The Challenge of Growing Pharma Sales

A global head of sales at a pharma company recently told me that “only 15% of our sales calls end in a positive outcome.” 

In the context of a new medical innovation where there is a high unmet patient need, this means patients are not getting rapid access to medicines that can positively impact or even extend their lives. For the pharmaceutical company that has typically invested $2BN in the research and development of an approved drug, there is a huge opportunity to improve the impact of their primary channel to drive adoption of their medicine- the sales rep.

Why is success in pharma sales so hard? Let’s start at the highest level and work down from there. 

Challenge 1: Limited set of marketing and sales tools 

Pharma has always been highly restrictive in terms of the different tools you can use to engage, educate and inform about prescription medicines. Emblematic of this restriction is that everywhere in the world, excluding the US and New Zealand, you can’t do direct-to-consumer advertising. So, you can’t actually advertise or promote your brand to your end-user. 

Without opening the debate on the pros or cons of medicines advertising, it does mean pharma companies cannot build the direct connection and mass awareness that consumers, technology, or, even, OTC medicines can through traditional channels like TV (The United States and New Zealand are the only two countries in the world where direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of prescription drugs is legal, but lengthy side effects must be listed). Prescription medicine companies simply have fewer ways of reaching audiences at scale compared to nearly any other industry. 


Challenge 2: There is little opportunity for marketing “creative” to engage people

The second challenge is that you are further limited in terms of creative freedom. Love them or hate them, we all remember a particularly creative ad – whether it’s the Old Spice guy with tickets for that thing you love or how Nike encourages you to Just Do It. Not only were these ads a pervasive part of our lives, but they also engaged with us at a deeply human level through their creative power. 

The reality is there is little room for creativity when it comes to advertising medicines. With regulations in place to ensure fair balance and precision about licensed, pharma marketing has to be fact-based. As such, many of the creative tools available to a consumer goods marketeer are simply not applicable in the pharma world.  

Challenge 3: Higher stakes, lower frequency product launches

The third challenge is that innovative medicines have higher stakes, and lower frequency product launches. With the cost of bringing a new drug to market estimated at more than $2Billion (this includes R&D and expenditures on drugs that fail to reach the market), the commercial pressure on product launches is intense. Investors and analysts are scrutinizing every signal for launch momentum, and poor uptake of a potential blockbuster is quickly reflected in a negative impact on the stock price. Add in the high-pressure environment of new drug launches that are generally an infrequent event for a company. 

With only 50 novel drug approvals by the FDA across the entire industry in a typical year, the opportunity to build the institutional knowledge and refine launch marketing and sales fundamentals is an order of magnitude lower than, say, in consumer goods where there might be upwards of 4 brand initiatives a year. This high-stakes, low-frequency environment makes it imperative to ensure every sales and marketing action count. 

The Strategic Importance and Persistence of the Pharma Sales Rep 

The death of the Pharma sales rep has been predicted on numerous occasions over the last two decades. Yet, for a model that is supposed to be dead, direct Pharmaceutical selling to prescribers continues to be a vital tool in pharma’s more limited marketing toolkit. 

Indeed, despite the cutting and culling of the sales force that has taken place from the mid-2000s, the Pharma field force continues to be the leading mechanism for communicating approved label information for drugs to prescribers and is still the strongest link between the pharma companies and healthcare professionals. The nature of the sales rep’s interaction with the Healthcare Professional has and will continue to change. 

Instead of calling just on individual HCPs, reps are calling on large group practices and integrated care systems. Instead of a limited focus on creating product awareness and communicating product benefits, leading Sales Reps and Key Account Managers have a stringent focus on improving the customer value and experience. This requires them to interact more intensively to assess, engage, and maintain connections with HCPs and key decision-makers.  

The Biggest Performance Opportunity Has Been Hiding in Plain Sight

So, you finally have a newly approved drug, one that has cost you billions of dollars to develop. The stakes are high and the pressure is intense to make it a medical and commercial success.  And here’s the killer punch: the long-term success and peak sales of a new medicine are set within the first six months of launch. On average, 65% of launches never show any improvement in the first six month’s market share trajectory. 

You literally have to make each moment you have with the customer matter. You’ve optimized every lever you have data for your HCP segmentation, your reach, and frequency – even the route your reps take to the doctor’s office. So how can you further optimize the launch? 

You have to maximize every single human moment that you get in front of the physician. 

You’ve got to make every moment matter. 

Your reps, KAMs, and MSLs must show up in front of the HCP assessed and optimized. This means not just their product knowledge but also their ability to connect, their ability to influence. These skills have to be tested, proven, and certified before they are ever tested in the real world in front of the customer when it truly counts.

The Sales Leader followed up with, “The massive appeal to me is the 85% of sales calls that don’t yet work. That is my opportunity. I’ve got to make sure that every moment matters. Every moment is a winning moment.”

Curious to learn what he did about this challenge? See our Buyers Guide to Improving Pharma Sales.