Pharma sales force took a hit in North America and Europe in 2013, new report shows

Amid layoffs and plummeting revenues, the pharma sales force continued to decline in North America and Europe in 2013.

According to a new report from Cegedim Strategic Data (CSD), the sales force dropped 7.4% to 66,000 reps in North America, and declined 7% to 72,000 reps in the top 5 European markets. Emerging markets were the exception, most notably in China: Rep levels there increased more than 9%, with 95,000 sales reps reported as of Q4 2013. Brazil also added more reps to its sales force, posting a 4.4% increase over the previous year.

The numbers might not come as a surprise, as sales reps have experienced their fair share of marketing woes over the past few years. A study released by CMI/Compas in September 2013 found that half of physicians restrict visits from reps, and that the doctors reps want to see most--including oncologists and internists--are the least likely to entertain sales calls.

New layoffs don't help the situation. Pharma giant Eli Lilly ($LLY) put 1,000 of its U.S. sales reps on the chopping block in 2013 in the wake of disappointing sales and froze its remaining employees' salaries.

Reps fared better in China, where healthcare reforms and market growth call for an increased sales force. In 2012, GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) CEO Andrew Witty told Bloomberg that he planned to add "a few hundred" reps to promote the company's products there.

Beyond layoffs and unreceptive physicians, reps are facing a barrage of new technology that threatens their livelihood. Companies like Pfizer ($PFE) and Merck ($MRK) have launched e-detailing programs that allow physicians to book electronic meetings with reps via Skype. The system could be seen as a double-edged sword: It allows reps to circumvent barred medical practices but also requires less staff and money.

However, it may still be a while before the technology is implemented on a larger scale, Christopher Wooden, CSD's vice president of global promotion, said in a statement. Digital promotion increased 14% in 2013, but web-based remote detailing was flat, at just over $1 billion invested worldwide.

"In the broader context of sales force reductions, the use of digital channels is garnering attention as pharma companies must do more with less," Wooden said. " … The industry is approaching this conservatively. It will be some time before the multichannel vision delivers the kind of impact currently hoped for and even then, the sales force will remain an essential part of the mix."

While marketing remains a challenge, new sales platforms could help reps get their foot in the door. Startup companies like RxVantage are creating software that allows pharma reps to schedule doctor appointments online and physician practices to set visitor preferences. If a doctor doesn't want to see a particular rep, he or she can block them--but if a doctor decides that a rep is helpful, they can allow additional visits.

"With technology, there are a lot of different ways for doctors to get training and information from pharma," Dan Gilman, founder and president of RxVantage, told FiercePharmaMarketing. "But all the companies we work with and all the conversations we've had with doctors show that, despite the millions of dollars invested in other channels, nothing is as good as a rep for getting the message across."

- read the Cegedim release (PDF)

Special Reports: The top 10 largest pharma layoffs in 2013 | Top 10 pharma layoffs of 2012