Last week when I was taking my daughter to her friend’s house, I used an app to help me navigate the fastest route. As we stopped at the intersection, I was served an ad for a donut shop and as I looked up from my phone—there it was. The data that was captured to send me that ad is commonplace within our industry. But the interaction we had with the employee at the donut shop, the way she mesmerized my daughter with chocolate glaze and sprinkles—the human touchpoint—that was not a result of data analysis or media consumption habits. That was sales, and in my mind, a simple, effective example of the important relationship between marketing and the sales force.

With diminishing sales representative access to physicians, data is serving a larger purpose to help inform marketing strategies, creative, and asset development—and this only scratches the surface. At the core, this supply-and-demand model has elevated the value of feedback and insights from the sales force to their marketing colleagues. Representatives are a sales channel, just like a CRM campaign or other media platforms driving to products. An important and unique feature of the sales channel is the qualitative output—that human touchpoint.

Formation and Utilization of a Rep Advisory Council

Ride-alongs with reps are a popular way for marketing and agency teams to witness real-world interactions, but they can be biased with visits at the best prescribing offices with the strongest relationships. One of the most effective and least costly ways to generate balanced feedback and garner insights is through the formation and utilization of a rep advisory council. A well-structured rep council will provide benefits to the home office marketing team, the creative agency, and the rep participants. Elizabeth Enders, Account Director at Carling has worked with several rep advisory councils and said, “Representative councils can be a tremendous asset. They provide invaluable, front-line feedback that will help shape the future of the brand.”

While the marketing side may ask most of the questions and take more insights away from a discussion with a sales representative, it is important for the sales team to understand what their marketing counterparts are thinking about and how their feedback can sometimes help to influence and shape the direction of the marketing efforts. In a larger setting, a well-established and efficiently run sales rep advisory group can result in two powerful outputs—marketing insights and a stronger collaborative relationship between the marketing and sales groups.

Three big questions to address for the sales advisory group discussion to be successful are:

1. Who should be included in rep advisory councils?

The sales advisory board is not meant to be the preview to the President’s Club trip. Yes, there should be some all-star sales reps included. But if the intent is to inform marketing so they can better support across the sales team, it is important to include representatives who experience challenges that are consistent to other reps, not just unique to one person in their territory. Consider a broad range of experience levels and geographies to get a stronger command for what is happening at a regional level.

From the marketing side, it is very helpful when the marketing team includes their agency partners. Silent participation is better than nothing, but it is even better when agency members can be introduced as part of the team looking for insights and direction.

Kelsey Webster, Group Account Supervisor reminds us that, “As marketing extensions to their client, the agency has an opportunity to play a key role in helping to run an advisory council. If involved at the inception of the initiative, the agency can present insights that lead to the strategic development, and also review the marketing story to pressure test with the advisory council to enlist real-world feedback and alignment.”

Consider how much more powerful messages can be when the agency’s creative team can ask reps why they detail in a particular way. Brian McCoy, Copy Supervisor, adds, “For an agency’s creative team, hearing from reps directly is key. We’re able to adapt our thinking to suit their needs and produce materials that have the most real-world impact.”

The variety of roles, expertise, and geography is designed to give the most robust discussion, leading to valuable feedback and insights that can then be incorporated into the marketing programs and collateral used in the field.

2. Why would sales reps want to participate?

Pulling sales representatives out of the field is always a hurdle, but it isn’t as tough as it is made out to be when you find the right group of people. Understanding what the different motivations are for the pool of talent you have access to is critical—you just need to know your audience (and doesn’t that sound familiar and basic?). Some reps will want to be the first to test drive and pilot new assets, using this as an opportunity to further connect with their physicians in a hallway detail. Reps may feel empowered that they were part of something that directly created a new tool or elevated an issue that required upper management’s attention. Awareness within the company, establishing a level of equity, or being better known than other reps, is powerful. It is also a great opportunity to help get your name in the consideration set for a transition into the home office. Time and information are the assets that the sales force is selling to the marketing department—they deserve some recognition.

At the beginning of my career, I was a pharmaceutical sales representative with a mid-size company for five years. I was always interested in how the detail aid was developed, what went into landing on those key messages, and who came up with that picture on the front. When I transitioned to marketing, I was excited by the opportunity to see how it was done on the other side of the curtain. It was viewed as “free” research and was inundated with home office requests to meet and discuss what was happening in the field. Managing the volume of requests and filtering through an advisory board can help to broaden the feedback and give more perspective.

3. What are you going to be doing?

Logistics

Establish an identity for the group where their mission is to workshop the raw data from the field, describe what marketing intends to do with the information once refined, and give a sense for how those final deliverables will help to support not only the advisory council, but the entire field sales force.

The most valuable advisory councils meet on a consistent basis, whether it’s once a month or every quarter. And, while sales advisory council meetings often take place via conference call, consider meeting in-person annually—perhaps before or after a major convention or national sales meeting. Getting everyone together, including sales, marketing, and agency partners, can create a higher sense of purpose.

Competitive Intelligence

A strong sales representative advisory council can cover a lot of rich territory. Competitive intel from the field is priceless, whether it is from assets left behind or speaking with physicians and staff where reps have strong relationships in place. Often, the direction a competitor is taking with their messaging and areas of focus are not revealed in non-personal forums until the sales force has had a chance to lay the foundation.

Test Drive Ideas and Programs

Vetting draft ideas and assets through the sales force in a smaller advisory council forum is a great informal pilot program opportunity. Caitlin Walker, Account Director, says, “Through meetings like a rep advisory council (in person or via WebEx) agencies are able to garner valuable feedback that immediately can be used in development of both promotional and non-personal efforts.”

Bring members of the sales advisory council into research, let them detail to a respondent and get a feel for what could or could not work. Once new assets have launched in the market, talk to the sales advisory council 30 days post launch—do the new tools work? Are the conversations with your targets engaging and does the new stuff do what it is supposed to do?

Summary

An amazing amount of information and due diligence goes into the promotion and sales efforts within healthcare. Data helps to drive and provide guidance in our decision-making process, as it should. Staying connected to the sales force and establishing a strong collaborative relationship and balance with marketing can be a wonderful way to source information from the front line. Make the most of the time you get with them—and don’t forget the donuts.

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