The Disappearing Pharmaceutical Sales Role

Editorials and commentary on Pharma web and blog sites continue to highlight the massive layoffs of pharmaceutical sales reps. These are frequently accompanied by commentary with justifications and desperate rationalizations for maintaining the role of the traditional pharmaceutical sales representative. Most frequently, the commentaries blame regulatory constraints and promotion guidelines for the diminishing value reps can now provide.  Many forget that the industry has brought this upon themselves by repeatedly compromising market trust with blatant advertising and promotion abuses.

Here is the reality. Physicians no longer value sales people or the information they try to convey.  Patients and office staff see sales reps waiting in the office delaying appointments and taking up physician time. Managed markets find sales people a nuisance and counterproductive to their formulary management and cost control initiatives. Legislators and regulators see the reps as uncontrollable extensions of the “not to be trusted” corporate, Big Pharma and feel compelled to restrict sales activities.  Yes, the reality is that sales reps and the information they convey are no longer respected, valued, or trusted. The traditional pharmaceutical sales role has become ineffective, and is quickly becoming obsolete.

If the industry has any hopes to deliver product information “in person”, it needs to abandon this traditional sales rep model, including the hiring profile, job requirements, title, and incentive compensation plans.  Yes, get rid of it completely.  There is no transformation or minor adjusting that will change the market perceptions or the effectiveness of this outdated model.

Healthcare providers in the evolving new healthcare market will still need information and education about pharmaceuticals and therapeutic options.  The internet, continuing medical education, and scientific meetings and conferences will continue to be major sources for product information. If the industry feels a need to continue to communicate product information “in person”, their only hope is with smaller therapeutic area teams consisting of far fewer life sciences trained (degrees) medical specialists with clinical training and therapeutic area expertise. Call them what you like (except sales people), their job will not be to “sell”. They will report to Medical Affairs in research, are salaried professionals with incentive compensation (if there is any) based on advancing their therapeutic expertise.  Their role will be as therapeutic consultants to healthcare providers and managed plans.  No slick marketing materials or gimmicks to curry favor. Their value is their familiarity with the literature, knowledge about the nuances of therapeutic options (competitive products including generic drugs) as they are of their own and they can back up claims and recommendations with data and literature support. Their job is to ensure the appropriate use of drug treatment, regardless of which product the healthcare provider prefers.  They will be seen and respected as therapeutic area experts.

While many might argue this sounds like the role of the Medical Science Liaison.  I would agree except that the industry has also corrupted and abused this once valuable resource, pushing them to glorified sales roles or enlisting them to covertly and overtly promote products for “off-label” use.  The roles proposed here are for true expertise, no sales responsibilities or expectations, and a genuine interest in supporting the information needs of healthcare providers for the benefit of patients.

The second management or aggressive marketers decide to take advantage of this newly established resource and push this group to a sale responsibility, they will once again, mitigate the value and compromise perhaps one of the last opportunities for credible, value-adding “in person” communication of product information with healthcare providers.

2 thoughts on “The Disappearing Pharmaceutical Sales Role”

  1. No question that sales reps have been on the decline.

    To me reps span a spectrum of usefulness. Those that focus on relationships and really helping my office are welcome. Those that focus on trying to teach me about their drug and sell are generally a nuisance. They just don’t understand that doctors have very little interest being “educated” by reps. They are too biased to be trusted. They try to be fair on an individual level, but on a corporate level they are not given enough education to really hold on a sophisticated conversation with a physician, and that’s a real problem.

    Some of the most helpful reps in my experience have been reps that almost forget about selling. One memorable rep was like the TMZ of the local medical community. She had so much gossip to share that she was a treat to have for lunch. Truth is, I enjoyed having her visit, and probably used her products a bit more for it.

    I think there will be a place in the future for reps to do direct to physician advertising through small blogs like this one. Blogs create the opportunity to gather an audience that would often not be in one place in another environment. Companies will spend $250 for a big staff lunch to get 10 minutes of a doctor’s time. They should be willing to spend $1000 to sponsor a blog post that will get hundreds of physicians reading it. That’s the future that I’m looking for.

    Equipment reps, however, are a different story. Though biased at time, they bring a technical expertise to the operating rooms that is often unavailable anywhere else. They don’t teach a surgeon how to operate, but they know how to operate the complicated equipment they sell, and sometimes that can make a critical difference. I have many equipment rep friends, and value them every time they are in my OR.

  2. Clearly pharmaceutical companies need to experiment with new ways to add value.

    Perhaps we will see a hybrid model emerge. Most physicians still practice medicine in small group practices or even solo practices. They are pressed for time and serve as owner/operators of small businesses. Their resources are limited.

    These physicians value the samples, rebate coupons and educational materials that drug companies provide. However, just mailing them to the doctor’s office places a burden on the doctor’s staff to open the materials, evaluate their utility, put them in the sample closet in the right place so they can be located when needed, etc.

    A service rep who visits frequently and routinely keeps the sample closet stocked with educational materials, coupons, samples, etc. could be supplemented by more clinically oriented MSL that visits less frequently, maybe 2-4 times a year. The service rep would be equipped to quickly answer questions and provide reminders on any new information about the firms products, including changes in managed care reimbursement, Medicaid, etc., but would not tie up the time of the doctor and the staff. A single service rep could handle all of the company’s product line. The more clinically oriented MSLs would likely be specialized.

    These new service reps would receive much less in compensation, but would keep the drug company connected to the doctor in a way that adds value. A single first line manager could handle a large number of these reps. Many of the reps could be part-time.

    Physicians will place value on helpful allies that are respectful of their time and non-intrusive. The industry shouldn’t abandon face-to-face service and face-to-face clinical conversations. But perhaps these two functions shouldn’t be combined in the same person.

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