Just over a week ago, CVS Health announced that it had closed the deal on the merger heard ’round the world: the highly anticipated acquisition of insurance giant Aetna. CVS Health President and Chief Executive Officer Larry Merlo said in a statement that the merger will “transform the consumer health experience and build healthier communities through a new, innovative healthcare model that is local, easier to use, less expensive and puts consumers at the center of their care.”


While some may consider this historic merger a radical innovation, more accurately, it reflects the latest and arguably most visible manifestation of a market that has evolved in recent years to become paradoxically both more consolidated and more complex while also becoming simultaneously more consumer-focused and profit-driven.


This evolution should be no secret to pharma executives. Even as healthcare consolidates, the stakeholders for pharma have proliferated. Where once we could focus marketing efforts primarily on healthcare practitioners, consumers and caregivers, our reach has expanded by necessity to include institutional stakeholders, advocacy groups, policymakers and influencers, payers and more. During this same time, pharma continues to expand the ways it provides value to its broad stakeholder network, moving from care efficiency and patient management to include innovations in, among other arenas, non-traditional pharma domains such as reimbursement, policy-shaping, financial analysis and risk-sharing.


Despite this evolution, our commercial sales model—heavily dependent on the traditional product detail role of the pharma rep—hasn’t yet evolved in any significant way. Instead, we continue recruiting for and developing talent in these roles, even as we see evidence of the role’s evident misalignment with our new stakeholders and definitions of value. The market is already moving us in a new direction. To keep pace, we must radically rethink this role.


Specifically, we need to replace the rep role with a plethora of new roles that are more consultative and more adaptive—and, more importantly, will move beyond conveying product features to working in a proactive and collaborative context with all critical stakeholders. Such roles will always include the traditional rep in some fashion, yet the population of these traditional reps will continue to shrink as other roles emerge.


These emerging roles, focused on collaborative problem-solving rather than data- and information-sharing, may include:

  • Account management professionals who support and shape healthcare institutional policy and profitability
  • Patient and caregiver support professionals who ease the burden of healthcare institutions for navigating payment, reimbursement and treatment education
  • Technical specialists who provide advocacy, education and thought leadership
  • Payer-oriented consultants who facilitate partnerships between pharma and payer organizations
  • Medical liaisons, already a critical part of every pharma team but whose role will grow in scope and impact

While already embedded into the pharma infrastructure to some extent, these emerging roles have already begun to shape the direction of the industry and become the vehicles through which pharma delivers its value promise to the market. Right now, however, there are too many traditional reps and not enough people who can participate with stakeholders in collaborative problem-solving, potentially throwing the industry into crisis as the abilities of the current talent pool increasingly misalign with the needs of stakeholders and the value propositions of their organizations. 


In short, the industry faces a talent gap that will only magnify without focused and immediate intervention. To begin to address this gap, pharma executives need to do three things right now:


1. Redefine the career path for pharmaceutical sales. Career paths are no longer linear because there really is no clear career progression from traditional rep to, for example, patient navigator, KAM or thought leader. Instead, talent development efforts need to switch focus away from recognizing length of service and book-of-business growth toward shaping a career portfolio of experiences and skills—skills and capabilities that enable the sales professional to think holistically about stakeholders and to leverage organizational resources to address customer problems and challenges.


While it may feel far-reaching, this redefinition must include the critical acknowledgement that not all traditional reps will have the interest or ability to develop these new skills. Such reps are likely to find themselves in roles with limited advancement opportunity or restructured out of the organization.


2. Rethink where we find talent. The industry has long thrived on a narrowly defined approach to talent sourcing. As roles evolve, however, talent from career paths as diverse as HR and finance may be better adapted to emerging roles than the traditional talent pool.


3. Define success measures. The time has come: Behaviors such as collaboration and influence, building the network, and problem solving are the leading attributes of success. Financial metrics, while still important, are lagging indicators that should only be a fraction of how an individual rep is measured.


Talent has historically been a bountiful resource in pharmaceutical sales, yet as our markets and missions evolve, we move steadily toward a labor surplus and a talent shortage that we must begin to address right away. We can no longer afford to defer our efforts to close this talent gap without getting left behind.