Channel Partners: Their Mindshare Equals your Growth

Kristina Belyea 7 September 2017 - 7 min. read

Getting your products to market successfully is a challenging proposition even at the best of times. Companies in the life sciences industry struggle to keep up with growing competition, tough regulations and shrinking time with buyers. Ramping up a direct sales force when trying to gain market share and increase revenue is expensive, not to mention time and resource consuming. As a result, many companies rely on existing networks and the support infrastructure that channel partnerships bring to the table. There is no doubt that selling through a distributor network has many benefits. But reaping these benefits means being able to ensure that every one of your distributor reps understands your product’s value, how to differentiate it from the competition, and can relay this to customers, effectively.

Unlike direct reps, who are accountable to the organization they work for, distributor reps juggle competing manufacturers, complex product portfolios, and pre-existing relationships with their networks. They’re already overwhelmed with product information and their mindshare is at a premium – to say the least. If they don’t comprehend your product’s value or feel comfortable selling it over more established products, they just won’t bring it up during sales conversations. And if they don’t bring it up, they aren’t going to be very effective selling it (in which case they will likely conclude it’s your product that’s deficient – not their understanding of it). In any event, they’re not going to be much help to your top line revenue.

This isn’t just a problem for your sales numbers. It can seriously impact how your brand is perceived.

You can’t control whether your product is the most expensive product in a rep’s bag, or even in its category. They’re incentivized to sell what makes them the highest commission. What you can control – and this is the key to maximizing distributor productivity – is to ensure that your distributor reps are more comfortable with your products (technical specs, value proposition, objection management) than any other manufacturers’ products in their bag. The key is comfort.

The more effortless you make it for distributor reps to do their jobs, the easier you make it for them to sell your products over other manufacturers, the more you capture their increasingly limited mindshare, and the more revenue they generate for you. Where many companies stumble is in providing effective sales training tools, resources, and ongoing support to create this level of comfort. It’s ironic given how much time and resources are spent on R&D, marketing and FDA approvals for companies to take the easy road when it comes to empowering their channel partners.

Many manufacturers place too much reliance on traditional training models; the classroom, webinars, and generic marketing collateral to empower their channel. But technology is slowly and inevitably changing the face of sales training, and more companies are turning to a combination of different methods to train their reps. In fact, companies are projected to spend 18 percent more on sales training than they did last year. That said, traditional channels can still be optimized so that you greatly increase the odds of your distributors understanding and being able to effectively sell your products.

Below is an exploration of the common challenges many companies face using training tools like the classroom, train-the-trainer, and webinars – and some easy-to-implement strategies to overcome the limitations of these models. By following these recommendations, you will see more knowledgeable and conversant reps, and you should see a noticeable improvement in top line revenue.

In-class training
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that in-class sessions aren’t the most optimal way to train reps, but companies are still choosing classroom training 22 percent more than other types of training. It’s not difficult to understand why they allocate budget towards instructor-led sessions. It’s training in a format most of us know all too well. Here’s the reality. Even the best reps struggle with in-class training. Key product benefits, nuanced sales strategies, and complex clinical information are jammed down their throats, in the hope that they understand all of it, and quickly. One VP of Sales compared this overwhelming flow of information to “drinking from a fire hose.” Pulling distributor reps out of the field and into your classroom – sometimes for days on end – was described by another VP of Sales Operations & Training as “brutal” and “like pulling teeth.” And aside from being costly, spending hours in an instructor-led course, between the barrage of product information and never ending slide decks, even the most motivated rep’s attention span will reach its limit. Once the session’s over, even if the rep gained valuable knowledge, they will not retain it over time. If it’s one month after training, and that rep gets asked for a clinical differentiator, chances are she’s going to look like a deer in the headlights.

