May 10th, 2011

Drug Makers Replace Reps With Digital Tools

The Wall Street Journal

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.

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.

Doctors can use the tools to ask questions about drugs, order free samples and find out which insurers cover certain treatments. Sometimes drug-company representatives will engage them in live chat, or phone them back if they have more questions.

The changes are designed to cut costs and to reach doctors in ways other than the traditional office visit, which many busy physicians say they find intrusive and annoying. In 2009, one of every five doctors in the U.S. was what the industry calls a “no see,” meaning the doctor wouldn’t meet with reps.

Just a year later, that jumped to one in four, according to Bruce Grant, senior vice president of Digitas, a digital marketing agency of Publicis Groupe SA that has created tools for companies including AstraZeneca PLC and Sanofi-Aventis SA. About three-quarters of industry visits to U.S. doctors’ offices fail to result in a face-to-face meeting, he adds.

Most companies say they’re using digital tools to supplement personal sales calls, but widespread layoffs in the sector suggest that technology is replacing, not just supplementing, human reps.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, drug companies spent lavishly to increase their U.S. sales forces, an escalation most companies came to regret as a burdensome arms race. Sales reps with company cars and trunks full of free samples became a ubiquitous, and expensive, industry symbol.

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