It’s been over half a year since a potentially landmark event occurred in the pharmaceutical industry. Last January, GlaxoSmithKline announced it was eliminating its individual sales goals as an incentive compensation measure for sales representatives. In short, reps’ bonuses aren’t based on individual sales any longer. In their stead, GSK introduced a combination of selling competency, customer evaluations, and overall business unit performance as bonus measures.
I spent five years in the pharmaceutical industry, and had the chance to talk to many GSK representatives when the measures were announced. Most believed it was just a public relations stunt to try and present themselves as the “good guys” in pharmaceutical marketing – focused solely on customer needs. However, I’m not convinced that’s the lone reason.
There’s research that backs up their decision.
Victor Vroom first argued that incentives work only when several conditions are met, one of them being a belief that extra effort will actually increase the measurement of performance. In the case of pharmaceutical sales, I’m not convinced this has been the case for a while. In today’s industry, most sales representatives serve on a team that shares a territory or list of physicians. In addition, numerous factors outside the representative-physician interaction affect the actual movement of product (e.g. insurance formulary, pharmacists inventory, patient preference, DTC advertising).
With all these factors, it is likely that individual representatives efforts explain only a small percentage of the product’s movement. So bonuses based solely on this movement are likely to have little motivating effort. GSK’s new bonus system is a little closer to, for lack of a better term, evidence-based motivation. It’s an important first step toward aligning bonus metrics with the actual demands of the role. We’ll see how many other companies follow GSK’s lead.
[On a related note, before they sold their pharmaceutical division, Proctor & Gamble eliminated bonuses all together, favoring a higher base salary and using sales data for individual contests.]
David Burkus is the editor of LDRLB. He speaks, consults and serves on the faculty of management at Oral Roberts University’s College of Business.