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Walk a mile in your customer’s shoes

A large article appeared yesterday in the business section of the Indianapolis Star. The piece titled “Lilly changes course as it shrinks its sales force” discussed how the pharmaceutical giant was cutting over 4000 sales positions and how the changes were effecting selected representatives.

The article can be accessed here.

The fact that the pharmaceutical sales model is broken and needs to be revised is not a surprise. Experts in the industry have seen it coming for years. A few years ago pharmaceutical companies in an effort to increase share of voice in the doctors’ office dramatically increased the number of sales representatives calling on doctors. In many cases 3 or 4 individuals from the same company would call on a single doctor. Each representative would give the doctor essentially the same message adding little new information that would help the doctor prescribe the product. The representatives were rewarded on number of calls they made and volume of samples distributed rather than valuable information provided. Information was pushed down to the doctor. Listening to the doctors concerns was discouraged. As a result the doctors quickly became frustrated. They were not learning any new information. In fact the visits were taking time from their fee-paying patients. An increasing number of institutions or physician practices now ban pharmaceutical reps from calling on their doctors or make it mandatory that the rep has an appointment to see a doctor. Doctors view a representative as a distraction rather than an allay.

Times change. There was a time not too long ago when a sales representative visit (most were a registered pharmacists) was appreciated and valued. What happened?

My opinion is that in many pharmaceutical companies the short term goal of selling product at all costs overshadowed and in many cases destroyed the relationship between the company and key customers that had taken years to build. In the past a doctor and an educated representative spent time building a strong trusting relationship by engaging in effective conversation. This meant questions and answers on both sides regarding disease and available treatments. The representative learned about patients the doctor was seeing, outcomes she experienced and concerns he about particular therapies. The doctor learned how a particular treatment worked, details of clinical trials and why a drug should be considered for certain patients and why it should not for others. Quality information was passed. Time was well spent and valued by doctor and rep.

Today doctors are seeing more patients and receiving less income for each patient. The number of products to treat disease has exponentially increased. The time doctors spend to research new therapy is less. In theory the doctors’ need for quality information is at least as high today as it was in the past.

So what can be done? There is a solution but it is not easy and will take time and commitment to implement. Success will be measured over years but disaster can happen in weeks if management loses direction. Pharmaceutical companies need to build back trust with their key customers. They need to understand the patients that use their products and the doctors that recommend them. A doctor will need to see a pharmaceutical company not as a company that demands profit but as a trusted resource that will help him or her get the best possible outcome for their patient.

So how do you start? I think the winners will be pharmaceutical companies that make a commitment to walk in the shoes of their patients and doctors. The company must recruit and train a representative to really listen to and understand the doctors they support. How many patients does he see a day? How prevalent is a particular disease state? How dedicated are her patients to treating their disease? Where are his frustrations? What questions does she have? What information can be provided to make his life a bit easier? How can the rep win the doctors trust? Remember trust will and should be built on the exchange of quality information. Gone are the days when trust was bought by sponsorships, lunches, trips, trinkets and/or grants.

This is how you build a relationship. This is how you rebuild your brand, your company, and your business. It will happen one doctor at a time, one rep at a time. It will mean that representatives will be placed in an area for an extended time to build and grow relationships. It will mean that representatives are trusted to develop relationships and not just to deliver a scripted message.

In the successful pharmaceutical company of the future representatives will decline in number but increase in knowledge and value. Many of today’s reps will find new employment in other areas. A few will rise to the challenge and be rewarded both monetarily and professionally.

Can it happen? I think so but I am an eternal optimist. Let me know your thoughts.

Until next time – all the best!


{ 1 comment… add one }

  • DanaW January 25, 2010, 12:56 pm


    I think you're correct and hope the companies invest appropriately in the correct kind of representative. Right now, most of those being retained are those with the "numbers". Many of the talented representatives are being let go because of mediocre performance according to how the individual companies rank representatives. In Indiana alone with my previous employer, we lost 2 RNs (who other companies quickly snatched-up) in favor of more aggressive sales people.

    Good post!
    Hope you're well.

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