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Getting the point across

Before communicating through the salesforce, marketers need to perfect dialogue with it

Following years of debate about the art of communication, you would think by now that engaging with your audience would be as simple as ABC. Yet, for many marketers, effective communication with customers remains a sticking point.

Why is communicating with customers via the sales team such a challenge for so many pharma marketers? Because first you have to communicate with the sales team.

Unfortunately, the typical healthcare sales team comprises a group of experienced, intelligent and opinionated - heaven forbid that we would say cynical - people who do not feel automatically compelled to behave in a manner consistent with a marketer's carefully wrought plans.

Among many sales teams, the marketing department has a bad reputation, usually starting with the tale of an apocryphally bad product manager who just hands over the new sales aid at the start of a national conference, half-heartedly asks that the team do a few role plays with it and then considers the job done for another cycle.

There is certainly an element of truth in this as for some product managers the challenge of keeping the sales team on strategy is so great, it is avoided altogether. Time and energy are expended instead on other elements of the marketing mix which, while necessary, can never provide the return on time and investment that a focused and energised sales team offers.

Ancient history
The successful pharma marketer has a skill set that their contemporaries in other fields, such as financial services and FMCG, have long since forgotten: the ability to communicate a clear, credible and consistent message to the market via an engaged sales team. But in order to communicate via the team, marketers must first become adept at communicating with it.

In some respects, the sales team can be treated in a similar manner to any other audience or market that needs influencing. So why not treat the team as a market and develop a formal - or at least semi-formal - communication plan, complete with aims, strategy and endpoints?

Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point, explores the concept of memetics - the theory that ideas move through a population in a manner similar to the spread of a virus or other infective agent.

Gladwell calls this the `word-of-mouth epidemic' and identifies three personality types necessary for the effective spread of an idea; connectors, mavens and salesmen. Each plays a role in assisting an idea in becoming contagious.

Connectors are the people who know the most people; mavens are the eager experts who are always intent on sharing their knowledge, while salesmen add both persuasion and enthusiasm to the mix.

The Tipping Point suggests that if you want to start a word-of-mouth epidemic you should begin by concentrating your resources on specific personality types. However, Gladwell also notes that the three personality types need not reside in three different people.

Using a simplified version of Gladwell's idea and applying it to healthcare, the first question pharma marketers need to ask is: which individuals do you feel the need to convince first?

To adopt the theory to meet your needs you need buy-in from those team members who have credibility, but who are also sociable enough to communicate that endorsement to the wider team.

The combination of credibility and sociability should not be hard to find in a team of pharma salespeople - isn't this the combination that HR departments look for in recruitment anyway? Even so, some reps will be better candidates than others.

Think about the Q&A session at the sales meeting: which team members' questions get heard in silence? This is most likely where the credibility sits within the team. Now consider who is most enthusiastic about keeping in contact with other team members, either in person or via phone, text and email. This is the 'communicator'.

The combination of these two personality types is what you should look for in order to maximise the chances of your marketing plan being first accepted and then adopted across the entire group.

Sometimes this is one and the same person, sometimes it isn't. Yet this is the place to start pre-marketing the strategy before rollout to the wider team.

There are a number of obvious ways to co-opt the most influential members of the sales team and if strategy steering committees and sales materials design groups aren't involved with influential team members, then certainly they should be. However, it is often more effective to just get out on the road for a field visit day (or two or three days) when influence is spread throughout the team.

If a new strategy can withstand several hours of one-on-one conversation with an experienced and honestly outspoken (need I say cynical again?) rep then it is probably ready for launch to the wider team.

The key is choosing the right people for those field visits. If the people with the confluence of credibility and sociability have bought into the strategy, then the job of selling it may be mostly complete before the cycle meeting even begins.

In the end, selling a strategy to a sales team is just that: it is selling. We all know that the most effective marketers are also the most passionate salespeople - not just of their product - but also of the strategy that will drive its success. Just as when they are placed in a room with a doctor they cannot resist selling their drug, in a room with sales reps they cannot avoid conversations about strategy - always justifying the thinking, reinforcing the underlying logic and restating why it will be successful.

We expect the reps to approach their daily work with logic and passion - it is not enough to state dispassionately why a product should be used. In trying to change a doctor's prescribing habits, an almost visceral belief must also be communicated by the rep.

The same is true for marketers; a credible, well-wrought strategy that is undersold is no better for the bottom line than a flawed strategy that is followed enthusiastically. A product manager who cannot find a way of demonstrating their passion to the sales team will always struggle to sell a marketing strategy to them.

If marketers are to take this job of 'selling' seriously they have to remind themselves that a big part of selling of anything to anyone - especially a fellow salesperson - is the need for personal respect. We don't like listening to people who we feel are treating us with contempt and we certainly won't buy from them.

The product manager who is always 'stepping out' to take the phone call or who always seems to `have another meeting to get to' will not gain the respect they need from the sales team.

In competition
An important sidebar to this needs always to be that selling the strategy is for those marketers working with multi-product sales teams but who are responsible for a `P2' or even `P3' product.

Although it is rarely acknowledged openly, in these circumstances the various brands in the portfolio are forced to compete for sales team attention and `air time', whether they like it or not. We all know that a top-level agreement that `the P2 and P3 products are to be mentioned at every call' rarely translates consistently to the field; especially if the P1 product is in launch, has new data, a new indication, a favourable NICE ruling, etc.

So what is the product manager for one of the forgotten children of the portfolio to do? Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from the so-called `guerrilla tactics' used by non-partnered brands at large scale sporting events, such as the Olympic Games, where the customer is more or less ordered to support the sponsoring firms.

Without overdoing the `big-brother-little-brother' routine, rival brands will often use creative communication techniques to paint themselves as the underdog, creating an emotional bond with the customer on a personal level. For the P2 or P3 marketer, a strategy built on guerrilla tactics/personal relationships with key members of the team could be the difference between messages making it out to doctors and having to abandon the team altogether in favour of passive media, such as mail shots. This all begins with an acknowledgement that there is a finite amount of sales team attention and the individual brand manager must compete for it.

It is said that a marketer should spend one solid week in every 26 reviewing the product's strategy and then spend the other 25 selling that strategy (and the product). Great pharma marketers will use the same skills that deliver success with doctors to work with the sales team, as well as through it.

The Author
Stewart McCure is director of Dramatic Change, a pharmaceutical marketing sales consultancy

2nd September 2008

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