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Energize your independent rep to make the sale stick

March 1, 2008
Let’s face it: You don’t want your independent representatives to just “make a sale.

by Jeffrey Goodman

Let’s face it: You don’t want your independent representatives to just “make a sale.” Instead, you want them to make a sale and build the lasting relationships that take doctors from “purchased” mode to “product ownership” mode. You want your representatives to convey the benefits of a product in a manner that gets doctors’ attention and results in them reordering regularly and making recommendations.

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That desired outcome is the result of a multipart process that involves not just your representative, but the distributor and the manufacturer as well. It may seem that this process begins when the initial sale is made and the product ships. At that point, the distributor takes ownership of the transaction. But the process really begins with the manufacturer, who must build enough pre- and postsale support into the transaction to make the sale possible. Ultimately, when the distributor owns the transaction and the customer owns the product, the manufacturer has built an asset in the relationships that have been created. That’s the secret of branding.

The Challenge: Cutting through Industry Clutter

Unfortunately, the dental industry is not without some significant obstacles that may prevent achievement of that final step in the ownership process — that critical point when the doctor should recommend (and reorder) the product. What most of us in the industry have experienced in recent years is an environment with too many different messages being conveyed by too many people. Manufacturers and distributors each have marketing teams, sales teams, and technical teams. Yet the doctor has not heard consistent messages from all of these players. And, all too often, there has not been enough postsale communication. Frequently the end result is a dissatisfied doctor stuck with a product that simply doesn’t work for his or her practice.

This communication failure is compounded by a scattered sales process: Some of us have been focused on the stocking order and some on the initial order in the field but, in general, no one has really focused on the complete sales process.

What needs to happen is for everyone — manufacturers and distributors alike — to deliver one succinct message, taking the critical first step that will move the dental industry in a more efficient direction. It is also important that we redefine what we consider a sale, and focus our efforts on the entire sales process rather than one piece of it.

Over the last 10 years, most large dental manufacturers have aimed more and more of their resources directly at the dentist, clarifying messaging and postsale support. However, many smaller manufacturers that came into distribution in order to better manage a large, fragmented market are losing their voice. They are finding it challenging to deliver a clear message to the dental community through distribution, and expensive to get that message across directly to dental offices. Their sales forces, most often consisting of independent dental representatives, are discovering that the distributor salesperson, on whom they have relied to educate doctors, is no longer providing that level of support due to new responsibilities and a different focus. Therefore, delivering the message and making the sale has become increasingly complex, a process comprised of many moving parts of which manufacturing management must take charge. To ensure the moving parts are synchronized, management must transfer some responsibilities from their sales force to their home office.

The Last Decade: Expectations and Job Roles Change

To understand the challenges faced by independent representatives, we must first understand how the job description of the dental distributor salesperson has changed profoundly over the last 10 years.

For starters, it is harder to see or talk to dentists; they are busier and their practices are better managed, with systems in place to minimize distractions from well-meaning vendors. Add to that the fact that the same dentists who purchased supplies and equipment from five dealers in the past now typically deal with three or fewer suppliers. Dealer representatives are working hard to maintain their business and are spending more time with fewer doctors, resulting in a reduction of opportunities to introduce new products from their manufacturer partners.

And, unfortunately for the independent rep, more time does not translate into more partner sales time. Most distributor representatives have a lot more to talk about than dental supplies. They have initiatives to focus on like corporate branding, exclusive products, financial programs, educational offerings, and high technology. Dealer representatives may often find themselves overwhelmed as they become inundated with an ever-expanding range of tasks to perform, receiving endless amounts of information from home office and manufacturer partners. In fact, it is common for dealer representatives to spend up to two hours per night on their computers, prioritizing their next steps as they take courses and sift through full inboxes. It is no surprise that even with advanced technology, the dealer representative has become less of a technical specialist and more of a general contractor.