Some companies distill classroom sessions even further by using the train-the-trainer model. Here, experienced sales reps or the distributor principal provides reps with training. While there’s value in learning from peers and experienced reps, there’s a significant potential for miscommunication and information loss using this model. If distributors themselves train reps in their network, companies have little to no visibility on how much of their sales messages and strategies are actually getting passed on properly – let alone understood. If you’re going to be spending time, money, and resources building out a strong sales training program, then why put it in the hands of people who may not present it the way you intended? Rather than using this model, we recommend getting your subject matter experts directly in front of the reps. Depending on a middleman, even if that’s your own rep, might seem like an ideal way to optimize resources but it’s far from ideal for the rep who needs to truly understand your product’s value.

We’ve found that companies who are able to extract the most value from classroom training don’t use these sessions to get their distributor reps up to speed on product fundamentals. That’s a waste of valuable time and resources. In order to maximize every minute of limited face-time, these companies get their reps product information and verbiage (features, benefits, talk tracks, technical specs, clinical study reviews) ) before they get into the classroom. They provide reps content in the form of pre-recorded webinars and marketing collateral so that once a rep is in the classroom, that time is spent clarifying anything that was unclear in training collaterals, getting hands-on product experience in real time, and engaging in interactive role playing exercises. This also provides a great opportunity to build real rapport with the distributor reps and shorten classroom time.

Webinar training
Your distributor network might be spread across the country, even the world. Many companies rely on live webinars to introduce themselves and their products to channel partners. While watching a webinar may be a lot easier than getting on a plane and sitting in a classroom for three days, it too comes with its own set of unique challenges. Taking the time to put a webinar together, and making sure every rep can attend it at the same time is a whole lot of effort for very few returns. Two recurring problems with webinars are that first, you don’t know whether your reps are even engaging with and absorbing the content and second, they can’t access it when they need it the most, in the field. While you’re presenting, your rep may be listening intently, or she may be driving to a meeting or cooking dinner in which case retention will be close to nil. You have no visibility into how much she’s understood, and she may end up lacking enough knowledge to speak to the product effectively, or handle an objection with aplomb. Another rep might recall a salient selling strategy you presented during the webinar, but when he’s prepping for a meeting, he has neither the patience nor the bandwidth to power up his laptop and search for that one key point. So he’ll go into the meeting underprepared, which will neither make the sale, nor make it likely that he pulls your product out of the bag again.

Executive stakeholders spend hours creating training content. One VP of Sales we spoke to spent an average of four hours per week creating webinars for his distributor sales force. To ensure that this time spent doesn’t go to waste, we suggest moving away from hour-long live webinars. Take that 60 minute-long webinar, and break it down into shorter pre-recorded videos. Give your reps access to these shorter, well-organized bursts of information at their own convenience so they can learn at their own pace. Another benefit with shorter videos is that your reps will be able to quickly access them in the field, right when they need, instead of having to dig through hours of video for that one nugget of gold. Keep in mind, they will forget what you taught them, so if you don’t make the training accessible, they will never be able to refresh and get to that threshold level of comfort. We suggest following up with the material in-class; if you can’t make it work for logistical purposes, then we suggest following up with conference calls to field any uncertainties and do a Q&A session.

Your distributor network is made up of driven sales reps trying to get that end of month commission. But even if your product is the most exciting and innovative out there, if a rep doesn’t understand its value, or feel comfortable selling it, then he will not bring it up. If he takes a risk, but doesn’t really understand how to sell it, and so doesn’t make a sale – then he won’t make the mistake of bringing it up again, especially if more established products are helping him hit quota. Your product’s commercial success is dependent on your ability to provide reps with the training tools, resources, and support that helps them see its value, and feel comfortable speaking to this value. This is why every single piece of training collateral you create needs to be concise, and most importantly, accessible so that reps can pull it up effortlessly when they’re preparing for a meeting. When it comes to training infrastructure, your distributor reps shouldn’t be a second thought. By giving them the tools to do their jobs, you give your product an opportunity to break into the market with real success.