Bad Rep? A Q&A with Jamie Reidy
TO HEAR JAMIE REIDY TELL IT, HE'S ALWAYS BEEN THE SORT of slacker who succeeds. He did enough work to get decent grades in high school and at Notre Dame University, which he attended on an ROTC scholarship. After graduation, First Lieutenant Reidy spent three years on easy duty, much of it in Japan, where he chafed at military discipline but stayed out of bunkers, except on the golf course. When force reductions allowed him to leave the Army early, he jumped at the chance, even though he had no idea what his next job would be. Which is how he happened to be unemployed, living at his parents' New Jersey home, and answering the phone in boxer shorts when a Pfizer recruiter called.
familiar military culture with rigorous training, rigid sales scripts, and an unyielding requirement to call on 40 doctors a week. But he soon realized that no one checked up on him. He worked from home, and no one knew if he started his day at 10 a.m. or even went AWOL—as long as he made his quota and enough doctors signed for samples every week. Within months, he had found a new way to spend weekdays at home in his boxers: He launched on the less-than-sterling career he chronicled in his tell-all book, Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman. He started work late and often took off at three in the afternoon. He persuaded doctors to sign undated sample receipts, which allowed him to fake sales calls. Once, he traveled to London, England, without taking vacation time, even pretending to be in an Indiana parking lot when he returned his boss's calls.
In October of 2000, Reidy began a second career in pharmaceutical sales, which he took much more seriously. He often worked a full day selling oncology drugs for Eli Lilly, where he and his sales partner also reached number one in the country. The company promoted him to oncology sales trainer—his favorite job in pharma—one he likens to the roving batting instructors of minor-league baseball. Lilly fired him when Hard Sell was published in March of this year. His next book, about the Lilly oncology years, will be called Hard Feelings. Reidy lives in Manhattan Beach, California. He is writing a screenplay, and closing a deal for the movie rights to Hard Sell.
First, let's talk about the slacking. Are there stories about skipping work at Pfizer that aren't in the book? Could this book have been 500 pages long?
There are other stories I left out. Some of them I just forgot about. Like, I was at an Army reunion in Arkansas and my friend said, "What the hell? How come you didn't tell the story about the flowers?" I had completely forgotten about our first Army reunion in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was a Friday and I was playing hooky, but I sent flowers to an office to celebrate their grand opening. I called the florist in Modesto, California, and placed the order there. So of course it looked like I went in the flower shop and ordered.
You went to Arkansas from California, and to feign being at this grand opening you called the local flower shop and had them deliver flowers? How did that go over? Didn't the doctors see through that?
No, they just thought: "That's so cool. Jamie Reidy sent flowers." My bosses never knew. I mean, they knew that I sent flowers. Because they had a sales receipt.
What have your friends in the industry said about your book?
One of my friends from Lilly called me up and said, "Reidy, You hit it on the nose, man. This book is hilarious. It's like reading my journal." And then he called me a bunch of names and said, "You ruined it for us all." He meant that nobody can work only 20 hours a week anymore.
I also heard from a district manager at another company who mailed me ten copies of my book to sign for everybody on his team. He wanted to show them that he knew all the tricks now, and that they shouldn't try to get away with anything. But he also said he thought there were some sales gems in there that they could learn from.
So are reps going to have to work more than 20 hours a week? How much has the job changed?
I've heard from people at Pfizer that they're totally cracking down on everything now. They are being a lot more vigilant and checking things out, possibly looking for different receipts. And then there's another old manager trick, which I hear they've used a couple times since the book came out. The manager calls you at lunchtime on Tuesday and says, "Hey, where are you going to be at one o'clock? I want to meet up with you." That is the ultimate panic attack right there.
You seem to have gone your own way on selling, too, by rejecting some of the regimented scripts and detailing procedures that Pfizer used, developing your own relationships with doctors, and trying to think on your feet. As far as you know, how do other people feel about doing things the company way?
I think there are two reactions. I think the public reaction is always, "Come on, we're grown-ups. We're smart, educated people. We can do our own thing. Don't baby us." And people really push back on the script outwardly. But I think for a lot of people, the script makes the job even easier because you know exactly what you're supposed to say. And so now you've got this job where you're already programmed and you just—the phrase is "show up and throw up." You just regurgitate the sales pitch and the data that you've been taught to share.
And how well does that serve the company?
