It had been a beginner’s winter. Pretty morning snowfalls with all of the magic and none of the storm. Each accumulation had been followed in good stead by a few days of drain-clearing rain, whose late-night swilling against the glass of Walter Choo’s bedroom windows drummed him into the deepest sleep that he’d known since his late wife Jinny had been diagnosed with grade-two sarcoma ten years before. Jack Frost had gone soft—at least on northern Illinois, at least this year.
Another Jack, Jack Jaffrey, vice president and director of Midwest sales for Fenniskrante, Inc., was also bucking expectations this year. He’d called a meeting in the middle of March. Walter and the other eighty-eight Midwest regional managers were to report to Fenniskrante’s world headquarters in downtown Chicago on March 15, two weeks before the end of the company’s financial year.
As usual, Walter had worked with his reps to schedule their vacations right before the respective ends of the previous three quarters, to artificially skew their sales data downwards. As usual, Walter’s territory had still been tracking in the top twenty in the country all year. As usual, he had approved no vacation time for February or March, and his reps knew better than to call in sick. Walter was going into the final month of the sales year all burners on. Most years around this time, he stayed up late nights puzzling out the puzzlers—charismatic, smart young guys who pulled low numbers, or good drugs that his best reps couldn’t sell—but this year Walter knew exactly where the slack was on his team. It was just a matter of putting the pressure on in the right ways at the right times.
The last thing that Walter had expected was for Jack Jaffrey to help him out by calling an eleventh-hour mandatory meeting at HQ for a group that included last year’s number-three sales manager, Peter Jensen (a Mormon who managed a territory in north Michigan), and last year’s number-seven manager, Bette Warwick, the white-haired former college tennis champ who managed a large chunk of Cleveland, Ohio. Both were at least a plane ride and El train ride away from the mid-century office tower that was an easy forty-five-minute commute from Walter’s home in Naperville, Illinois. Every second counted in March, and neither Peter nor Bette could have been happy about leaving their territories for a meeting whose subject Jack Jaffrey’s secretary had declined to state in the invitation.
Of course, Walter’s daughter Marin had chosen the last two weeks of February to come home from Asia. Walter was glad that she was back safe, but Marin, at twenty-four, was still very much the star pupil of the dippy socialists on payroll at Naperville Prep. Marin had never approved of Walter’s work, had early on been trained to disdain “corporate evil” as a matter of course (as opposed to what, he always wondered, “bureaucratic good?”) Such high-mindedness, Walter noted to himself, didn’t keep Marin from raiding his Fenniskrante sample closet for antibiotics and birth control pills whenever she was home.
This was Walter’s year for number one—all year long he had felt it. The last thing he needed was the buzz kill and betrayal of righteous doubt kicking up her feet on his living room coffee table.
So Walter was relieved when Marin announced at breakfast one morning that she had booked a flight to San Francisco for the next day, along with a room at a commuter hotel near Union Square at a weekly rate. She’d said that she would stay at the hotel until she found a suitable apartment in the area, and that she had enough money saved to tide herself over until she found a new job.
That night, Walter had taken Marin out to a goodbye dinner at her favorite place, a Sicilian restaurant in the city that still dressed the tables with red-and-white checkered tablecloths, tea candles in clear glass votives, and baskets of crunchy bread twigs. At dinner, Marin told him the thing that he thought had to be a joke, but you could never tell with Marin. If it wasn’t a joke, it was absolutely crazy, but he didn’t have time to worry about his twenty-four-year-old daughter’s international financial entanglements at the moment. In a few weeks, Walter would or would not be the manager of Fenniskrante’s highest-selling territory in America, and he would deal with Marin then.
Walter pulled into the shadow of the big black sheath of 220 South Wacker and into the Fenniskrante garage twenty minutes before the appointed time (three p.m.)—plenty of time to go through security and get tidied up in the men’s room before the meeting. He got his barcoded guest ID sticker, and the security guy manually beeped him through the turnstile. Walter got into an empty elevator, pressed “24,” and saw the doors close on a rain-soaked Bette Warwick rushing up and wheeling her black carry-on behind her. Walter, as he often did, thought of Sun Tzu:
“With regard to narrow passes, if you can occupy them first, let them be strongly garrisoned and await the advent of the enemy.”
Walter pressed the door-open button. The doors opened, and in wheeled a grateful Bette. Walter pressed “24” again, the doors closed, and Walter felt the 20th century miracle of gearless traction hoist mechanics pull them smoothly off the ground.
“Cleveland!” Walter said. “How are you?”
