Sweetening the Pill


‘People buy from people,’ we’re told, again and again, if we’re in the business of sales. It’s not about the product: it’s about YOU.

I say this myself to our sales staff in LLP Group and systems@work. We write and sell software, and provide the consulting days that make the software work. Of course, I don’t mean to imply that the software product and what it can do is irrelevant, but rather that in making our software work for a customer it’s only partly about the product, and as much about the skills of the people involved in the sale and implementation, including their personal skills of persuasion and determination. Assuming, of course, that during the sales process our sales staff are selling as if they are honest and realistic consultants, which, often, they have been.

People buy from people. And people buy from people they like. And sometimes people like people because they give them things.

Sales has always been a muddy business. The trick of making people like you should be about what you’re bringing to them ‘professionally’ rather than ‘personally’, but sometimes it isn’t. There are the dinners, the gifts, the ‘training’ trips, the nightclubs, the seats at sporting fixtures, all those benefits that oil the wheels of sales. They’re often above board, completely visible, accountable (even tax deductible) and bring no long-term personal benefit to the recipient, but sometimes they’re not.

The rule in my company is that anything we give to a client or a potential client  (and we set a very low maximum) the recipient must be able to declare to his or her boss. We give bottles of wine at Christmas, and we take our visitors out to dinner.

Sales is certainly cleaner than it was, but we’d be lying if we suggested that the reason we are generous to potential clients and existing clients has nothing to do with wanting their business. There are grey areas.

In the world of business-to-business software sales in the private sector it is not complicated. But it all gets much more difficult in areas where ethics and public money are involved, such as in the purchase of pharmaceutical products by publicly funded health services. Pharmaceutical products must be good for the patient, and affordable for the tax payer.


Over the last few years the practices of pharmaceutical sales teams have come under the spotlight and, as in China recently, pharmaceutical companies have been prosecuted and fined for ‘bribing’ doctors to buy their products.

I don’t know if there has ever been direct under-the-table bribing, such as cash in brown paper bags, but the tentacles of pharmaceutical companies go so deep into the institutions they sell to that it’s difficult to disentangle the ethical from the unethical. They sponsor research, they provide samples, they run training courses, they pay for doctors to go to, and speak at, conferences, they run educational seminars, and often entertain on a lavish scale.  It is no wonder that the objective independence of those who recommend and prescribe particular products is undermined, consciously or otherwise.

So great have been some recent scandals that regulation has now begun to intrude on these practices. One consequence is that pharmaceutical companies must now track and report on all the ‘benefits’ they provide to Health Care Professionals (HCPs). This reporting is enforced both internally but also by statutory bodies. The value of all benefits must be reported by expense type, by organisation and by individual (and by the role they perform in the organisation).

This is where expense@work comes in. I’ve recently been engaged in trying to sell our expense management software to a pharmaceutical company that’s under pressure to provide exactly this kind of HCP reporting. It’s easy for us, and I can easily configure the system to track expenses not just by the elements that are needed for accounting purposes (expense type, description, gross value, VAT value and net value, in transaction and local currency) but also by organisation and particular health care professional (if appropriate) and by pharmaceutical product area and product.

I can picture the sales representatives assiduously entering these data into our system and I don’t suppose they would like doing it, but transparency in the slightly murky area of pharmaceutical sales is long overdue.

Pharmaceutical companies are essential. Where would be without them? And it is legitimate that they should actively advertise and promote their products. This means relationships with HCPs at all levels. The provision of education and training is part of the process too. But even if there’s complete transparency, it’s still important to be nice. People will always buy from people.


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