Successful detail representatives who move to in-house marketing positions face a steep learning curve. A veteran of the transition shares some of the new habits he had to learn…and credits some of the old skills that helped him succeed.
So there I was, sitting across the desk from my company’s VP of Marketing, thinking, “This is an easy question…” You have to understand: at this point, I had spent seven years in the field, four of them with this company. I knew the business, the customers, and the products inside and out. Many colleagues on the sales leadership team had recommended me for the move to marketing. And yet, my mind went blank. I didn’t have an answer for this simple question. Again he repeated, “Jason, why do you want to join my marketing team?” Why are you sitting in front of me asking for a product management job?
Each of us who comes “inside,” out of the field, has a different story, a different path, different motivations. For me, it was about finding a good match for my skill set, feeling that I could contribute more to the organization, and ultimately growing in my career.
I am certain, however, that my answer on interview day reflected none of this. I probably said something about wanting to be the guy who ordered the pens with the logo on them…obviously I am very lucky to have gotten the position!
Now, several years later with a slew of experiences under my belt, I offer the following advice to those who find themselves coming in-house to join the product management ranks.
There is no training manual.
When I first came in, I heard two phrases over and over: “I know that you’ll figure it out,” and “There is no training manual.” At the time, I remember feeling frustrated that I didn’t have all the answers. Like many who make the transition, I had been successful in the field. As a sales rep, I was used to knowing the answers to my daily questions, and being able to draw on experience to face my challenges.
But now, that wasn’t the case—I was starting over. It was like being a college freshman again after a highly successful high school career. But there was good news. The learning curve is much steeper in-house than the first few months in the field. If you focus on trying to learn something tangible from every conversation, project, and experience, you will catch on pretty quickly. The key is to identify the key lessons learned and deposit them in your mental bank for future reference.
The new product managers who have the most challenging time transitioning are those who don’t evolve, but try to manage new challenges in the same old way, every time. Rule One: Use your new experiences to help you grow and learn: Write your own training manual!
The motto for this developmental phase is, “You can’t microwave success.” During my first six months in product management, I was frequently overheard muttering this mantra of self-affirmation, like a pharma version of Saturday Night Live’s Stuart Smalley: “You’re good enough; you’re smart enough; and, doggone it, people like you…”
My new strategy was to break projects down into small, bite-sized tasks that I could advance on a daily basis. I celebrated the small achievements and asked a lot of questions…I quizzed not just the folks in my department but also anyone with knowledge or experience I lacked: my agency contacts and other vendors; folks from regulatory, compliance, medical, sales management, and training; KOLs; my family and friends—anyone and everyone I could learn from. The key is to actually listen to what these advisors are telling you and write the big ideas down.
Soon, I started to realize that I knew more than I was giving myself credit for. I found that the folks I was talking to were repeating my ideas back to me, or that I had actually gained a level of expertise on a given topic. It was a great feeling to be learning and applying this new-found knowledge. That said, even now, I still ask a ton of questions, and I still have as many conversations as possible. I firmly believe that many of the best ideas or accomplishments are the collection of knowledge gathered from conversations with colleagues, family, and friends.
You may manage no one, but really manage everyone.
Even if you have no direct reports, there are many people you will need to manage. Sales management, manufacturing, medical, compliance, sales operations, regulatory, finance, upper management, communications, promotions…think of all the team members who need to march together to help the brand (and, therefore, you) meet objectives.
One immediately transferable sales skill is the ability to gain agreement and hold people accountable. You’ll need to rely on many members of the broader team to help you meet your objectives.
As you know, you are ultimately responsible for the brand. You are its voice, speaking up for what it needs to succeed. You are accountable for a sales number, an objective, and your customers’ needs. Never feel bad for asking for what you need to get the job done. When you were in the field, you wouldn’t have assumed that something would happen simply because you asked for it; that doesn’t change when you’re behind a desk. Follow up until you get what you need.
Think of the customer types you called on in the field: the driver, the amiable, the analytical, and the expressive. They all exist in-house too! The approaches you mastered in the field will serve you well on the inside.
Tailor your approach to the request and, most importantly, to the personality type. It may be best to engage an analytical personality one on one to present your case in private before trying to gain consensus in a larger group. When dealing with an expressive or a driver, it may be necessary to apply a hard close to make a deadline. The bottom line is that you should view your new teammates as unique customers. Make sure you gain agreement and hold people accountable to their commitments.
Never underestimate the importance of selling your brand internally.
About two years after I came in-house, the marketing VP who hired me in-house moved to a new business unit. I was grateful to him for the opportunity and education. And I was a little uneasy about working for someone new. As it turned out, the change was a blessing in disguise. The new boss brought a new perspective, new experiences, and many new lessons. One of the most critical lessons was the importance of selling your brand internally.
Internal support is critical when you are building a brand. Be careful not to give up control over shaping the brand’s position and identity, but do involve your extended team in your thought processes and vision. Routinely engage in one-on-one conversations or small-group discussions: Engage the team in your goals and the brand’s demands— remember, engagement breeds commitment. You want your colleagues to want to help you meet your goals. If they are involved, they are going to be more willing to help you succeed.
To the same end, remember that any strategy is only as good as its execution. The sales force will execute your brand strategy better if they are engaged with the tactics. Conduct field rides, talk to top reps (and struggling ones) at sales meetings, and become best friends with sales managers—then you will really understand the tools they need to make your strategy succeed.
Consider this approach especially when developing the creative for your campaign. It’s a tough balancing act: You want to preserve the element of surprise, but share enough to get the buy-in that’s critical if you want the field to actually use the materials you develop.
We had great success in engaging a small group of sales reps to act as advisors and liaisons to the marketing team. We branded the group (we called it RAP–Rep Advisory Panel). We introduced its members to the agency and other strategic partners. And we asked for RAP input, listened to it, and actually used their ideas. We earned their respect and gained immense credibility with the field when our new campaign launched. It didn’t hurt that the campaign itself was bold, aggressive, and engaging. As a result, the field actually used the materials, executed the strategy, and drove the numbers.
Don’t guess on the big business questions.
As you get more involved in strategic decisions, it becomes increasingly important to remember the value of your advisor network, market research, and internal experts. It can be tempting to rely only on your knowledge and experience, but never lose sight of the idea that your opinion is still only n=1. It’s much better to rely on a more robust network of knowledge.
Do the research, have the conversations, ask the questions, and continue to learn! Don’t overreach, oversell yourself, or guess.
Making the transition to in-house can be very rewarding. And it can put you on the fast track to a world of exposure and opportunities. The key is to be patient with yourself as you learn, never stop growing, and always keep your lines of communication open with your network of advisors and customers.