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You have a brand.

You have a marketing team to support it.

You have a sales force to sell it.

But who owns the plan??

I t is safe to say that marketing teams align the vision to the strategy when a product goes commercial, but it’s the sales team that executes that strategy. Sales teams deliver the message, that supports the plan, that aligns with the vision that Marketing created. Marketing also develops the tools that sales use to make the sale. So, sales delivers the message and apply the tools, that support the plan, that align with the vision that marketing created. It reminds me of that old British nursery rhyme, “This is the House That Jack Built.” Still, the boundaries are unclear.

In this situation, you have two strong teams that are playing for the same side – which in itself is complex. The natural course of team dynamics lends itself to having opposing teams at play, which in effect, is sometimes what happens at companies where the plan doesn’t support the people executing it. In an effort to build a product’s equity, it can often feel as though marketing and sales are bitter rivals duking it out for brand domination. There is a struggle over who controls the ball on the court, and in my experience, it often becomes a contentious battle that no one ever wins and the real loss – the only loss – is market share and brand perception. The following are three lessons I learned while working with strong marketing teams who really partnered with sales and training to develop and execute plans in order to build billion-dollar brands.

Lesson #1: Connect with the customer

Customers feel your tension. Marketing teams conduct endless hours of research on brand perception. They slice and dice every ounce of data they gather from a minuscule subset of their market demographic, for the sole purpose of creating the vision that best connects the brand’s benefits to the customer’s needs. They sop up every drop of information to create the perfect brand message. Market research is valuable, but I have always wondered why so much time and money is spent trying to mimic the market for research when some of the best sponges that do the sopping up of customer insight are the company’s own salespeople.

It is true that most salespeople personalize too much. Often, their feedback reflects only what is relevant to them individually. It is also true that what happens in their area may not be indicative of all other areas, but at some point, it may be more accurate feedback than that of the subset of customers who agreed to participate in a customer panel. I have literally sat in marketing meetings and heard a majority of salespeople sharing the same feedback, but because that feedback was not duplicated in costly market research – it was disregarded. This ignorance resulted in a defeated sales force that finished the year 9% behind projected sales goals. While there were several factors that led to that deficit, the biggest gap was a fundamental disconnect between the marketing plan and the customer.

Salespeople are the closest link to the customer — connect with them. The most successful marketing teams I have ever worked with engaged consistently with their sales teams. They asked the field for feedback, listened, and then responded to customer needs with solutions that made sense. The marketing director frequented the field, established a team of Field Sales Advisors that met on a regular basis, and often field tested new tools to determine their value before deploying broadly.

Lesson #2: Walk a mile in the shoes of a salesperson

Occasionally, there is an opportunity for the truly successful salesperson to rotate through the home office in a marketing role. Some will stay, some will return to the field swiftly, but all will become very aware of the inner sanctum that is product marketing. What happens more rarely, is a marketer going into the field to sell the brand to customers. In essence, marketing has no frame of reference with which to align the brand’s vision to how it is sold.

I once worked with a marketing director who would ensure this never happened. Each new hire marketer was required to carry the bag for a minimum of 90 days so that they could clearly understand the objections, the customer behavior, and the salesperson’s day-to-day, which created a genuine sense of ownership for everyone on her team. Her marketers knew what it was like to get their nose bloodied in the trenches, so they had a very rational view of what the sales force experienced. Thus, the tools they created were more applicable, the messages they developed were truly meaningful, and there was a sense of comradery between sales and marketing – two teams, one goal. This made for more productive meetings, sales goals were aligned to strategy with a defined plan for execution, and the sales team was empowered by knowing that someone who worked with them in the field was now supporting them internally.

Lesson #3: If you truly want to innovate, you must also change the game

Pharmaceutical sales is an extremely regulated playing field. There are only so many things you can do differently in our industry. The way we train people, and subsequently promote products, has to stay within the realm of compliance. And yet, the very spirit of brand marketing is to strive to be better, different, unique, and have that “wow” factor. It is hard to stifle creativity, but it is also difficult to keep the sales teams motivated without it. Sales and marketing have heavy shoulders to support a brand, but in reality, it is the brand that supports them.

One very forward-thinking company I was a part of attempted to invert the pyramid of hierarchy that existed between sales/marketing leadership and the field. The best analogy I can give to paint the picture of this design is that of a sports team. There are talent scouts, investors, coaches, trainers, management, operations, etc. who run the show, but the ones who actually execute the plays are responsible for the outcomes. All of the money and time invested is futile if the team can’t execute. People remember a team because of its players, and they only recall a season if it was either lousy or outstanding. The same is true of a great brand – build a solid reputation and the sales will follow. The company took this to heart and focused their efforts on investing in their people and the skills they needed to become elite in the customer’s eyes. Once the salespeople established strong customer relationships built on mutual respect, they launched their brand, and the product took off. I might add, the product had entered a crowded market, and was a costly addition with minimal differentiation from its competition. Yet, in no time, it was stealing market share from the gold standard in its class.

You see, if people feel that a strategy is executed well, and the strategy connects with the customers, the brand takes off. If the brand is not positioned well, the strategy is choppy and disjointed, and sales and marketing get caught up in a power play, the customers will sense the tension is resultant of a poorly designed product or plan, and avoid the drama altogether. People want to do business with a company where their inside is level set with their outside.

You have a brand. You have a marketing team to support it. You have a sales force to sell it. But who owns the plan?? The answer is always the customer. And if sales and marketing can build that brand plan together, you will be the one to earn the customer’s loyalty.

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