that all the potential “surprises” should be worked out, says Rayna Herman, a principal with Health Strategies Group (, a Lambertville, New Jersey-based pharmaceutical and biotech sales effectiveness organization.

“Effective managers conduct ongoing dialogue throughout the year,” Herman says, “so that at year end the representative pretty much knows what’s going to be said. And part of the ability to have a good performance review is tied to having effective field reports and field visits throughout the year. So the key barriers we see in the performance review process are number one, spending enough time in the field, and number two, being able to deliver effective coaching and feedback based on that time in the field.”

The point Herman emphasizes is that a performance review is not a stand-alone process. It’s merely the endpoint along a continuum of ongoing coaching. In most cases, she says, district managers (DMs) spend a day every month or two trailing a rep, debriefing him/ her between calls and again at the end of the day. “After that, typically, each rep gets a letter called a ‘field contact report’ that covers what was discussed during the debriefings, and highlights some strengths and some things that need to be worked on,” she explains. “That report should also build on the issues that were discussed during the previous visit.”

But that’s the ideal circumstance. In the real world, Herman says, field visit reports are often vague, lulling underperforming representatives into the false belief that their performance is satisfactory. “When that happens, you get to year end and all of a sudden you have a rep saying, ‘What do you mean, I’m below expectation?’ And that,” Herman says, “is the biggest barrier to having a more effective process.”

The other primary obstacle to better performance reviews is the team selling model that has become more common in recent years. As Harman points out, managers already reluctant to offer criticism can use the team environment to avoid measuring and judging individual contributions. “Often you see managers unwilling to say, ‘The team performance was this, and your contribution was this, therefore your evaluation is this.’ Instead it’s, ‘The team did this so therefore your evaluation is this,’” Herman observes. “And then what you have is individual representatives saying, ‘Well, Joe wasn’t that good’ and ‘I did this, Susie didn’t do that.’”

Herman believes these are the primary obstacles that currently undercut the potential effectiveness of the performance review process in pharmaceutical sales. In next month’s newsletter, she’ll share a few pointed suggestions for district managers who want to move beyond these hurdles to improve their efforts at coaching through performance reviews.