“Not bad, Choo... although I think those over-the-counter Immuno-Boost tablets are cutting into my Respiatin sales.”
Crap, she must be doing well in Respiatin this year, Walter thought. “Just a fad, Cleveland,” he said. “Like Zinc-It, remember? People still want their prescription antibiotics at the end of the day.”
Bette looked at him and looked away, as if watching a bunk serve go out of bounds. “So did you put Jaffrey up to this, Choo?” she asked. “Call a mandatory meeting on March 15 in your territory?”
“Well, technically, downtown Chicago is Barney Wiig’s territory, but, no, I had nothing to do with this assemblage of the troops,” Walter said.
Well-groomed men and women in their thirties and forties, along with a handful of dinosaurs like Walter and Bette, filled the Angilexin Room on the twenty-fourth floor. Eighty-nine of the best drug sales people in the country: the room smelled and sounded chemical. Walter avoided the scattered empty seats and found an empty spot of wall twenty feet from the front of the room to lean against. Seated at the end of the row in front of Walter was a young blond manager aggressively flirting with a pretty redhead in glasses. The man’s name was Paul something, or maybe Jake. Walter couldn’t remember.
“I’m telling you, these girls are the future of this business,” Paul/Jake was saying. “The doctors all have their types, you just have to figure out what it is. A lot of the married ones like Tracey, she’s my classy blonde southern belle. The young ones like Kim, the California party girl. The Asians are the hardest to figure out, because they’re so shy they don’t even want to talk to a pretty woman, but most of them like Casey, she’s the sweet but sexy librarian type. The Asians, they won’t even talk to her, they’ll just sign for the samples, but they’ll go back and write half your ‘scripts after ten minutes with Casey.”
The redhead shook her head. “This is why my PCP and ob/gyn are both women,” she said. “I’ve lost so much respect for male doctors working in this business.”
“You shouldn’t complain,” said Paul/Jake. “I’ll bet you’ve gotten a few Green Bay MDs to write a ‘script or two.”
“More than two,” said the redhead.
Walter crossed his arms across his chest and exhaled a single curt, train engine chug through his nose. It was reps like Paul/Jake that gave all of them a bad name. Walter had learned to put up with the frattier elements of his profession over the years—it wasn’t exactly easy finding smart, capable people willing to move to Barstow and Dubuque to sell drugs. Managers like Paul/Jake got the job done in some thankless corners of the country, but to really succeed at this job over the long run, on a national level, you had to have a management vision a little bit more complex than a Ford-era Aaron Spelling television franchise.
Walter’s territory was tracking fourth in the country because he trained his reps to first and foremost be credible sources of information (about anything—pharmacology, baseball, Renaissance painting, whatever) to their physicians. Walter’s reps knew that on his visits, Walter would expect them to display not only a comprehensive knowledge of their own drugs and the sales pitches that had been drilled into them during training (the typical objective of a regional manager visit), but also their literacy in national pharmaceutical and health care industry developments (many an I-290 traffic jam had been spent explicating the rocky history of the U.S. health insurance system to a new rep) as well as general current affairs.
Sports were always good to keep up with, but if Walter sensed that this was old hat for a rep, Walter would encourage that rep to go outside of his comfort zone and learn about local theater or restaurants. Perhaps most famously, Walter quizzed all of his reps regularly and in-depth on what books they were reading. Some of them could have skated by by reading the book reviews in USA Today and a Cliffs Notes or two, but Walter was pretty sure that under his wing most of his reps got into the habit of reading at least a book a month. He’d run into one of his old reps at the mall one day, a sharp young thing who’d repped for him for three years straight out of undergrad and then gone on to get her Master’s in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. She’d said that she’d read more books while working as a Fenniskrante sales rep than as a grad student at an Ivy League university.
All of this aggressive self-edification prepared each of Walter’s reps to, while on a routine visit to a doctor’s office, enter into almost any topic of conversation, and contribute in an organic and substantive way. Once this happened often enough, once a doctor began referring often enough to that interesting thing that the Fenniskrante rep had said about mountain zebras or the White Sox bullpen or that new Mexican restaurant in Oak Park, then doctors and nurses began to trust his reps, and by extension their company and their drugs. This was what naïve people like Marin and amateurs like Paul/Jake didn’t understand about drug sales: at the end of the day it wasn’t about using sexy marketing gimmicks to pull the wool over some hapless physician’s eyes. It was about trust. You can’t fake trust, and you certainly can’t pull it out of thin air.
