Scottsdale, AZ – Recently, one of our clients asked the GSW innovation team if there was some way to flip the typical rep ad board meeting and turn it into something more engaging… more productive… more (saw this one coming) innovative. Never ones to back away from a challenge, we saw this as an opportunity to interact with an audience that is usually on our minds, but hardly in attendance — sales representatives. Over the course of a couple of weeks, we designed a custom experience for the event. An ideation framework flexible enough to incorporate real-time insights from the women and men on the “front line”.

We all know about the challenges facing the sales force these days. Access to physicians is down. Way down. And as a result, the number of reps has been dwindling (the US sales force numbers have decreased by about a third over the last 5 years). In the days leading up to the event, I started to get incredibly excited over the idea that I was going to get the chance to get up close and personal with this dying breed. To observe an endangered species in the wild while I still had the chance.

Well, the workshop was a smashing success. The ideas were plentiful and everyone was pleased. However, looking back at the experience, I realized that over the course of those 3 days, I hadn’t met a single sales representative. Instead, I met:

Educators – Physicians may be doing their best to wedge learning in in the midst of increasingly busier schedules and the greater demands of practice these days, but there are still major knowledge gaps. During our workshop, I heard countless stories of doctors still depending on reps to deliver new information so that they could stay current on things way beyond product info like new indications and data. One woman took it upon herself to create her own curated list of news articles and even app reviews that she pulses to a growing list of readers. Others spoke of serving as a peer-to-peer channel and sharing best practices and news between practices in her territory.

Economists – With Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) transforming the healthcare model, conversations are quickly shifting to new quality of care measures and patient outcomes. These reps were engaging with some of the new players in this world (think suits rather than white coats) and were expanding their vocabulary accordingly. Connecting the dots between product benefits, patient outcomes, and the bottom line is essential.

Members of the Geek Squad – In some smaller practices and more isolated regions, reps were assisting with EHR workflows and providing added value with their tech savvy. One even helped a practice set up a plan to organize and track patient outcome data that was just sitting there, waiting to be tapped into.

An advocate – Not content with “corporate” efforts and partnerships, one rep was taking matters into her own hands and working directly with local advocacy groups. She is able to help steer local advocacy efforts towards the needs and patient knowledge gaps that physicians in her region are seeing, helping both sides better serve the community.

A ninja – In the wake of the Affordable Care Act, hospitals have been an increasingly larger and more complex world to navigate in, with all of the mergers, acquisitions, and consolidations. It’s not a world that’s particularly friendly to reps. Rising to the challenge, one woman I met has developed a vast array of stealth tactics and information-delivering techniques. She spoke of dressing a certain way (camouflage), hiding leave behinds (concealment), and being able to assess a friend or foe a hallway length away.

This list could continue on at quite some length. While the audience was quite diverse in terms of geography, gender, and age, there was one thing that they all had in common—none of them felt that the term “sales representative” came remotely close to describing what it is that they do and the services that they provide. This was not a group that was down about the sad state of the field force, but rather a scrappy bunch that was hungry for new types of training (see above) and resources more appropriate to their day-to-day realities.

Our takeaway from the workshop was that while numbers are on the decline, reps might be more of a species on the cusp of an evolutionary jump than one facing definite extinction. Marketers should be mindful of the many hats that reps wear and should be looking to build tools and training that better address the realities of the landscape that they’re operating in. Maybe the next step in the evolutionary process is to come up with a more appropriate name. Something like “consultant” or even “concierge” would be a much better reflection of the new role that they play.

About the Author:

Jeffrey Giermek