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Hitting the right note

Doctors will attend meetings when they know that their educational needs will be met

I was recently engaged in yet another debate about the restrictions of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) Code of Practice, and about how the Code limits the ability of marketers to deliver their marketing plans. A group of my marketing colleagues wanted to establish a new set of metrics for their salesforce by setting their reps targets to ensure named doctors attended a certain number of meetings each year.

These marketers had determined that their meetings programme offered an excellent return on investment. However, the `wrong' doctors were attending the meetings; some doctors were not attending often enough; and others were attending too often.

My colleagues reasoned that the best way to leverage even greater return was to establish targets to 'control' which doctors attend. To ensure that reps approached those with the right attitude, achievements would be recognised with a bonus payment.That way the right doctors would go to the right meetings the right number of times. And why not? There is nothing in the Code of Practice that says such targets are unacceptable. Well actually, there is, but more of that later.

Planning activities
As a signatory who believes strongly in business partnership, there are typically two considerations I make when reviewing a planned activity. First, what are the implications of the activity? Second, are there better ways of achieving the desired outcome?

In the conversation with my marketing colleagues, I therefore needed to understand whether their underlying needs would be met by their proposed new metrics. I can appreciate why a marketer wants to know how many company-led meetings each key doctor attends in a year. As a seasoned marketer and salesman, I understand completely why it is essential for key customers to be exposed to promotional messages as often as possible. I can also understand why it is appropriate to set targets for the number of meetings to be held in each sales territory.

It makes absolute sense to measure the quality of those meetings through some form of feedback mechanism. (Auditing the event to make sure that compliance standards are maintained is also a good idea.)

However, these marketers wanted to set objectives which made the rep accountable for ensuring each named doctor attended a specific number of meetings each year. For example, a rep might have to ensure that Dr Claire Campbell from Harrow Road in Ipswich attends four meetings in 2007.

Now, short of personally frog-marching Dr Campbell to each meeting, how can the rep possibly be accountable for whether the doctor actually turns up? The rep can be accountable for the number of meetings they personally organise and for how many opportunities they create for Dr Campbell to attend a meeting, but they cannot control Dr Campbell's movements. (It is a bit different from bumping into Dr Campbell outside her office and turning that contact into a 1:1 call.)

Yet, the marketers are, of course, correct. Offer a rep a bonus, or build it into their objectives, and we are virtually assured of their focused attention.

Therein lies the problem from a Code of Practice perspective.

In order to get Dr Campbell to the required number of meetings there are typically two methods the rep will employ (and good reps will probably use both):

  • Set up meetings that are innovative and exciting

  • Promote the meeting so heavily that Dr Campbell is left in no doubt that she is expected to attend.

Bearing in mind that many sales people are both creative and task-oriented, this scenario now poses some interesting compliance considerations. In order to make the meeting attractive, the rep may now create some innovative meetings titles - choosing creative topics and recruiting more memorable speakers; they may also explore more unusual venues.

Obviously, it is possible to achieve all this within the scope of the Code of Practice. However, as we all know, it is very easy to overstep the boundary and breach the Code unintentionally.


Attractive prospect
The promotion of a meeting can be achieved within the Code of Practice. But there is just as much room for creativity here, and, therefore, just as much room for the accompanying risks. For example, invitations can be spruced up with colour and adorned with eye-catching visuals. The rep can also ensure Dr Campbell has high exposure to the details of the meeting, simply by reminding her about it every couple of days. The rep could leave Dr Campbell multiple copies of the invitation; send her reminder emails; even ring the secretary a few times to make certain the date is in Dr Campbell's diary.

There was a time when all these activities would have been regarded as good standards of rep behaviour; best practice, in fact. They still might be, of course - if they are delivered in a planned and controlled manner following the guidance provided centrally based on a good understanding of the Code.

However, if this central guidance is not forthcoming, it is also possible that the rep would take the opportunity to demonstrate the full extent of their creativity to their line manager. Under those circumstances, it is reasonable to assume that a degree of risk will exist with regards to Code compliance.

In fact, the range of outcomes here would have the Code signatories in many firms breaking out in a nervous sweat; competitor signatories would be rubbing their hands with glee as they prepare their complaint letter to the Prescription Medicine Code of Practice Authority. (Forget inter-company dialogue, if Dr Campbell complains about being harassed under these conditions, it is a breach of clause 9.1).

Yet, the marketer in me is squealing with indignant rage. Did I really just tell myself (and my colleagues) that the Code can stop me setting contact rates for meetings? Yes, I think I did - under certain circumstances - even though there is nothing explicit written down on this point.

Point of reason
There are two further elements to my reasoning here. The first is that of 'targeting' as a concept. The Code does allow us to set overall `contact rates' which includes contacts at meetings. This is recognition that, under certain circumstances, a rep may end up seeing a doctor more than three times a year.

These contact rates allow, for example, companies to set targets for how many customers a rep might see at meetings (based on the number of meetings held and average attendance rates).

However, they are not really intended to enable contact rates to be set against individual doctors.

The second element of my rationale is that the Code states there has to be a `reasonable probability' that any call (or contact) frequency objectives can actually be achieved. It also says a great deal about acting in a responsible manner and maintaining high standards.

Since the rep cannot control whether Dr Campbell and her fellow doctors will give up their evenings to attend an educational meeting about your product, it is difficult to argue that there is a 'reasonable probability' of achieving the objective.

It could, however, be argued that to be certain of achieving the objective the rep would probably have to employ some creative or aggressive techniques locally. So either the objective is unreasonable or the company is failing to encourage responsible behaviour in its reps.

Food for thought
In many ways, however, this argument is superfluous. Let's go back to my original discussion with my marketing colleagues. Was a call rate for meetings attendance the right solution for their underlying objective in the first place?

The original objective was to ensure that key doctors gained greater exposure to marketing messages by attending impactful company-led meetings. Whose objective should it be? Should it be owned by the local rep? Or the marketer?

The problem my marketing colleagues were trying to solve was, perhaps, the wrong one.

The issue was not that reps could not get doctors to meetings. It was that the `right' doctors did not want to go.

If key doctors were not attending enough meetings, then perhaps their needs were not met at meetings in the past. Or perhaps we had not even identified what their needs were; perhaps our meetings programme focused too much on the needs of the brand and too little on the needs of our customers.

The basic tenet of marketing, after all, is to identify and satisfy the customer's need. That way they are more likely to want 'to communicate' with our brand.

In this light is would appear that the the Code of Practice is not restricting the delivery of the marketing plan after all.

Funny that - it rarely does.

The Author
Steven Gray is a chartered marketer and former compliance officer who specialises in providing compliance services to the pharmaceutical industry (

13th March 2007


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