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Pharmaceutical sales jobs difficult, with or without iPads

Not so long ago, being a pharmaceutical sales rep could be a lot of fun. Jamie Reidy laid it all out in Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, one of the more entertaining books on the topic. In this interview from 2005, Reidy talked about how much fun it was and how the old tools for control of reps included hiring people from the military and Mormons, who were presumed to be honest and hardworking:

Reidy: Everyone works from their house and then has their own sales territory. So, no one ever knows where you are.

Smith: So it’s kind of freelance, where you set your own hours, and kind of have to be self-motivated?

Reidy: Yeah, so it shouldn’t be like freelance — they want you to be working from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. But it’s freelance in the sense that nobody has any idea whether I’m doing that or not. So, they thought they could inherently trust former military officers as honest, hardworking guys who can be trusted to get up early and go do their job. And then the other thing that I learned later on is that military officers are also used to taking orders and Pfizer’s sales pitches were very drilled down from the top, and everybody was supposed to repeat the same thing all the time.

I remember Reidy describing various shenanigans in his book, including how he and others gave out Viagra samples intended for the personal use of the physician and office staff in order to get in the door to pitch less sexy products.

Flash forward to today and BNET’s Drug Reps Fear iPad’s Spying; They Should Be Worried About Their Jobs article highlights the much diminished pleasures of being a pharmaceutical sales rep. The emergence of the iPad is the theme of the article, but it’s the broader context that’s more interesting. The author cites three trends driven by the iPad:

  1. Pharma companies “buying iPads in bulk for their sales forces even if they don’t have presentation software to run on them.” Apparently they’re stockpiling them for when they’re ready, they’re so excited about it. This trend –if true– is pretty foolish, since those iPads will be obsolete within a year or so. If anything, that sounds like the old pharma way of doing things, spending money freely without thinking things through.
  2. More physicians using iPads themselves. That one is certainly true. It also means there’s less interest in seeing a rep’s snazzy new iPad if the doc has one, and can presumably also run whatever app the sales rep is using to see the info in his or her own time.
  3. Sales reps are starting to realize that iPads are tracking their every move and reporting back to big brother, i.e., sales management. That’s a jarring disconnect from the world Reidy describes, but as reps reflect on it they may realize companies have been doing this tracking for a while, using GPS systems tied to their cars, etc. Only now it’s getting much harder to get around.

In addition to the 3 factors cited by BNET, there are three other challenges for pharma reps:

  1. Fewer doctors will see them at all, thanks mainly to policies put in place by their institutions.
  2. Doctors’ power of the pen is less mighty than it was as formulary compliance rises, thanks to the role of pharmacy benefits managers and e-prescribing.
  3. Companies like Pfizer haven’t been producing exciting new drugs like Viagra, so there’s less to pitch. And when it comes to generic competition, it doesn’t really matter how persuasive the salesperson is if your competition is charging 90 percent less.

There’s still a role for sales reps, but they’re having to work a lot harder and smarter to earn their keep. These days a guy like Reidy wouldn’t even last long enough to build up enough stories to write a book.

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