The Sample Life

By Malcolm Fleschner

You know the type. They agree to meet with you. They may even seem interested in what you have to say. Before you leave, they furnish a signature and gladly accept your samples. Yet when it comes time to prescribe your product, they’re nowhere to be found. They’re the dreaded sample hogs.

But what’s to be done with them? If you take these physicians to task for accepting your samples without writing prescriptions, you might lose the rapport you’ve built up. But if you simply accept the status quo, you don’t get any closer to hitting your numbers.

The solution boils down to training, says Steve Tarnoff, a managing partner with the New Jersey-based Franklin Group (, a consulting firm concentrating on pharmaceutical-specific support. Compared to the way they operated years ago, Tarnoff says, today’s pharmaceutical manufacturers have been remiss in training representatives about how to effectively use samples on a sales call.

“Companies need to train representatives to look the doctor straight in the face and say: Look, I’ve been leaving you a ton of samples. Every time I come in you tell me that you need them. One thing I don’t understand, and something I’ve never asked you, is how you use samples in your practice?” says Tarnoff. “After asking that question the rep needs to be quiet and let the doctor answer. And they may be very surprised at what they hear.”

Tarnoff suggests that physicians often take the easy path of accepting samples rather than risk alienating reps by turning down the samples. Then the samples frequently wind up going to a variety of uses not intended by the manufacturer or sales rep.

“One reason physicians accept lots of samples without writing prescriptions,” Tarnoff explains, “is that they may give the samples away to indigent patients, to seniors who have yet to qualify for their spend-down on Medicaid or Medicare or they may take them for personal use for family members or office staff. Also, with the emergence of an enormous number of free health care clinics within physicians’ offices, the doctors may just donate the samples to the clinic, unbeknownst to the manufacturer or the representative.”

After learning where all those samples are going, sales reps should next talk to physicians about finding alternative ways to get medications to these worthy recipients through existing channels set up by the drug companies.

“If a doctor says to you: I’m collecting samples for an overseas mission, or I’m collecting them to donate to a clinic in the community, the answer to that is: I appreciate you using our product and having enough faith in its effectiveness,” says Tarnoff. “I should tell you that our company has patient assistant programs (PAPs) and clinic programs that are designed to provide sizable quantities of donations of our product to those in need, so you don’t have to use the samples.”

Of course, Tarnoff adds, the companies must have these programs in place and they also must communicate this information to their sales teams. Otherwise reps are ignorant of solutions they can offer to sample-hogging physicians.

Finally, Tarnoff says, it’s time to conclude the conversation by asking the physician to move the relationship forward and back up his or her faith in the medications by writing prescriptions.

He recommends putting it this way: Doctor, thank you for sharing that information with me. It is valuable. Here’s what I’d like to propose. I’m going to give you these samples and I’d like you to reserve them for your fee-for-service patients. In addition, I appreciate your confidence in utilizing our products. What I need from you, quite honestly, is to help me with my sales. To do so, rather than use the samples for the purposes you’ve outlined, let me provide an alternate, more effective solution, which is the programs we have. Let’s reserve these samples for the fee-for-service patients so I can at least continue to make a living.

“There’s nothing wrong with saying that,” Tarnoff adds.