Peter Jensen was in the back corner of the Angilexin Room talking to a short-haired woman in a beige pants suit. Peter was ten years younger than Walter and had already been ranked number-one manager in the country twice. Peter had gone to college in Ann Arbor, and tended to credit his network of connections in the region for his success, but he was also an excellent salesman. He’d gotten his start repping for psych and neuro, and it was easy to see why he’d been placed there. Unflappably sunny and enthusiastic about the charms of life in a state with over three thousand miles of shoreline, Peter Jensen was a walking advertisement for Betrufel, Fenniskrante’s $3.5 billion antidepressant.
The blinds were drawn over all of the windows in the Angilexin Room except for the one behind Peter. Beating against it was gray rain from a gray sky.
Jack Jaffrey entered the room. Jaffrey was in his mid-fifties, like Walter. A tall, handsome, big-shouldered ex-Marine, Jaffrey fancied himself a different sort of senior executive: he ordered beer at lunch, had three purple plastic Respiatin mini-basketball hoops set up in his office (all within throwing distance from his desk chair), and encouraged his regional managers to not exclude “color” from their quarterly performance reports on their reps—in fact, as all of his managers knew, the saltier the outtakes from the field, the better.
Jaffrey made his way to the front of the room and sat on the edge of the table. The room quieted.
“Isn’t Chicago lovely this time of year?” Jaffrey said, to mild chuckling from his audience of sales managers. “So I know that many of you are wondering why I am calling this meeting now, two weeks before the proverbial crap hits the fan.”
Jaffrey stood up, clasped his hands together.
“I’ve been in this business a long time. I’m not saying how long, but trust me. And, many of you know that I was a drama major in college. I could go on and on about how that was the best business education I could have ever had. The Merchant of Venice? Glengarry Glen Ross?—that’s Management 101, people. However, one of my very favorite classes was called the History of American Entertainment. I’ve often thought that the life of a pharmaceutical sales rep is a lot like that of a vaudeville performer. We learn our routines then travel from town to town and, face-to-face with our audience, we deliver the goods. We either fall flat on our faces, or we connect. We convince a pediatrician in Kansas of Respiatin’s superior efficacy for strep throat. Or an HMO in Cincinnati to add Identol to their formulary.”
Identol was Fenniskrante’s statin and one of the most popular cholesterol-lowering drugs on the market.
“What we do takes just as much physical stamina and ‘chutzpah’ as a tap dance routine at the Palace Theater,” Jaffrey continued. “However, for all of vaudeville’s ‘chutzpah,’ after the American public got wind of a little invention called the motion picture, vaudeville went extinct. So, many of these old performers who were perfect for vaudeville because they did one or two things really well—they couldn’t sustain movie careers with their one or two things. The rules changed on them. Unfortunately, that’s what’s happening to us: the rules are changing. If it were only the new technology it wouldn’t be so bad. It’s this new culture of self-policing at hospitals and clinics too. I know that a lot of you have been complaining that it’s a full-time job just keeping track of who doesn’t allow what these days.”
A lot of the regional managers, including Bette Warwick and Peter Jensen, nodded in agreement at this sentiment.
“If it isn’t ‘no food,’ it’s ‘no free pens,’ or you have to wear a big laminated orange badge, as if doctors don’t know you’re a sales rep anyway,” Jaffrey said.
Bette raised her hand, and Jaffrey called on her.
“What kills me are these voucher systems some of the clinics are starting to enforce,” Bette said. “The clinic gives the doctors their monthly allotment of vouchers, and then they go online and have to choose which free samples their patients need most. It’s the biggest load of bureaucratic b.s. I’ve ever seen.”
Everyone laughed, and several of the other managers applauded.
“Yes, all of it can be incredibly frustrating,” Jaffrey said. “If that wasn’t enough, we’ve got measures on five state ballots this year, in California, West Virginia, Maryland, Minnesota, and Iowa—all seeking to regulate our access to physicians and prescription-writing data. And the powers-that-be have taken notice. There is a small but very vocal element in corporate that wants to shave the sales budget, reallocating at least $45 million to internet and television marketing.”
Walter did the math—there was about a third of that in salaries and bonuses crammed into the Angilexin Room on this rainy March afternoon.
“Which is why all of you are here today. Our sales numbers are down this year. Not by a lot... but they’re down. This is not the year to be down. We need to blow corporate’s mind this year. We need to show them that we are not just overpriced delivery men. Even with all the regulation and self-policing, we are the one truly direct link that the number-one drug company in the world has to doctors all around America!”
The room broke into an enthusiastic round of applause.
“I know it—you know it,” Jaffrey said. “So let’s go out there and show corporate what it doesn’t know!”