Sales Management: A Sample Plan

One of the industry's most important promotional tools is also one of its least understood. Patrick Burns, of BW Analytics, discusses new approaches to measuring the impact of sampling—and giving reps the tools they need to use samples better.
Jun 01, 2005


Patrick Burns
Pharm Exec: We've heard a lot of discussion lately about what a huge expense sampling is, and how little is known about how samples are actually used. Have you been hearing it, too?

Burns: Because of the history of sampling in this industry, it seems to be the last promotional tactic for which marketing and sales operations are exerting influence, management oversight, and integration into the overall marketing plan. My understanding is that that is primarily a result of how the sample has emerged as a method of access for sales reps when they go into a physician's office.

I've heard from multiple brand managers that they can't tell their reps what to do with samples. The mentality is: Reps ultimately know best how to distribute samples in the field, because they're the ones who see the doctors, and they're the ones who best understand the impact that the sample is having. But at the same time, companies are asking, "Am I using samples correctly? Or is there a more optimal way to think about how to use samples?"

How do you respond to that?

We ask questions like, "How does your sales rep know the impact? Are they actually measuring impact? Are you providing them with data that help them understand?" What they usually come back with is anecdotal feedback—reps saying things like, "I was able to get in and see Dr. Williams for the first time in months, and I got in because I used samples. I had an armload of samples, and he was happy to see me."

In that instance, sampling was an effective technique for gaining access to a physician to initiate the detail. But ultimately, it didn't appear that the sales rep was necessarily aligned with the interests of the organization. Reps need to think about how distributing samples ripples through the network of physicians, to the patients, to those patients reacting by going to the pharmacy to get their prescription filled. Reps need to understand the end-to-end effect.

What about the role of sampling as one of many tactics being employed by pharma companies to drive sales volume for drugs?

There are a lot of moving parts in the product marketing mix. It is difficult for a sales rep in the field, working with a tiny portion of the overall target market, to independently make a decision about how many samples to wave. I'm not questioning the notion that reps can use a sample to get in to see a doctor. But I think reps can be more successful if they have knowledge about the impact of delivering one versus two versus 10 samples. How does a rep know whether Dr. Williams should get one or 10 samples, and what will the impact be on that particular physician's prescribing behavior? It may be a PCP sales force, but each individual physician has different influences and behaviors, and different prescribing patterns.



We've looked at two aspects to this problem: the relationship between the detail and the sample as part of a physician call, and the influences of the other promotional media that are used to influence consumers, patients, and physicians. I'll use an example of a client who had a first-in-class, blockbuster brand that was mature. It was about 18 months out from patent expiry, and the company believed that they had been oversampling the brand for a long period of time. Because of periodic budget cuts, they had actually already taken the investment in sampling down from where it had been (at mid-product life cycle), but they still thought they were spending too much on sampling, since the product was at such a mature stage. But our analysis ultimately showed that despite this sort of widely accepted product life cycle theory, the client had actually been undersampling the product.

What the client overlooked was the relationship between the sample itself and the detail. There is something called the momentum effect, which means that if a rep leaves a sample with a doctor today, that will influence that physician to prescribe the drug in the future. There will be a lingering effect: The doctor will be thinking about prescribing that rep's drug next week, and the week after, and so forth, based on what was delivered to him today.