It’s not just a Pharmaceutical Sales Representative Problem

I and others have speculated about the demise of the pharmaceutical sales representative position.  Diminishing physician access, regulatory constraints on promotion, outdated activity – oriented management expectations, and misguided and sometimes misleading marketing materials that seem to have been developed by clueless corporate – based MBAs have all challenged even the best of sales representatives trying to do their job.  Rather than dwell on what has gone wrong, and why the traditional sales representative role isn’t working any longer, let’s take a look at where to go from here.

To survive, most would agree that pharmaceutical sales representatives must add more value for customers and be able to justify the substantial expense of continuing to have them in the field.  One of the more popular solutions often proposed is to enhance the scientific and technical expertise of those who want to pursue this profession, modeling the position closer to that of a Medical Science Liaison.  But, after having spent considerable time reflecting on this I have come to the conclusion that the challenges facing the sales representative position are not necessarily just related to the lack of skill, competence, or expertise.  Rather, I believe the pharmaceutical sales representative dilemma is a symptom of the current state of industry dysfunction with broad based, deep seated root causes within most pharmaceutical companies.

If this is true, then companies and especially senior commercial management are making a huge mistake and wasting time and money by taking a narrow minded approach to resolving this problem by thinking that this is a sales issue best left to sales management to figure out and fix.  It is equally naive to think marketing can figure this out and strategically determine the clever new tactic to resolve this “sales” issue.  Territory realignments, new territory management analytics, flashy new electronic detailing aids, and even enhancing hiring standards are desperate attempts at a magic bullet, quick fix for what I believe is a much broader, inherent organizational misalignment with the evolving healthcare market.  Companies that appreciate the pervasiveness of the organizational dynamics that impact the sales representative will be able to more efficiently identify the changes needed (less trial and error) and will be able to deploy more impactful commercial organizations for the evolving new healthcare market.

Over the next several posts, we’ll discuss the basis for this conclusion (Hint: it starts with the customer), what organizational changes companies need to make (Hint: it has less to do with sales than other parts of the organization) before company representatives can once again add value and justify their deployment, and finally how the job description for field deployed company representatives will change.

8 thoughts on “It’s not just a Pharmaceutical Sales Representative Problem”

  1. Thanks, Mike. From a management perspective, in order for the rep to begin to add back “value”, somehow the rep needs to change from a “cost center” to a “revenue center”, in corporate lingo. This will be a huge challenge, given that SG&A expenses are by far the largest hit to a pharma company’s bottom line. Given the inexorable rise in “no see rep” physician’s offices around the country, this will be an uphill climb. I look forward to the rest of your series.

  2. Good morning, Mike:

    I have been in the pharma sales industry for 18 years and concur with most of your findings. I have been fortunate enough to work in hospital (and some office-based) account mangement selling my product AND company as a whole package. I have never been a fan of the glossy detail aids or scripted call structure and have fought against that model successfully. Changing call structure to making appointments and bringing valuable resources such as healthcare reform experts, reimbursement specialists and economic outcomes personnel has afforded me more opportunities with high-level hospital systems executives and “no see” physician offices. Hopefully our senior management will realize that the Pfizer model of mulitple reps calling on the same targeted physicians is both annoying and counterproductive. I see this change happening, slowly.

  3. OldDog,
    As you know I still hold out hope for the industry and as you will see in my subsequent posts this week, I believe there are definitely ways for sales representatives to add value. You have figured this out in your territory and you are fortunate to have successfully stood your ground on how best to work your territory. It sounds like you are very close to your customers and adjusted more quickly than most companies to their changing needs and expectations. More importantly, you have found ways beyond just delivering a product message to meet those needs. Congratulations and thanks for sharing.

  4. As a rep during the years 1982 to 1994, most of my district colleagues were pharmacist or in the medical field. ‘Value added selling” is an old concept discussed even then. It hasn’t been a successful model. The most productive doctors and pharmacists were those I developed a relationship with over several years. Drug companies seem to think that they can just place anyone in a territory with a computer and detail piece developed by management and sales will increase, regardless of the relationship status. Having dumped most medical professionals as detail people and hiring Ken and Barbie, the companies have managed themselves into this position. The solutions need to come from the field, not the ivory towers not in touch with daily reality.

  5. C E Humberson,
    I was a rep just before your time in the field. It will be interesting to get your comments when I finish my series of posts this week. I don’t disagree with your relationship comments but you still have to have a reason to be calling on them. Stay tuned. thanks again for your commenting.

  6. Having had a career in pharma marketing and sales for over 20 years and having a background as a pharmacist and an MBA – there are still too many “pharma people” calling on one doctor. Call them whatever you want to – MSL, HEL, sales rep, national accounts, etc. The concept of “redundant messaging” can be achieved without so many live interactions. I believe that a combination of indirect, direct, and live interactions (with one person – not ten) is a very cost effective way to reach the audience and not “dull” the message. Marketers need to be innovative and customer-oriented and make sure they listen to the customer. Our customers have always had the best ideas to increase our revenue – we just need to listen!

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