What adds to the complexity of this situation is the fact that the new product pipeline is expanding. Technological advances are bringing a constant flow of new and improved products. Product categories are being created, making it harder for the dealer representative to master and sell without assistance from manufacturer salespeople. Yet co-travel, booth visits at shows, and branch training sessions seem to happen less frequently these days. Today’s training is more superficial, typically providing the dealer representative enough information to understand the product and generate doctor interest, but not enough expertise to close the sale. Intensive training has given way to a more frequent exchange of sound bites. Why? The reason is simple.

Changing with the Times: A Necessary Direction

What is causing this communication disconnect, disrupting what should be a smooth flow of product information, sale closings, and postsale product recommendations? The knowledge demands associated with rapidly advancing technology are too great a burden on the distributor salesperson and, for the most part, have been shifted to the independent representative. For many products, the responsibility for closing the sale has also been shifted to the independent rep. So the job description of the independent representative has been rewritten — training has been superseded by motivation and selling.

What does this mean for the independent dental representatives, the hardworking traveling salespeople who have for years relied on this basic model: Cover a large territory and train dealer salespeople through branch meetings and co-travel to sell emerging and competitive products? Well, because consolidation, competition, technology, and distributor transformation have all combined to limit the time dealer salespeople make available for independent representatives, these representatives and the companies that employ them must begin working smarter. How? By taking advantage of technology to effectively motivate dealer salespeople to sell their products.

The successful independent representative needs to execute many discrete and time-sensitive communications on a daily basis, which can only be accomplished with support from the manufacturer’s home office. The in-and-out nature of most independent representatives’ days makes quick response time and doctor follow-up very hard to execute. When you take into account that most independents have more than eight lines, timely fulfillment of the many sample and information requests requires intense dedication and organization.

An Organized Solution that Drives Business Forward

At CoreStrength, our primary business is managing independent representatives. We recognize the shift taking place and fully understand that it’s unreasonable to expect these salespeople to make a seamless transfer to the new role they need to fill without assistance. To help facilitate this process, we have designed a software system to help manufacturers better manage and organize their representatives, and to help the representatives calmly manage their daily workload.

Our Dental Rep Dashboard™ divides representative tasks into three categories — My Tools, My Dental Rep Tools, and My Doc Tools. A dental representative can use the software to request samples, literature, and even follow-up phone calls from the manufacturer to dealer representatives and doctors. Manufacturers can post leads for representatives and, with the help of the independent representative, track the progress on each lead. Additional features such as a forum for reps and management to share sales and technical experiences, a downloads area for marketing and clinical documents, and a quick poll help management stay close to the market and maximize support for the representative.

Finally, the system has an optional commissioning module that consolidates zip data from distributors and e-mails territory reports and initiates electronic payments. This results in the representative being paid faster and eliminates much of the back-office work associated with dental commissions.

Managing with Measurable Results and More Success

Sales management also benefits from the Dental Rep Dashboard™. What was formerly a combination of phone calls, e-mails, and faxes is now a concrete series of transactions contained in a single database. Sales numbers are no longer the sole metric; the specific in-territory activities are now measurable. This consolidation is usually welcomed by the representative, who has instinctively focused on activities for years. You see, the itinerant nature of the representative often placed the representative with the doctor for the demonstration, but when the doctor needed time to think about things, physically removed the representative from the close. This tool makes it easier to coordinate the activities required to grind out each sale, one office at a time. It also allows the manufacturer to provide leadership and support in a structured manner, and ultimately improves communication and cooperation among independent and dealer representatives.

Systems such as the software developed by CoreStrength will help independent representatives make the transition from conducting business based on the old model, which is fast becoming increasingly irrelevant and disjointed, to managing their businesses with the skills and tools that will allow them to once again fully serve as empowered manufacturer’s agents.

About CoreStrength

CoreStrength is a leader in dental sales consulting and management, committed to proactively addressing industry challenges and developing convenient solutions that foster better business-building relationships, enhanced communications, and increased sales. Contact Jeffrey Goodman at (321) 725-9999 or [email protected].