“You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit,” says Willy Loman in Act 2 of Death of a Salesman. After reading this article in today’s Wall Street Journal, many pharma sales reps may be feeling like tossed peeled fruit.

“Big pharmaceutical companies have found replacements for the army of sales representatives they’ve laid off in recent years: digital sales tools that seek to sell doctors on drugs without the intrusion of an office visit,” says the WSJ.

“Tens of thousands of pharmaceutical sales reps have been eliminated in the U.S., creating a void that drug makers are now increasingly filling with websites, iPad apps and other digital tools to interact with doctors who prescribe their treatments.”

Let’s refer to “digital sales tools that seek to sell doctors on drugs without the intrusion of an office visit” as “eDetailing.”

eDetailing in one form or another seems to be making a comeback since the recession hit the drug industry in 2007 and 2008 (see chart on right). I’m not really sure which is the “chicken” and which is the “egg”; ie, whether an uptick in adoption of eDetailing technology lead to the recent layoff of pharma reps or if reps were laid off because of the economy and subsequently replaced by machines.

Despite the title of this post, reports of the death of pharma “salesmen” may be somewhat exaggerated and not all sales reps can be replaced by machines. According to the WSJ:

“When German drug maker Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH launched the cardiovascular drug Pradaxa in the U.S., it put together a digital-marketing package to target doctors, including organizing webcasts for leading physicians to speak to other physicians about the drug. But the company found that sales calls to doctors’ offices were still the most powerful tool for driving new prescriptions, says Wa’el Hashad, vice president of cardiovascular and metabolic marketing. ‘No doubt digital marketing does have an impact…I don’t believe, however, the shift happens overnight. I think it’s a gradual shift,’ he says.”

In the Pharma Marketing News article “The Changing Role of Pharma Sales Reps,” Nancy Lurker, CEO of PDI, Inc., says “reaching physicians requires a new level of sophistication. Live rep calls and dinner meetings and other live venues, however, are not going to go away. But the relative market share in terms of the amount of effort and money that is spent on live interactions is going to shrink and you’re going to see more money being spent in the digital communications space.”

Some sales reps will morph into what I call “sales cyborgs” who engage in remote live human conversations with physicians aided by technology. See “Pharma TeleWeb e-Detailing” for more information about that.

Predicting the Impact of Technology on Sales
As of now, pilot programs such as TeleWeb e-Detailing have not been evaluated on how well they drive sales, but on other key indicators of success. Notwithstanding push back by some pharma marketing and sales managers, sales technology will continue to evolve and have greater impact in driving new prescriptions.

Back in 2006, Pharma Marketing News hosted a reader survey to predict future trends in the pharmaceutical marketing mix (see survey summary here).

The survey asked readers for their opinions regarding the impact and risk of several physician marketing channels. They were also asked how they saw the mix shifting in the next few years.

When evaluating impact, I asked respondents to think of reach, credibility, and content richness as important factors — the greater these attributes, the greater will be the impact. Risk factors, on the other hand, include potential to cause customer dissatisfaction or push back, increased regulation, negative publicity, etc. If marketers should avoid the channel, then risk would be high.

The results of the survey can be plotted in graphical form:

Let’s focus on traditional face-to-face promotion (rep) and eDetailing or epromotion.

While face-to-face promotion has a very high impact potential it is also risky and is becoming even more risky, according to survey respondents. [Risky because of increasing physician push back, denying reps access to physicians, and state laws attempting to limit access to physicians by sales reps.]

This is what the downward red arrow is showing. In fact, the tip of the arrow is where this channel may be at today!

eDetailing or ePromotion also has high impact. At the time this survey was run, eDetailing was thought to be as “risky” as face-to-face selling, but now it has the potential at least of being LESS risky and MORE impactful than traditional sales reps.

Additional Reading:

P.S. Forgive my use of the terms “salesman” and “salesmen.” Obviously, I am trying to relate this to the play “Death of a Salesman.” I am not implying that all pharma sales reps are men. Some reps are actually “cyborgs” with limited sexual attributes and some are machines that have no sex whatsoever!