Sales Competencies — Staying Number One

Pfizer was broadly viewed as having one of the world’s top pharmaceutical sales forces for most of the 1990’s. It achieved remarkable success with new drug launches such as Zoloft, Norvasc, and Zithromax. Equally impressive, it was consistently able to increase market share of drugs acquired from or co-marketed with others because of its superior sales channel.

Competitors often raided Pfizer’s salespeople by offering them promotions and higher pay. Toward the end of the 1990’s Pfizer wanted to reduce unwanted turnover and increase the strategic distance between Pfizer and competitor’s sales forces.

Successful salespeople often topped out in pay after three to five years. They fell into a holding pattern, waiting for a promotion opportunity to surface, often in a new city. These waiting periods made reps vulnerable to outside offers, and relocations destroyed established relationships with physicians and their organizations.

Pfizer’s sales environment was increasingly complex. Numerous jobs had been created to address different marketing strategies, overlapping sales organizations, and healthcare provider segments. Pfizer wanted to clarify what was required to perform each job, and how salespeople could acquire and demonstrate those skills throughout a long, fulfilling career in healthcare sales and marketing.

I recommended that Pfizer create a competency-based salary program. We defined broad competency and salary ranges for each major position in the sales organization. It could take an entire career to fully master the spectrum of competency described for each position. The progressions were described in rich detail, encompassing the salesperson’s potential impact on every facet of their environment. Unusually broad salary ranges were then tied to each competency progression. 

A process was inserted into Pfizer’s existing performance management system. It ensured that: competency development targets were regularly established, progress was monitored, and feedback was given. Salaries were accurately tied to each salesperson’s demonstrated competency through the use of cross-functional salary review committees.

Through this approach, Pfizer communicated how salespeople could enjoy a life-time career without ever needing a promotion or relocation. Or, they could chart a path through Pfizer’s complex organization and aspire to new functional responsibilities or organizational levels. Regardless, Pfizer challenged salespeople to constantly aspire to greater levels of mastery. In return, their base salary would reflect the full extent of their professional development.

To this day, Pfizer is viewed as having one of the premier sales forces in the world. It invested in every aspect of its sales organization to achieve this notable distinction. One such investment was its competency-based career and salary management system.