The old style of annual sales meetings just won't cut it anymore. In fact, the changes Vicki Swift, co-founder and president of Swift Media Group, Lake Forest, Ill., has seen happening lately in the pharmaceutical, biotech, and healthcare companies she works with are demanding a whole new way of looking at sales training that reaches far beyond an annual sales conference.

Swift's company provides virtual meetings, live events, communication campaigns, and learning and development programs to its corporate clients. She says that instead of relying on a large sales force to get the message out about their products, as has been done for decades, she sees these companies moving toward smaller sales teams composed of highly trained specialty representatives. These reps are trained not just in the company's products, but also in the science behind those products and the disease states they are designed to treat.

This new style of rep needs a different level of training that includes an integrated experience: pre-meetings that communicate a consistent message to field sales services, live events, virtual events to provide content and training, and post-meeting activities to reinforce the training. Medical Meetings caught up with Swift recently to learn more.

Medical Meetings: What sorts of changes are you seeing in the way that pharma, biotech, and healthcare companies meet their sales forces' educational needs?

Swift: The economy is changing, and the pharma industry is changing dramatically along with it. Many companies are reducing their sales force; they don't have as many products to sell as drugs come off of patent protection, and they aren't seeing as many blockbusters on the horizon as they had in the past. Increasing regulations also mean that reps are much more restricted in what they can say on a sales call, and physicians have less time to talk, so they have to be more succinct and tuned in to their customers than ever before.

Reps also now have to learn about the business issues their customers are facing, which, historically, is not something companies have spent a lot of training time and money on. Sales reps now have to understand managed-care issues as well as concerns such as cost containment and what to do if your product is not on the first tier of a hospital's formulary of approved drugs — issues beyond the features and benefits of a particular product.

MM: How does this affect the training companies are providing for their sales teams?

Swift: These changes are leading the healthcare industry away from an emphasis on the entertainment aspects of a traditional meeting and toward a focus on the training itself. In terms of where these companies want to use their time, energy, and dollars, training is taking the lead — but not training as it has been done in the past. Our clients were noticing that when managers went out into the field with reps after the annual sales meeting, few of the reps were implementing the training they had gotten at the event. The need for change became obvious, both to us and to our customers.

We need to reinforce the message so it gets really baked in. That means it needs to be reinforced not just once in a while, but almost continually.

The state of the economy lately also has caused our clients to cut back on the length of sales meetings. Where they once may have had five days, they now are looking at a two-and-a-half-day event. This means we have to look very strategically at what can be bundled and streamlined at the live event, what can be rolled out before the event, and what can be done post-meeting on a virtual campus.

MM: This sounds like you're calling for a long-term campaign rather than a one-off sales meeting.

Swift: You need a strategic plan, not just a knee-jerk reaction to changing market conditions or to a new competitor looming on the horizon. You need the full cooperation of all departments involved to come up with that strategy, which in addition to a live event may involve audio CDs, print collateral, a virtual campus, and maybe even someone to ride along with the rep and coach and train him or her in the field.

We like to come back to the client with a plan for the year. You may have a live event, but that's just one of the components you'll offer over the course of the year. You might also have sent materials to a manager for training the reps. You might have a virtual meeting to hear a thought leader or senior member of the leadership team when it's critical to have everyone hear the same message at the same time in the same way. You might have the training department involved in creating a certification or testing component to make sure people understand what you're trying to teach them. You also could have interactive activities rolled out throughout the entire campaign that will engage reps and managers together to reinforce the training.

MM: How do you start developing a strategy?

Swift: We like to hold an initial meeting with the full range of stakeholders in the organization. Our typical client isn't coming exclusively out of marketing, or sales, or training. We need to sit down with all three of these departments at the same time, because otherwise people get stuck in their silos and could potentially skew the training without realizing it.

MM: But breaking down silos isn't always easy to do.

Swift: It's not. In the past, a lot of the control over training depended on which department was paying for it. If the training project was coming out of the marketing team's budget, they didn't necessarily ask the sales and training departments for their opinion, and vice versa. But this lack of coordination can be costly: We have found cases in which more than one department was spending money with the same vendor on similar projects without knowing it.

What we do is talk with them openly. The marketing team is passionate about its brand campaign. People on that team are wired into what the ad agency has done, they understand the strategy behind the campaign itself, and they understand exactly how the campaign should be rolled out. But they may not understand how the field force might actually execute that campaign. Sales trainers understand their organization's sales-specific goals and the sales model that management wants reps to adhere to, but often they're not brought to the table until very late in the process. Some of these conversations have resulted in real eye-openers about what reps are doing with the information they're getting. If you can convince people that it's in the best interest of the campaign to get on the same page, you'll have a successful outcome.

MM: Last summer your company formed a partnership with InXpo, which provides privately branded virtual events and virtual business communities, so obviously you believe in virtual training. How does that work into the strategic mix?

Swift: When we met the folks at InXpo, we wanted to see if what they offered was a tool that we could use in place of getting everyone together at a national meeting once a year. What we found when we demoed it was that our clients did not want a replacement for the national meeting; they wanted to use it as a virtual campus environment that they could keep active year-round.

While the virtual campus doesn't replace live meetings, we are telling our clients to take what they used to do at live meetings and throw it all out. Budgets are half or less of what they used to be, and you're trying to get more out of those sales reps than ever. The one thing you should not do is drag them into a ballroom and make them sit while each team drones on for three hours.

The information that used to be presented that way could easily be rolled out on a virtual campus before the meeting. Then give reps short general sessions and get them out of that ballroom and into breakouts where they can share best practices and engage in learning activities with their peers, even the dreaded role-playing activities. The learning is most effective when they engage with each other.

MM: What is most appropriate for a virtual presentation, instead of a presentation at a live meeting?

Swift: We like to use the online campus to highlight thought leaders and content area experts. Put that presentation from a senior executive on the virtual campus so reps can listen to the message at their leisure rather than taking up time in a general session. A marketing team can use the virtual campus to take a rep on a detailed walk through a new sales aid or campaign, explain the details of the direct-to-consumer aspects of the campaign, or reveal how many tchotchkes the rep is going to get. That's perfect for the virtual campus.

You also can use the virtual campus for testing, validation, and certification. You can ask polling questions while an event is happening, and you can build in testing and certification tools using your existing learning-management system, if you have one.

Keep in mind, though, that a virtual event needs just as much attention as a live meeting. It has to feel just as exciting and interesting.