The number of pharma sales reps who wait for doctors and never see them is quickly growing.

Though the vast majority of primary care physicians still meet with pharma detail people, the number of physicians willing to see most reps fell last year by nearly 20%.  While 2009 may have seen a particularly harsh reduction in rep-doctor interaction, the reality that doctors today meet with fewer pharma sales reps shouldn’t be a surprise. ZS Associates’ AccessMonitor report, which monitors the sales rep-related interactions of over 500,000 physicians, nurse practitioners and other pharmaceutical prescribers nationwide, has shown declines in prescriber accessibility for the past two years.

According to the most current AccessMonitor data, only slightly more than half (58%) of prescribers are “rep-accessible;” that is, they meet with at least 70% of the sales reps who called on them. At the same time, nine percent of prescribers are “rep-inaccessible;” they meet with fewer than 30% of the reps who call on them.  Interestingly, the research found that these prescribers were not necessarily concentrated in group practices, as is widely believed.  Rather, they pop up in all types of practices.

Most pharma companies have taken some steps to act on this trend, which reflects physicians’ busier schedules and the pharmaceutical industry’s lack of new blockbuster drugs. Based on AccessMonitor findings, however, ZS Associates has concluded that more than 8 million management-planned sales calls—at a cost to pharmacos of more than $1 billon per year—are nearly impossible to achieve. That’s because too many company sales plans still require representatives to call on prescribers who either refuse to see any drug representatives or refuse to accept frequent sales calls from the rep.

The era of field sales management asking sales reps to “just try harder” to visit doctors more frequently has clearly outlived its effectiveness. If the pharmaceutical industry wants to increase its sales, it needs to change the way it approaches the sales call.

Progressive pharmas now recognize the need to be more precise and more efficient with their sales and marketing efforts. Many of these companies have responded by adopting a dramatic new sales force deployment strategy called “differential resourcing.”

Differential resourcing matches sales resources to local conditions and is more flexible than conventional, “one-size-fits-all” selling models. It allows companies to adapt to subtle market changes, even those that involve an individual physician’s willingness to meet with sales representatives, by equipping sales forces and assigning them to doctors in a manner that reduces expenditures and unproductive time without compromising physician relations or sales. While the rep function will not disappear in the near future, sales representatives will need to adapt.

ZS Associates has been working with pharmaceutical companies to implement differential resourcing since 2007. The companies who have adopted the strategy have reduced their sales force-related costs by as much as 20%. Collectively, these companies now save themselves more than $500 million annually.

In our view, implementing this practice across the board can save sales forces in the U.S. another $2 billion annually. Doctors have changed the way they see sales reps; it’s time to give individual representatives the flexibility to change the way they call on doctors.

Chris Wright is a principal with ZS Associates