Pfizer finds success with Vista Rx program

May 1, 2001
Pharmaceutical Representative

In a profession in which success is often driven by long hours, the concept of cutting back to a part-time job may seem foreign, but a reduction in hours can sometimes be necessary for even the most dedicated reps. New York-based Pfizer Inc. has responded to this need by creating its part-time field sales force, Vista Rx. Launched in April 1999 as a pilot program with 70 reps, Vista Rx allows sales representatives to work 60% of a full-time schedule while retaining the benefits and privileges of full-time employees, making it the first of its kind in the industry.

In a profession in which success is often driven by long hours, the concept of cutting back to a part-time job may seem foreign, but a reduction in hours can sometimes be necessary for even the most dedicated reps. New York-based Pfizer Inc. has responded to this need by creating its part-time field sales force, Vista Rx. Launched in April 1999 as a pilot program with 70 reps, Vista Rx allows sales representatives to work 60% of a full-time schedule while retaining the benefits and privileges of full-time employees, making it the first of its kind in the industry.

Most commonly, reps choose to join the program when they become new or adoptive parents and want to spend more time with their children. However, as Vista Rx National Director Bruce Fleischmann pointed out, "There are lots of situations where individuals have changes in their personal lives that make it very difficult for them to continue to put the kind of time in that this job traditionally requires."

For example, John Ray, then a 28-year Pfizer sales veteran, was considering early retirement before becoming a charter member of Vista Rx in 1999. He loved his job, particularly calling on the physicians in his territory, many of whom he considered personal friends. But he wanted to spend more time with his wife and grown children, participate in his community, and improve his golf game. Said Ray, "I've enjoyed everything I've done. … But at a certain point, you'd also like to refocus, and have a little bit more breathing space, an alternate type of lifestyle."

Kelly Parker became one of the program's first members in 1999 because she wanted to continue the athletic career she began in college. Having competed as a collegiate All-American swimmer and coach before embracing a career in pharmaceutical sales, Parker wanted to fulfill her potential as an athlete, but needed more time to train. Since joining the program, Parker has competed for the United States in international competitions, and has won a gold medal in triathlon as a member of the 1999 Dual Team and a silver medal in the 2000 World Championships in aquathlon. She has also had more time to pursue her interest in sports writing, and has published articles in USA Triathlon's national magazine. Parker commented, "This has allowed me to really expand my personal goals and have a true work-life balance."

Participants in the program can choose to spread their part-time hours over three, four or five days per week, although Fleischmann noted that most reps opt to work a three-day week. Benefits are the same as those of full-time representatives, including company cars and expense accounts.

Disruption to reps' career tracks is minimal. After spending two years with the Vista program, representatives have the option to return to the full-time sales force, and they remain eligible for promotions and competitive positions. Vista reps' status as employees remains much the same; they continue to acrue retirement benefits and tenure, undergo the same types of training programs as full-time reps, and market some of Pfizer's leading products.

After 30 years with the company, Ray appreciates this aspect particularly: "You're still an integral member of the team. Your experience and contacts are valued, and you're still included in many of the important decisions of how you're going to sell ... So you're really working for the same company - selling the same products, with all the same benefits, but doing it 60% of the time."

A few adjustments

The program has presented some new challenges for both the company and the participating sales reps. Fleischmann pointed out that because Vista reps can be drawn from any sales division, some may not have experience with the specific products they will be selling. "So we've had to be flexible and put together some customized training programs so that we get people fully up to speed on every product in the Vista line as rapidly as we can."

For reps, the greatest adjustment seems to be scaling back their hours. Said Parker, "The initial challenge, not just for me, but what I heard from my peers, is to shut it off on the days that you're not working." However, both Parker and Ray noted that they felt more productive when they were working. As Parker put it, "I'm more energized, almost more efficient when I do go out there on those three days to see doctors, because I know it's just those three days."

Everybody wins

From a business perspective, Fleischmann described Vista as a "win-win" situation. The company conducted research to assess the performance of the program and observed "a decided growth of anywhere from 1.5 to 4.5% in sales in the Vista-occupied territories versus those that were not occupied by Vista people." These promising results precipitated an expansion of the program last October, in which the number of participating reps grew from 70 to 130.

Some of this success may be due to the fact that Pfizer has stacked the program's odds by reserving positions in Vista Rx for tenured, talented reps: Applicants must have worked in the Pfizer sales force for two years or more, and they must have been top performers during that time. Demand for positions is high – Fleischmann estimates the number of applicants currently on the waiting list to be between 75 and 100 – and because the program is still relatively small, having met the initial qualifications, reps must still go through a competitive interview process to obtain one of the limited number of posts.

As a result, the program has allowed Pfizer to retain some of its top representatives; Fleischmann believes that about 75% of the Vista sales force may have left the company if they had not been given this opportunity. "Vista is a solution to some of those situations, where we can retain these really quality people who are very professional, very successful, and help them to balance their work-life situation." PR