So You Want to be a Pharmaceutical Sales Rep? How Well Can You Prevaricate?

The pharmaceutical industry has taken much criticism, both just and unjust, over the years. You’ve seen the articles about dangerous side effects, insanely high prices, and bribery of doctors. These scandals make for good headlines. Fortunately for pharma sales reps, most of these issues are largely out of their control. Even the bribery, given current regulations, isn’t feasible any more to reps as a sales tool.

Many physicians don’t even accept rep-funded lunches anymore let let alone lavish trips or other freebies. No, the lie I speak of is internal to pharma companies. It doesn’t involve doctors or patients. Continue on and I will explain.

Not unlike other sales people, pharmaceutical reps are required to make records of their client visits using a customer relationship management (CRM) system. More unique to the industry is the practice of unscheduled visits to doctor’s offices. Medical professionals rarely schedule appointments in advance to talk to sales people other than lunches. Going back about 10-20 years ago, doctors used to allow reps to stop by during their office hours and allow them a conversation in between seeing patients.

Today, most offices either allow only rep access to the doctor at lunch time or prohibit it all together. Still, to this day, most pharma companies enforce strict requirements such as 10 physician calls per day.

Remember when I said this article was about lying? To make up the gap between “required” calls and actual face-to-face conversations, pharma sales often just put the required ten calls in their CRM system instead of the actual 1 or 2 (or none!). Often, because a rep may need to leave medication samples, they may need to wait in the office lobby while the doctor signs their computer screen.

Therefore, a REAL day in the life of a pharma rep consists of meeting with 1 or 2 physicians over lunch, visiting the waiting rooms of 8 or 9 others, and at the end of the day, recording all 10 visits as face-to-face calls.

Does all of this sound like lying? Of course it is! Right now, any non-salesperson reading this is asking, “What’s the big deal? All sales people lie don’t they?” Having been one for over 20 years working with hundreds others, I can say this is emphatically not true. Most of us do not lie – intentionally. So, what gives? Obviously, in this case, pharma reps know they are lying and are still doing it. Consider the following questions:

Who does this lie benefit?
The obvious benefit to the rep is staying employed. To this I ask, how many among us wouldn’t tell a white lie in order to keep their job? Is it believable that thousands of pharmaceutical sales managers accross the country are ignorant to the fact that doctors don’t see reps? More on this later.

In the absence of proof, I speculate that the management of pharma companies use this data for some reason other than evaluating sales people. One possibility is that the call data it is recorded in order to impress current and potential investors. Another is using call volume data to promote the sales force itself, as a partnering tool. In this scenario, I convince you that my sales force is so skilled and diligent (“Just look at how many sales calls they make!”) that you want to hire them to sell your products as well. A third possibility is that the FDA requires the reporting of sales call volume. I see no reason for any of these possilbilites to be mutually exclusive so any combination of them could exist.

Who does this lie hurt?
The quick answer would be anyone who relies on the information. If sales managers could truly claim ignorance they’d be a good candidate. But let’s be real. It’s never good to lie to investors or business partners. And, it’s REALLY never good to lie to the government! Still, I assert these are not the only possible victims of this lie. Most people want to feel proud of what they do for a living. Sales people are no different. Being forced to lie to keep your job is demoralizing and debilitating, especially over the long term. Consider the commonly used polygraph or lie detector test. It works by detecting the physical stress created when someone tells a lie. Stress, of course, has been proven over and over again to produce negative health consequences.

Who is really doing the lying?
Obviously the sales reps are doing the lying. Or, are they? It would be hard for any pharmaceutical sales manager to claim total ignorance. After all, they are going into offices with sale reps and getting the door slammed in their faces as well. It’s very hard to believe that knowledge of this reality doesn’t go far up the chain of command either. Repeatedly, I have seen fearful reluctance, on the part of reps, to bring this issue into the light for fear of repercussions. I assert, when you force someone to lie in order to keep their job, you yourself become the liar. Therefore, management, or whomever benefits from the lies are the true beneficiaries.

What can be done about this?
It’s about legitimacy and fear. If pharma sales people aren’t seeing all the doctors, are they really making all the sales? Doesn’t it then make sense to employ less reps who only visit doctors who allow them access? Finally, if less reps are needed, aren’t less managers needed as well? Selling to a doctor requires no less skill and effort than any other customer, but can we agree sitting in lobbies is not selling?

Nobody wants their job eliminated because we all want to pay the bills and feel fulfilled at the same time. Maybe the solution starts with us, the sales reps. When interviewing for a pharma sales job, ask specific questions about physician access and call requirements. Make the interviewer compare how many doctors you’ll need to see with how many are accessible. Perhaps if we all spend less time worrying about paying bills we gain a little more fulfillment in return!


For more info, check out this interesting article on the toll lying takes on all of us:
What Lying Does to Your Brain and Body Every Day