Like Marty McFly, the character played by Michael J. Fox in the movie Back to the Future, pharmaceutical companies may need to go back in time to assure their own future. McFly was a time-traveling 1980s teenager
who landed unexpectedly in the 1950s, and discovered that he needed to spark a romance between his parents to assure his future
birth. The problem pharma companies face, if less existential, might be equally baffling for today's sales departments. After
training a generation of sales reps and managers on store-bought physician prescribing data, sales executives face the possibility
that their data supply may dry up. If it does, pharma has to remember how it used to sell to doctors—before anyone had the
luxury of databases full of prescribing data.
In reality, this is not yet a big problem. New Hampshire, which passed a law to ban the use of prescribing data, represents
less than one percent of the nation's market for prescription drugs. And, so far at least, physicians enrolled in the American
Medical Association's PDRP program are but one half of one percent of the AMA's 800,000 members. But the danger signs are
out there, and it might be time to think about future—and past—selling strategies.
If access to physician prescribing data continues to decrease, the just-look-it-up mentality of too many sales reps will,
by necessity, become a thing of the past. But as someone who has worked 15 years in the industry, I'm here to tell you that
the way of the past—developing sources in a community and crafting a sales strategy with the information they disclose, helped
make me more efficient and enabled me to respect my customer's time. Back in the day, when I carried the bag, I started out
with little information about a new territory besides zip-code sales data. I did fine. And if data granularity disappears,
the sales representative of the future can still succeed.
Don't get me wrong. I do not prefer the old ways to what we do today. Since the mid-1990s, pharmaceutical companies have built
practically all of their sales operations and business processes—from targeting, physician segmentation, sales-force automation
systems, and incentive-compensation plans—on prescriber-level information they purchase from data aggregators like Verispan
and IMS. This information allows pharma to identify the prescribing patterns of specific physicians and decide where to focus
sales activity. The data enables reps and their supervisors to pinpoint messages and develop valuable medical information
that is customized to the prescriber—thereby offering more value to patients and themselves.
A Sales Repīs Tangled Web
But as wonderful as this data is, pharma can relearn how to live without it. Sales managers should still be able to adjust
business practices, run departments, and train sales representatives—even if we have to work the way I did, when I first became
When I was a sales representative for McNeil Pharmaceutical in 1991, I received zip-code data every month. The data broke
down product sales for my medications and competitors by zip code throughout my territory. My first step in analyzing the
data was to compare the new numbers to the previous period, to gauge any changes. I then calculated my net-to-market (my product's
percent growth or decrease minus the market's percent growth or decrease for the period) to assess overall progress. The net-to-market
gave me a context for my product's growth or decline. Then I had to rely on my business acumen and local-market knowledge
to help identify the key high prescribers or the ones who gained or lost market share. It was at this point that I was able
to assess the effect of my targeting.