A few weeks ago, one of my best friends called me. He was frustrated about his pharmaceutical sales job, particularly the way the company calculated “sales”. It has finally pushed him to seriously consider another gig. Truth is I have seen lots of pharma reps apply for sales positions I have. None of them have been able to change belief of mine. Pharma is not sales. Can you convince me?
Nothing like pissing off a huge contingency of “sellers” right? But stick with me, oh purveyors of pills and hammer me in the comments section if you like. Sorry, but you don’t really sell. If you did, a doctor would buy a big box of meds from you, cut you a check and you would get a percentage. But that that doesn’t happen now does it?
Nope. From what my friend has told me and what I have read, your job is to make sure docs have enough samples, materials and coupons so that when a patient is ill, the doctor will recommend your product. So tell me, is that selling or PR mixed with product placement and marketing?
I do a lot of triathlons. At every event there are tables with attractive young people handing out samples and coupons. The reason? So you try their product and get hooked. The “reps” will tell you how wonderful it is at hydrating, fueling, sun protection, chafing, you name it. No matter what the question, the product is awesome to relieve that symptom.
Most of these people are paid on an hourly basis to hand the stuff out, smile and tell you product “X” kicks ass. They get rejected a lot and after eight hours, I bet it’s a real grind. Isn’t that basically what pharma “sales people” do except in doctors’ offices?
In a way, pharma reps sell like second graders – which is a good thing. Pharma reps really do serve their customers by providing tools and great knowledge. But that’s where the Second Grade Selling ends, because there is no deal closing of any sort. No pharmaceutical rep on the planet has ever walked out of a doctor’s office with a check.
For definitive proof that pharmaceutical sales is not selling, look no further than the comp plan of a major pharmaceutical company. Most salespeople get paid a commission on what they sell. Sell something and you make money. Granted many large companies have found creative ways to screw salespeople out of commissions, as I wrote in Illusion of Sales Goals but making commission on what is sold is a basic concept. When we were all second graders we expected a reward for kicking butt, right away. Every salesperson I know (including me) hasn’t changed much since then!
Not so with at least this pharmaceutical company. Nope, instead of getting a small cut on every script written, pay is based on well…the baseline. In other words, how much has a salesperson increased the number of prescriptions over last year? For example if a salesperson had 100 prescriptions last year, they may be expected to have 110 this year to make bonus. So it’s not sales that are compensated, its increases that are compensated.
On top of that, at least with this company, the “baseline” slides as the quarter moves on. We’re talking prescriptions per day. If a salesperson misses early in the quarter that deficit can snowball quickly which means little or no bonus.
Then next year the baseline goes up. And the year after that. UP. And up and up and up. And you wonder why pharmaceutical companies hire so many new salespeople? It’s because they bounce the higher paid ones out with increasingly unreachable “sales” goals.
Bottom line is: pharmaceutical reps aren’t paid for what they sell. They are paid for hitting an arbitrary goal created from a formula administered by a guy with a PhD in statistics.
For pharmaceutical companies, maybe it’s time to stop calling people sales reps and acknowledging your sales force for what they really are—marketing and PR. Stop paying faux commissions and instead hand out bonuses based on market share. And for goodness sakes, fix your convoluted comp plans so you don’t force out your most qualified and knowledgeable reps. You’re out to get market share, right? You can’t do that with a revolving door of rookies.
So what is a pharmaceutical sales rep or someone who wants to be one to do? First, open your eyes to the reality of the job. You will be in a stable industry, but one that won’t teach you closing skills you can easily take into other arenas. It will teach you marketing, PR and merchandising, you will learn how to sell like a second grader a little bit — skills you can absolutely take elsewhere. So as you are evaluating your path consider if you want to stay in pharma, which is just fine and lucrative for many people, or use a pharmaceutical sales job as a stepping stone to say marketing or merchandising.
Also when you are evaluating your comp plan make sure it gives you a cut on what you actually sell – that goes for any sales job for that matter! If you aren’t compensated directly to what you sell, it isn’t sales. Demand it, or find a company that has a straight forward comp plan. And if you think pharma really is sales, enlighten me!