Last year, getting access to doctors got ever more difficult for pharmaceutical sales representatives in the USA and drugmakers must continue to adopt more flexible strategies.

These are the key findings from a report published by sales and marketing consultants ZS Associates, which notes that the number of doctors willing to see most reps fell nearly 20%. Moreover, the number of prescribers who refused to see most reps increased by half, while the number of “management-planned sales calls that were nearly impossible to complete topped 8 million”, at a cost of over $1 billion a year to drugmakers.

The study looked at the sales rep-related interactions of more than 500,000 physicians, nurse practitioners and other pharmaceutical prescribers in the USA and both the planned and completed calls of more than 41,000 reps — about half of all those operating in the country. Specifically, 58% of prescribers in 2009 were “rep-accessible;” (ie meeting with at least 70% of callers), down 18% on a year ago. However, the number of “rep-inaccessible” prescribers, who saw fewer than 30% of the reps who called on them rose to 9% from 6%.

Chris Wright, principal and leader of the pharmaceutical practice at ZS, said that “while these trends challenge selling organisations, the findings exonerate many sales reps”. He added that they confirm that “certain prescribers simply won’t see any pharmaceutical reps - and they won’t do it under any circumstances. Sales management should accept that you can’t reach these doctors simply by telling the reps to ‘try harder’.”

Mr Wright noted that “progressive pharmaceutical companies now recognise the need to be more precise and more efficient with their sales and marketing efforts”. Many have responded by adopting a “dramatic new sales force deployment strategy”, he said, called ‘differential resourcing’ that matches sales resources to local conditions and is “more flexible than conventional, “one-size-fits-all” selling models”.

He concluded by saying that “while it requires a rather complex change to existing sales models, companies who adopted this approach quickly reduced their sales force-related costs by as much as 20%”. Collectively, these firms now save themselves more than $500 million each year, “but the pharmaceutical industry has just scratched the surface”, Mr Wright claimed. Implementing this practice across the board can save sales forces in the USA another $2 billion annually, he argues.