Big Pharma overhauls its marketing methods

Pharma sales have gone through a sea change, no question. Layoffs have shrunk the size of the sales-rep force by 30,000, or almost 30%, just in the last 5 years. But job cuts are only part of the shift, as The Wall Street Journal explains. Drugmakers are changing their strategies almost completely, focusing on satisfying doctors rather than making scripted sales pitches.

Just consider GlaxoSmithKline's ($GSK) change in sales-rep compensation. Rather than tying pay to prescription numbers, the company now is basing compensation on physician satisfaction and other measures. The company got rid of sales goals last January and instituted doctor evaluations in mid-2011—that in addition to assessment tools to gauge reps' selling skills.

Or Eli Lilly ($LLY), which, the WSJ notes, has trained reps to scrap their own agendas and focus on the doctors' goals instead. Forget reeling off the benefits of new drugs and focus on customer service. The old method didn't appear to be working anyway; launches of ADHD remedy Strattera and clot buster Effient stumbled in part because sales pitches weren't exactly congruent with the products' real-world performance, Lilly's David Ricks said.

Making such a huge change hasn't been without its pitfalls. As the Journal points out, not every GSK sales rep can convert from using a script to handling free-flowing conversation. But with the U.S. government eyeing marketing techniques for possible violations, and public opinion tainted by safety scandals and conflicts-of-interest allegations, pharma sales was due for a makeover. Will the new techniques keep drugmakers out of hot water—and in doctors' good graces? We'll have to wait and see.

- read the WSJ analysis