Do sales reps still matter?

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Over the past few years, it’s no secret that pharmaceutical companies are making significant reductions in the size of their sales “armies.” The days of the “arms race,” where more reps meant more detailing, are over. Physicians are limiting access more and more. Many hospitals do not even allow reps in the front door. MCOs’ are exerting increasing pressure to lower drug costs. And, more and more companies are moving into the specialty drug market, thus limiting the number of drugs carried in the rep’s bag vs. a traditional PCP rep. When factoring in that many blockbuster drugs are heading towards the “patent cliff,” suddenly the cost to maintain large sales forces is no longer justified.

As just one example, the Wall St. Journal reported that in 2013 Eli Lilly cut its US sales force by 30%, as it prepared for two of its biggest drugs (Cymbalta and Evista) to face generic competition.

Despite all of this, sales forces are still essential to pharmaceutical companies. They act as the face of the company and an important medical information resource to the physician to share data about the drug and get questions answered. Their marketing efforts impact sales and their ability to disseminate new information about drugs helps ensure patients get the right treatment for their needs. In many ways, they own the relationship between the pharmaceutical company and the HCP. In short, they still matter.

This isn’t to say some sales model experimentation isn’t going on. E-Detailing is becoming popular as an alternative way to access doctors when it is convenient for them. Others are trying more radical approaches. GSK, for example, announced that in 2014 its reps would no longer be paid on sales targets. Instead, they will be compensated on such metrics as technical knowledge, quality of service and overall company performance. Will other pharma companies follow? It remains to be seen, but sales reps have been traditionally motivated by the carrot (and money) of beating a sales goal.

Fortunately, cutting sales force size or changing the sales model doesn’t necessarily mean a decrease in sales effectiveness or revenue. One strategy is to get the various commercial teams to work together more collaboratively. With today’s sophisticated cloud-based analytical tools available, the ability for everyone to work together, aligned with the same strategy, is much easier.

While sales force reductions are likely to continue, sales reps are boosting their efficiency with sophisticated analytical tools at their fingertips, and ensuring their position as an important link in the pharmaceutical industry.