As my first boss always said, "Enthusiasm sells." And I would add that conviction sells. So if Pfizer or any company has spent thousands and thousands of dollars to come up with the marketing plan and the sales pitch, and you then take that and enthusiastically share it and don't make it sound like it's some canned spiel, that works. If you can sort of flavor it a little bit, I think it helps the company, because they know exactly what they want us to say. If they have their soldiers talking the company line and the company's research is correct, then that should further sales.
Even when there are three or four people calling on the same doctor, talking about the same product and giving the same basic speech?
Now we run into problems. That's where doctors have caught on over the years and said, "Hey, this is all canned." Say another rep and I both call on Dr. Smith, and this Dr. Smith doesn't really pay attention to me. He's sorting his mail as I'm giving him my pitch. And then the other rep comes in two weeks later and the doctor's got more time and he's listening to the detail and he's like, this all sounds really familiar. And I come in two weeks later and he says, "Wait a minute. This is the same stuff that other guy just told me." That's when we start to look like storm troopers. I'm not a resource for that doctor, anymore. I'm just like everybody else. I'm the UPS guy dropping samples off. I'm a well-dressed caterer with lunch for the nurses.
So where is the solution? You were on the front lines. What do you think would work best?
I think that they should reinstate our ability to take doctors golfing, and to Laker games, and to Celine Dion shows. But, of course, they had to do away with that to make it look like we weren't buying the doctors' love, which is what we were doing, and what I am advocating.
Are you serious?
In all seriousness, I think the companies need to cut back the sales force by half. When I started, there were about 35,000 reps in America. And now I read there are between 90,000 and 100,000. Doctors are just fed up.
We need fewer reps, because now the value of every rep gets diminished. Once the doctor figures out that John, Jamie, Jenny, and Sheila are all going to tell him the same thing, then none of us have any value anymore, even though I used to be a valued source to him. Now we're all the same and it doesn't matter which rep he sees. It actually doesn't matter if he sees anybody, because they're all going to give him the same company-sponsored line.
If you talk to reps who have been around for 15 or 20 years, they all lament the loss of the old days when they were able to sit down with a doctor and discuss the merits of each drug in treating the 57-year-old Hispanic woman with diabetes and a history of heart disease in her family. Reps were much more of a resource back then. Now we're just extensions of multibillion-dollar companies.
Do senior reps feel like they have to play this diminished role to keep their jobs?
The old guys question the mindset that you have to get, say, ten signatures a day for samples. There's that pressure when your boss comes back to you and reminds you that you only had 38 signatures last week. It drives the old guys crazy. They say, "Look, I'm a sales guy. My job is to drive sales. I'm not a sample guy."
There was a great story at Lilly. We didn't even have samples in the oncology division, but Lilly started pushing us to make more sales calls. We had to make five a day, which doesn't seem like anything. But in oncology you've got to share data all the time, so you wait around for hours if you need to see somebody. So probably the most seasoned rep in the Lilly oncology division picks his boss up in the morning at 8:30 for a ride-along. He goes to a big office to start his day and has good discussions with five doctors. Then he drives the boss back to his hotel.
And the boss says, "What are we doing? " The rep says, "Oh, I'm done. All you care about is that I see five doctors. I just saw my five doctors." He wasn't being a smart-aleck. He was saying, "You won't fire me for this. I want to dramatically demonstrate what's going on at this company."
So the boss calls headquarters and says, "We've got a problem. What am I going to tell the guy? He's right. That's all we're asking for."
What did the company do?
Let's say they shifted focus. They said, "Listen, that five is a goal. We would like you to strive for that, but by all means don't avoid your biggest customer just because it always takes three hours and you have to get your five calls a day." So it was actually an awesome wake-up call. The reps of the country rejoiced.
You worked as a roving sales trainer, so you got to see a lot of different reps interact with doctors. How did you come to see the job differently?
The really interesting observation for me as a trainer—the second guy in the waiting room—was how in-the-way drug reps are, and how much we stand out. Patients know exactly what we're doing. I guess I sort of blocked it out as a rep, all the dirty looks you get from patients. It was really an eye-opener for me. I just felt, wow, we don't belong here.
Imagine you're in the doctor's office with your mom who has breast cancer. The doctor's an hour late, and while you're waiting two well-dressed people walk in with bags of M&Ms and chat it up with the nurses. Then they go back and they're back there for a half hour. You know why the doctor is late. And that gets very upsetting for people, especially when you're dealing with something as sensitive as cancer. Man, I'd be crawling in my skin to get out of there.
