Q&A with Aj Astoriano In Sales Effectiveness

AJ Astoriano holds the position of Senior Regional Manager for Salesforce Effectiveness in Asia at Zuellig Pharma, a prominent healthcare services provider offering a comprehensive suite of services encompassing distribution, sales, marketing, and healthcare solutions. AJ Astoriano was a featured speaker at the Mansmith Sales Summit, and her insightful session can be revisited on the event’s replay at www.mansmith.net. She graciously participated in a subsequent exclusive interview, elaborating further on the topic of pharmaceutical sales enablement.

Q1: New members of the salesforce are inundated with a wealth of information, including details about products, sales techniques, territory management, and more. How do you assist these individuals in synthesizing and integrating this extensive information within their understanding?

A1: Critical to ensuring that the sales force is not overwhelmed with the wealth of information are three things: (1) competency-based training, (2) phasing and (3) feedback.

Initial training programs, and all training programs for the sales force, must be anchored on functional competencies. The functional competencies are skills sets that will ensure they are effective in their sales roles. And for the sales force in Pharma distribution these are selling skills, and territory management, and knowledge (on products, systems, and processes). Training program contents should include simulations, role plays and case studies that closely resemble the actual selling situation in the local context (i.e., not hypothetical scenarios or examples from very different market landscape or industries). Doing this will help make the salesforce apply the learning to their work instantly.

Training programs must be phased. There are a lot of aspects and angles to cover, but they cannot be downloaded to the salesforce at one instance. Training programs must be designed into a curriculum, with modules given in at least six months interval. This is to allow the sales force to fully develop the skills learned from previous training first before a new module is introduced to them.

Sales managers must also observe Sales Reps’ execution of newly learned skills, to provide feedback and coaching. This will help the Sales Rep work on areas for improvement to fully develop the skills.

Q2: Given the substantial size of your salesforce, how do you pinpoint areas of weakness in individual team members without necessitating fieldwork assessments? Which particular data points hold significance in this evaluation?

A2: In the absence of fieldwork assessment or field observations, we leverage on the performance of the salesforce in sales and their SFE KPIs (Sales Force Effectiveness Key Performance Indicators). We look at their sales versus set targets, and we drill down sales by product (even down to SKUs) and by customer. We can compare those versus historical customer and product sales. Non-achievement of sales targets and low sales performance, in the absence of any major change in the socio-political landscape, indicate gaps that need to be addressed.

For the sales force in our organization, we have core SFE KPIs, which we measure and have set standards for. These KPIs for the Sales Reps include % Selling Time (i.e., the amount of time spent selling versus total days worked), Call Reach (i.e., the number of customers seen within a period), etc. We use these to measure the sales force’s capability and ability to adhere to company standards in the performance of their tasks.

Q3: What early indicators do you look for to differentiate between new salespeople who are poised for success and those who might struggle? Additionally, within what timeframe do you typically observe these indicators?

A3: An early indicator that a Sales Rep will succeed in his role is getting certified in our selling program. After training, every Sales Rep is subjected to a certification assessment.

Thereafter, three to six months on the job typically gives us the “signs” that will tell whether a salesperson will be successful. During this period, Sales Managers will spend more time with new Sales Reps to provide feedback and coaching.

Q4: What strategies do you employ to recognize and cultivate exceptional sales talent within your team, and how do you ensure their sustained motivation and engagement? In some instances, the highest-performing salesperson might not make an effective supervisor, potentially leading to organizational setbacks?

A4: Rewards and recognition programs that cultivate a pay-for-performance culture are key in keeping the sales force motivated and in ensuring they remain engaged. Simplicity and clarity in incentive schemes and metrics are also crucial.

On top of the usual incentive programs, having annual competitions for the best salespeople are also good motivators. In our organization, we have an annual competition and awards for the best salespeople (Sales Reps, Sales Managers, etc.). These competitions are held locally and the best of the best in each market gets to compete with the best of the best in other markets to vie for the regional annual awards.

Indeed, not all Sales Reps could become Supervisors. To avoid any organizational setback in relation to this, on top of honing functional competencies, it is ideal for potential talents to be assessed on their leadership competencies as well. For Sales Rep career promotion or movements, careful assessment of qualifications, skills and capabilities are conducted including competency assessment exams, and interviews. And inductive training for newly promoted Supervisors must be in place. Subsequently, immediate superiors of these newly promoted Supervisors must regularly spend time working with them, to provide feedback and coaching.

Q5: Could you highlight a particularly challenging market or situation your team navigated successfully, and the lessons learned from it? For instance, the rise of remote work dynamics, and the prohibition of sales calls within certain hospital settings?

A5: I think many industries, including ours, share the resilience we have all managed to hone as an outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have started to employ an omnichannel selling approach because of the restrictions on customer access in view of the lockdowns that happen across the country and in most countries where we operate. We have all taken ourselves out of the box (from the usual face to face customer engagement) and into employing various other creative ways of reaching our customers remotely such as virtual calls, communicating via company allowed social media apps, email campaigns, etc. These new ways of working have allowed us to maintain our engagement with our customers despite the distance and restrictions.

Q6: How do you assess and measure the effectiveness of your sales enablement?

A6: Effectiveness of sales enablement platforms can be measured though various metrics. These include process improvements through automation, savings through optimization, increase in revenue and increase in customer satisfaction. Any, a combination, or all (depending on the company’s goal and priorities) can be good indicators of sales enablement effectiveness.

Q7: How does your approach to territory management differ from that of other pharmaceutical companies?

A7: Our line of business allows us to cater to the needs of our customers and our territories from a wholistic perspective – from demand and sales generation, to order taking, then order fulfillment and collection. As we carry portfolios of products from multiple clients, in most cases, we can provide a suite of products and services to offer customers. Hence, our territory management approach is factoring not only into a single product or product portfolio and not focusing mainly on the high value products but on the needs of our customers and on the services we provide.

Q8: Can you discuss any ethical challenges you’ve encountered in pursuing sales effectiveness, and how your team addresses them?

A8: The key ethical dilemma that we normally encounter revolves around data confidentiality. As we have visibility on the promotional activities and sales achievements of different products and clients, we are always asked by clients how we maintain a “Ethical wall” or the exchange or transfer of information to and between departments and personnel who are responsible for other clients or competing clients.

We espouse a strong compliance culture in Zuellig Pharma. We set clear boundaries between departments and ensure we have a mechanism to limit the flow of information only to those authorized to access data of the clients assigned to them. There are annual compliance training and assessments that employees go through so ethical standards are instilled and audits are in place to ensure the standards are practiced.

Q9: What fundamental assumptions about salesforce effectiveness warrant critical examination?

A9: There are two most common assumption that need critical examination: (1) from the management perspective, that SFE can change salesforce behavior and can turnaround performances overnight; and (2) from the salesforce perspective, is that SFE acts like “police” that aims to find fault in what they do.

SFE initiatives are mostly culture-building initiatives. It takes time to develop a culture, and it necessitates buy-in and support of all key stakeholders to build a culture through consistent implementation.


Josiah Go is the Chair and Chief Innovation Strategist at Mansmith and Fielders Inc. His most recent book, titled “Marketing for Beginners: Start Strong, Succeed Fast,” co-authored by Chiqui Escareal-Go and RG Gabunada, achieved record-breaking sales during its launch, making it to the number one spot among marketing books, business books, as well as non-fiction books at National BookStore.

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