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How to Win Sales and Influence People

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Employing excellent medical representatives (MRs) and maintaining strong relationships with wholesalers are important strategies for pharmaceutical companies in Japan. Japan’s best pharma companies have highly trained and well-educated salespeople who are able to connect with physicians, and when the same positive messages are reinforced by wholesalers 1 + 1 = ¥¥¥¥¥¥¥¥.  

These relationships are vital. According to one executive, “I think that the key issue is to make good relationships with physicians, pharmacists, and wholesalers.” The experienced manager says the MR is the key person in influencing opinion leaders and very important in generating pharma sales. 

Some would argue that a company can have all the best-laid marketing plans in the world, but if it doesn’t value this simple one-on-one, person-to-person sales formula, it won’t yield the very best results. In fact, one marketing director believes multinational corporations (MNCs) in Japan are missing the mark. “About half of the sales reps are responsible for the hospital segment. In this area, pharmaceutical companies do not make use of wholesalers support at all,” he says. 

Improvements are on the way. A business unit head of a leading European company says MNCs are now educating their Japanese counterparts. “Some foreign pharmaceutical companies are investing to educate MRs more than Takeda and use several methodologies, which cover not only products and disease-related knowledge but also skills and leadership,” he says.  

Over the past 10 years, marketing and medical affairs have become key components for successful MNCs. With strong pipelines and global marketing strategies, marketing is no longer simply sales support but is actually driving the bottom line. 

Despite this simple winning formula, a few foreign companies still have a problem making it happen, as one of our clients reveals. “We have more good products than good people,” he says. “You find me the right people to launch the products, and we will be No. 1 in Japan.” 

The marketing function within most foreign companies often flexes its muscles inside a business unit, and the department head mostly has a sales and marketing background. 

The marketing department is busily launching products, contacting key opinion leaders (KOLs) and mapping out the influences within a given therapeutic area to ensure the right message hits the right target. 

Pharmaceutical companies are hiring more MDs and placing high importance on these people delivering the right message to the physician with particular emphasis on highlighting scientific information, safety, and efficacy of the product. 

The medical affairs function has bridged marketing and clinical development while companies such as SoNet M3 have been able to take advantage of the demand from physicians, who want timely information, and pharmaceutical companies, which want to ensure an effective message is delivered into the market place. 


However, a clinical director tells me that perhaps the marketing function, in some instances, may overstate its value. “I still wonder how much portion of ‘achievement’ by sales organization of a pharma company can be attributed to their marketing strategy,” he says. “I still see a lot of contribution by individual MRs in conjunction with wholesalers even in MNCs.” 

Some companies are now bolstering their finance teams to ensure money is well spent and the highest possible rate of return is secured. It appears that many of the marketing teams will turn to their finance teams for close analysis to get the real story behind the story. “Generally speaking, the involvement of finance people in marketing is still low,” one CFO tells me. “I personally think such financial analysis should be done by marketing folks; this is not about complex accounting but just a sales-minus-cost type of thing. Novartis has finance analysts for each franchise.” 

Strong financial analysis better informs business units and helps them respond faster to market trends. This important process is simple, consistent, and standardized, but Japan’s pharma companies have yet to fully adapt this successful practice. 

One 17-year MNC veteran, who joined a domestic company 2 years ago, was stunned by the discrepancies: “I got such a big surprise to discover that our company has no medical affair organization or business units. In addition, the marketing department is under the umbrella of sales division! We are more than 15 years behind foreign mega-pharmas.” 

According to one marketing director, it’s just a matter of opinion whether change within the pharmaceutical industry is happening quickly or slowly, but he says change is inevitable. “The Westernization of Japan pharma sales is ongoing, and will continue, but it will take time to see a clear impact. Finance will become important when marketing becomes really important,” he says. 

Certainly, personal relationships are important in sales and marketing. However, as our world becomes smaller, and global companies realize that Japan isn’t that unique, companies will increase the power of marketing and finance. The finance function is going to play an increasingly important role, but so is safety and social responsibility. 

As MNCs become more globally aligned, one of Japan’s leading pharmaceutical executives highlights an important issue. “Social/regulatory responsibilities are sometimes forced into neglect by the financial perspectives,” he says. “The raison d’être of health-care industry is to supply products of medical needs in a safe way, through which the industry can enjoy profits for further developing better products.” 

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