Getting the best from the reps - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Getting the best from the reps

GARETH CROSS
has been talking to a company
rep who recently retired after 30
years of visiting practices and
attending veterinary events, to
get his views on how things have
changed

MANY months ago a good friend and local drug rep told me he was retiring. The following year he was still hanging on in there but he has finally parked his rep-mobile for the last time, put away the last pack of samples, attended his umpteenth and last BSAVA congress and become a youngish age pensioner. Before his synapses completely fossilise I thought it would be a good idea to tap him up for some inside information on the repping and Big-Pharma scene, and also for some informed comment on the veterinary profession, which I can then pass on to you all. He worked roughly he same patch for roughly the same company (give or take the odd merger and name change) for 30 years. Few people will have visited and re-visited the same group of practices over a 30-year period and witnessed the changes. He has attended more veterinary congresses and CPD functions than is good for his liver and has been a wellknown fixture of the local veterinary scene. He will have a unique and informed viewpoint of how things have changed (and what hasn’t). What has got better and what worse. So this month and next month’s Cross-words forms the first of an occasional series. I put to him a series of questions and comments on e-mail and below are his replies (slightly edited for clarity by myself). So sit back and enjoy the ramblings of the old bugger who has, incidently, asked to remain anonymous. Let’s just call him JP.

  • So, JP, how have things broadly changed since you started out working in the veterinary industry? JP. I look back and wonder! It’s amazing how 30 years passes and you just adapt to changes without really taking stock of how different things are today compared to those “good old days”. Looking at it from a pet’s perspective, just imagine the fear and dread they must have felt being dragged into a cold, damp, converted garage with newspaper on the floor and the smell of ether in the air. If the pets weren’t terrified, then the owners probably were! Because that’s what so many one-man-band surgeries were like way back then. It was cut and dried stuff as well, mainly cut! Working-up a case was something that vets generally just read about in the Vet Record and nobody else in the surgery ever got to read the Record in case they found a better job in the back! Three-legged dogs and cats were more commonplace back in the 70s and 80s and long-term supportive therapy was just not available. Obviously, proportionately just as many animals were euthanased back then as today, but they were a whole lot younger. Back in the 80s the companion animal side often ran as second fiddle to the large animal business and open surgeries were squeezed into time slots that suited farm visits. As a rep I called on practices at the time it was most convenient to call, which was usually very early or late and occasionally I would see a practice at lunchtime, when it was off to the pub for something that stuck to the ribs all afternoon.

The senior partners ruled the roost…

Senior partners were the only staff you ever really got to see and this hierarchy often ruled the roost with assistants keeping a very low profile. CPD meetings in practice were unheard of and leaving a data sheet for anyone other than the boss was often regarded as pot stirring. I was reminded recently by the nurse concerned of an incident where I suggested to a senior partner that the HVN sat in on a discussion about what would later prove to be a world-leading small animal product. The look of sheer bewilderment on his face at the mere suggestion was priceless. She told me that that was the first time a nurse in that practice had ever been involved in a product discussion.”

  • It is certainly a different world out there from the secretive and cosy chats with the partner. Many reps now offer “lunch and learn” meetings complete with the obligatory CPD certificate. The buying and deals may be up to the partners still but in all the noncorporate practices I have worked in all the vets have been able to order or request specific items. I imagine that’s not always the case now though. JP. Nowadays maybe things have gone a little too far the other way, where in some larger surgeries practice managers, sometimes from a nonveterinary background, are the first port of call for drug company reps. This doesn’t seem like progress when vets deliberately distance themselves from new science and technology, for whatever reason.

Drug companies have possibly brought this situation upon themselves by adopting an American-style detail calling plan. Company sales and marketing departments seem to have got it into their heads that more visits mean more business. One senior manager in our company inspired new reps at a sales meeting with a quote I have never forgotten, “Look after the call rate and
the business will look after itself.” Now if you’re selling a commodity that involves seeing mainly support staff to keep the shelves full, then that may
be correct, but in my experience there is a threshold for the number of calls you can make before you start wasting people’s precious time. This will vary according to the relationship you have with a practice and the amount of business done, but the pot is spoiled by the combined call pressure that companies exert on larger practices. Of course there are fewer companies calling due to mergers, but this is offset by reps being confined to smaller areas with higher call rates required and the introduction of several species-specific reps working for the same company. I can’t blame practices trying to reflect this pressure, but there are simple ways that you, in practice, can separate the chaff from the grain.

Request a limit on the number of visits…

Start perhaps by contacting the companies concerned and requesting a limit on the number of visits allowed by your practice, maybe one vet appointment every three months, but make sure you keep your side of the
deal if possible by making the appointment at a mutually convenient time.
I can remember one practice principal who would book appointments at a branch for 8.45am when his surgery started at 9am. By the time he’d arrived, had a cup of coffee and answered a few phone calls, it was time for the first client appointment and all you got was nothing for a one-hour journey to the middle of nowhere. Despite the practice being a major local player, it just wasn’t worth the effort of making the visit for what you got out of it and the vet concerned was only creating more pressure for himself, a lose-lose result for both parties.”

  • I can imagine how annoying that must have been. I remember a company vet travelling three hours (our local rep had invited her) to speak to our practice for an hour on a subject. I rounded up our staff to listen to her, as usual like herding cats, and felt the need to pass on how much effort some people on your side of the industry go to see us lot in practice. JP. Vets should try and be realistic about timing and think about questions you want to ask reps/company vets. Generally, industry reps probably want to give practices more than practices might expect, both in terms of deals and support.

You’ll never know what you’re missing out on…

Dig your heels in and play hard to get and most reps will just leave you out in
the cold and you’ll never know what you’re missing out on. Alternatively, there are reps who’ll give you the earth on a first visit: when they first call on your practice you should be concerned! If you were trying to sell a “me-too” product, or one where six months after launch the warehouse is still full to the ceiling with shortdated stock, then you’d be giving it away as well!
Treat companies much the same and approach them fairly, then try to make
unbiased business decisions so that the best products and practice support
shine through. Just keeping the door shut against companies and individuals that you don’t happen to deal with at the moment might be seriously handicapping your business: you have everything to gain by listening and interacting in a positive way. Also avoid point scoring with drug reps, it’s a no-win activity.

  • Next month we look deep into the murky world of pricing drugs, the joys of congresses and advice for anyone thinking of crossing over from practice to industry.

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