More Innovation Lessons from Big Pharma

More Innovation Lessons from Big PharmaI recently wrote in these pages about how Innovation Practitioners can benefit from leveraging concepts that the leading pharmaceutical companies are using to transform their approach to Research and Development. Apparently this transformation is not limited to Big Pharma’s R&D. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Jonathan Rockoff writes about recent changes underway to the salesforces at Big Pharma. Understanding those changes can bear fruit for students of innovation.

Rockoff cites the example of Eli Lilly & Co. sales representative Michaelene Greenly, whose approach to dealing with doctors has evolved from a hard-sell approach to a more conversational and relationship-driven approach. Although the hard-sell approach in the past had yielded positive sales results as more and more blockbuster drugs appeared on the market, that aggressive approach began to generate diminishing returns. As Greenly observes,

“We used to come in with our own agenda: What can I accomplish today? We’ve turned that all around. It’s what the doctor talks about.”

Rockoff notes that the intense, scripted sales presentations of the past are making way for engagements where the salespeople focus on understanding what the doctors’ conditions of satisfaction. The impetus behind this transformation in the sales relationship, according to Eli Lilly’s President of Global Business David Ricks, was the realization that there was an increasingly wide gap between what doctors expected from a new drug (based on the sales pitch) versus the reality of what the new drug delivered for a doctor’s patients.

At first glance, the observation that we need to focus on customer wants and needs seems intuitive to those of us who work in the innovation space. After all, one of the core elements of an innovation discussion is the dialog-driven nature of the interaction. We are taught by visionaries such as Simon Sinek to “Start with Why” in order to understand what drives the essential being of our customers before we get to the “How” or “What” of what we would sell.

However, the evolution of the Big Pharma salesforce serves as a reminder to us of how easy it is to fall into the trap of having so much confidence in the benefits of our products that we forget the basic lesson of focusing on the client. Innovation practitioners are particularly susceptible to this failing because, for some of our innovation work, we approach clients with fascinating new products or services that we view as industry-transforming or earth-shattering. The bright, shiny objects that we are eager to share with our clients can sometimes blind us to the more fundamental question of what that bright, shiny object actually means to the customer. An innovative product or service may have value in and of itself, but without a specific application by an end user, that product or service’s value is questionable. Although in our sales efforts we have to demonstrate enthusiasm for the novelty of what we are selling (otherwise the client will wonder why we are wasting their time), the best approach is to impart that enthusiasm to our client by helping them understand what the innovation means to them.

Sources: Jonathan D. Rockoff, “Drug Sales Reps Try a Softer Pitch,” Wall Street Journal (January 10, 2012)Simon Sinek,

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.

Scott Bowden

Scott Bowden is founder and CEO of Bridgeton West, LLC, a firm consultancy focusing on historical innovation. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and the Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has a PhD in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University.




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