Another thing struck me about your book. On the one hand, you were the slacker guy with an ironic distance from his job. But on the other hand, you got pretty excited about your products. Where did that come from? How much of it was trained into you?
I think it came from the brainwashing that happens in training. And I got it more so at Pfizer than I did at Lilly, because the Pfizer training staff was so impressive, and the people they kept bringing in to speak to us were so impressive. They keep rolling out the next drug, which is the best, and here is why. So you learn everything—or at least you think you learn everything—about your competing drugs.
I will still to this day argue why Zithromax was the best antibiotic in America. I can still give you the five reasons why it's better than Biaxin. And I will argue to my dying day that Zoloft was a better drug than Prozac and Paxil. And don't even get me started on Zyrtec and Claritin.
But the great thing is, if you talk to people from Lilly, they'll say that Prozac was a way better drug than Zoloft, and boom, boom, boom, here's why. And the Biaxin people say the same thing. So I think it's just like you always think your school team is better—whether it really is or not. You get that spirit going, combined with a little data to support your position, and you've got a pretty strong start.
That might explain why doctors take much of what companies say with a grain of salt. Doctors say they want studies that were not funded by the pharmaceutical industry. As drug reps, you're only getting the data the company gives you, right?
Correct. Here's an interesting thing I never knew—and if you want to talk about being na and drinking the Kool-Aid, go ahead—I never knew that studies are done, but we don't see the results. That was news to me, and I don't know if I'm the lone idiot who didn't realize that. But to find out that all these trials were done, and the results were not released, that was certainly an eye opener.
But there was more than blind belief involved, wasn't there? At some point after you were hired at Lilly, at least, you started wanting to do your job: your real job of selling doctors and solving patients' problems. What changed?
I'll tell you what changed. When you walk into an oncology office, and you're in the back looking at patients hooked up to chemotherapy IV tubes, and you're listening to people with lung cancer cough, and you see people with no hair, and they're all shriveled up. You say to yourself, you know what? If you really believe in your drug, it's a good thing to get out there and try to help these patients. It's a very powerful experience to stand in the back of an oncology office.
Would you go back if you could, assuming that another company would hire you tomorrow?
In order to stay true to myself, I have to give this writing thing my full attention. I can be so easily distracted. But if I went back, I would only work in oncology.
That's really where it's at. You deal with the ultimate situation and try to discuss life and death. Once you've worked with oncologists, and seen what they're dealing with and the level of data they get into, then you really are an expert, and it's a lot more compelling to go to work every day.
So what would it have taken to get you to do your job at Pfizer?
I don't really know. It would have had to be something compelling like that, because it wasn't money. Money doesn't drive me. People who sell antidepressants will say, "Hey listen, that patient could have killed himself. I might save somebody's life." Okay, that's two iterations away. Someone went on my drug and lived longer directly because of it. Now that's something.
A breast cancer patient in Hawaii hugged me. And she thanked me. You would have thought I invented Gemzar. That was something I'll never forget.
Do you miss being a drug rep?
I certainly miss helping patients, because in spite of all the jokes I make in the book and all the heat that the industry takes in the media, you do get to help patients. Whether the doctors switch from Paxil to Zoloft and the patient does a lot better, or the patient goes on your lung-cancer chemotherapy and makes it to her granddaughter's wedding, you can really affect somebody's life. I miss that. I find that I really miss the day-to-day human interaction of walking into the offices that are mine. I used to feel kind of like the TV character, Norm, when he walks into the bar at Cheers and everybody says, "Norm!"
You also started your career as a writer while you worked as a sales rep at Lilly. How long did it take you to write the book?
It probably took me three years but—well, it won't be a surprise since you read the book—I was really lazy about it. I would put it down for two months at a time. So it's tough to say with all the starts and stops how long it really took me.
Do you miss that lifestyle? Having the rep job with a regular paycheck, and writing the book in your spare time?
I do. Being a pharmaceutical salesman is the greatest day job in the world. Every aspiring artist, musician, and writer should become a drug rep, because you make a lot of money and you don't have to work. You know, you can get away with working 20 hours a week.
Jamie Reidy Relaxes under the pier For most of his career in pharma, Reidy focused on documenting work he didn't do. Now he goes to the beach without faking a sales call.
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