Technology replaces aggressive pharmaceutical sales techniques

Patients today are less likely to bump into drug sales representatives at a doctor's office, as pharmaceutical companies adopt cheaper technologies and more discreet ways to pitch drugs.

The changes are partly in response to a backlash against overly aggressive marketing of the past decade, when many executives believed the company with the biggest sales force would have the highest sales. From 1999 to 2001, U.S. drug companies expanded their sales staffs, on average, by 42 percent, according to the most recent research available from Datamonitor.
Back then, many physicians dealt with half a dozen or more people from each major drug company as ever-larger armies of sample-toting salespeople were mobilized. But the marketing blitz took a toll on doctors.

"A lot of practices across the U.S. basically said 'we don't want to see you anymore because it's too much of an interruption,' " said Dr. Dave Switzer, a family doctor based in northern Virginia who gives unannounced salespeople a minute of his time.

He might be on the generous side. Seventy-five percent of sales calls these days don't involve a face-to-face meeting with a doctor, according to research by Leerink Swann & Co. Industry executives acknowledge increased demands on physician's time, including paperwork required by health insurers.

However, the marketing shift goes beyond a time crunch. In recent years, media companies have increasingly scrutinized how drug companies court physicians, from handing out branded pens to funding lavish conferences at exotic locations.

"Patients are watching, medical students are watching and it's just become harder and harder to justify these interactions," said David Kramer, chief executive of Digitas Health, a company that specializes in online pharmaceutical marketing.

Perhaps the most important driver in the effort to improve selling techniques is the bottom line. Revenues are shrinking industrywide as many blockbuster drugs from the past decade lose patent protection. Dwindling sales recently led the industry's biggest player, Pfizer Inc., to cut its U.S. sales force by 20 percent or about 2,500 salespeople. Rivals such as AstraZeneca and Bristol-Myers Squibb also have reduced U.S. sales staff in recent years.

"We've made sure we have fewer representatives calling on any one physician and made those representatives more accountable for each of their relationships," said David Snow, an AstraZeneca vice president. "And the technology actually enhances that by giving them more information and more ways to present it."

AstraZeneca and other companies are focusing on Web-based visits between doctors and salespeople. Executives say it is becoming one of their most effective selling techniques.
According to Merck & Co. Inc., the average online appointment with a physician lasts 10 minutes, compared with 4 minutes for an in-person meeting.

Consulting firm Exploria SPA says more than 70 percent of drug salespeople carry a tablet PC even though some representatives complain the devices allow managers to peer over their shoulders too much.

The tablet PC automatically records information about what was presented and how it was received and sends it back to the marketing department. This feedback can be used to judge the quality of the company's message — and sometimes the skill of the person presenting it.

Industry executives say selling in person will remain the core of their sales strategy, although the past two years have seen an increase in online promotions that eliminate salespeople. According to one industry survey, nearly half of physicians prefer to learn about new medications through the Internet, instead of through a salesperson.

People who design these online promotions say doctors are simply displaying the same consumer preferences that have made businesses like and eBay so successful.
"I shop online, I consume information online, and I don't have to wait for the newspaper to hit the driveway," said Bruce Grant, an executive with Digitas Health. "Doctors are just doing the same thing you and I are as consumers: They're taking advantage of the full power and convenience these new media give you."

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