3 Key Strategies To Foster Sales and Marketing Collaboration

Sales and marketing departments in most pharmaceutical companies are more closely related than they have ever been. Many companies bring sales and marketing together in business units, but even if that is not the case, most customer-facing employees anticipate that their career path will take them into marketing in the pursuit of positions in upper management, and the reverse is true for marketing personnel. A general sense of collaboration exists along with an understanding that a brand’s success demands the best efforts on the part of everyone.

But meeting and exceeding established goals requires a cross-disciplinary game plan and carefully coordinated execution. Setting up your organization for long-term success today requires taking more than a few issues into consideration.

Know What You Don’t Know

A successful marketing plan is powered by deep customer insights and data—and much of that insight resides within the sales organization. When sales colleagues provide customer insights and market-specific intelligence, marketing programs have the best chance of being executed with the most success. Continuously challenge yourself and your teams to listen attentively to the feedback of sales colleagues, pair the insights with available market data and look at it collectively with an objective eye. Ask:

  • What are some of the insights buried in sales data?
  • What can be exploited for an innovative digital campaign designed to support, augment, or extend the sales representative?
  • What can the sales force share about customer targets that is not evident from the usual delineations of high-value, mid-value and low-level targets?
  • How can non-personal marketing programs supplement sales calls?

Take Advantage of the Rep’s Expertise

Managing a sales territory today requires an unprecedented degree of skill in planning and execution. Learning the dynamics of each and every practice is mandatory. Two physicians in the same decile can have very different kinds of practices and patients. Knowing the predominant reimbursement plans doesn’t go far enough because different patients can and will have different deductibles and co-pays. The successful rep needs to juggle a plethora of disparate issues while presenting the brand in its best light to each physician.

Tapping into the representative’s front-line experience can enrich the process of attitudinal and customer profiling as well as needs assessment. While quantitative data analysis will always be an important tool for building the marketing plan, the feedback of sales representatives can add important confirmatory weight to research as well as an invaluable degree of substance and immediacy. In short, the sales rep is the marketing manager’s right arm, and vice versa. Marketing managers can buy data to support reps’ immediate needs, and sales reps can provide the deep customer knowledge that cannot be purchased in qualitative research.

Change Behavior and Processes

Aligning behaviors as well as objectives requires commitment, but it takes more than a desire to change to effect lasting results. New processes and procedures need to be thought through and accepted by both sales and marketing management. In addition, time and resources need to be applied with consistency—and focus on long-term results. Reallocation of responsibilities to free up time will be a burden shared by management on both sides. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it in the long run when the following three strategies are in place.

Strategy 1: Live in Each Other’s World

Preceptorships, in which members of the sales organization spend time in the marketing department and vice versa, provide an opportunity to literally look inside the other department’s day-to-day reality. For instance:

  • When sales representatives spend time in the marketing department, they can gain sensitivity to the difficulty a product manager faces in harnessing the brand team. Think scheduling a meeting is easy? Not when the entire brand team is traveling for market research.
  • Presenting and defending promotional material to a medical-legal-regulatory board is an education unto itself. Observing this process in action will deepen the representative’s appreciation of the reasons why language, graphics and fair balance appear the way they do in promotional pieces. In that same vein, communicating with the advertising agency can increase understanding, not only of the role of the agency as an extension of the marketing team, but also in how to effectively provide leadership and direction.
  • Just as the sales representative has customers, the internal employee has customers as well. Gaining experience and familiarity with stakeholders of both sales and marketing will deepen understanding of the way in which marketing programs are developed and approved—as well as all the myriad elements that go into the decision-making process.
  • On the other hand, when marketing managers spend time in the field, they learn the reality of the representative’s day. Knowing how difficult it is to gain access to a physician is only the beginning—the challenges that arise once in the customer’s office are virtually countless.
  • Getting and keeping a physician’s attention long enough to deliver a meaningful message can be a real challenge. It’s not easy to put up with flagging attention or continuous distractions, and it’s good for the marketing manager to understand that the most carefully crafted messages need to be communicated in a less-than-conducive environment.
  • Knowing how the competition counter-details a brand or presents a compelling positioning to a customer can open the eyes of the marketing manager to the need for supplemental representative educational material or innovative tactics.
  • Witnessing the impact (or lack thereof) of a home office-inspired program can provide a lesson in what it means to “walk the walk” (or “talk the walk,” as the case may be).

While it might be humbling to see a program fall flat, learning the underlying dynamics responsible for the failure can be an invaluable lesson in building the success of future programs.

Creating a target number of rep “ride-alongs” sounds like something that is probably being done already. So during your next excursion out to the field, why not focus on difficult-to-reach customers and low-volume territories? Visit Milwaukee instead of Chicago. Call on low-volume, low-decile physicians. A lot can be learned. And that can impact tactics and messaging. Go beyond the obvious to find the hidden gems.

Strategy 2: Develop Continuous and Effective Feedback Channels

Encouraging open communication through a variety of formal and informal channels can enhance the effectiveness of a brand’s support by both marketing and sales functions. In addition to the routine reporting of sales intelligence up through the management ranks, additional processes can be institutionalized.

An ongoing panel of rotating sales representatives meeting as a bimonthly advisory group can inform both product and sales management. Beyond simply reviewing marketing plans and tactics, this board should be expected to provide continuous customer, market and competitive insights. Marketing ideas should be presented at an early “brainstorming” stage so that programs grow with the full involvement and support of the sales organization. Linking specific customer intelligence to future sales pieces can create accountability on the part of sales representatives who experience their insights “going full circle.” The agency should play an integral role with this group. Account and creative management need to be on a first-name basis with reps.

To contribute to effective marketing programs, a solid understanding of rep challenges is mandatory. It’s important to note that participating on this board should be viewed as an honor within the organization—after all, they are the mouthpieces for their colleagues in the field.

Likewise, area and regional sales meetings should always be attended by marketing personnel. These meetings are ideal occasions for true discussion of issues and exchange of ideas relevant to supporting the brand. Social interaction and team camaraderie is great, but should be considered secondary to the business at hand. These sessions are also appropriate for agency management—there is no better opportunity for feedback.

Strategy 3: Take Steps to Align Incentives

It’s not uncommon for a portion of sales and marketing incentives to be blended to some degree. More and more often, organizational goals are also woven into the mix. Blended incentives, based on blended goals, will build a shared commitment and accountability. Can they be tightened up? Can the agency also play a role in blended incentives? Basing some portion of compensation on the success of a program or brand ensures that everyone has “some skin in the game.”

The strategy of aligning incentives needs to be effected at the management level because management is also responsible for resourcing and evaluations must take both factors into consideration. Marketing and sales need to make an effort to approach management together to champion the concept of shared incentives.

Again, the relationship between sales and marketing in pharmaceutical companies has never been closer. If you can leverage the value of this relationship through shared experiences, ongoing focused communications and shared incentives, your brand will reap the benefits.

  • Betsy Kramer

    Betsy Kramer is Senior Vice President at HCB Health Chicago. Betsy has more than 18 years of integrated healthcare brand development with a heavy emphasis on digital. HCB Health is a full-service agency dedicated to one thing only—healthcare communications. Learn more at hcbhealth.com.

  • David Lin

    David Lin is Senior Vice President and Global Competitive Strategy Leader for Surgery and Perioperative Care at The Medicines Company. David serves to assist the company’s aim to lead in acute and intensive care medicine worldwide and improve health outcomes for patients in ever more cost-effective ways. Learn more at themedicinescompany.com.


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