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Sales Representative Ethnography

 


Substantial changes in the sales and customer landscape often trigger companies to conduct ethnographic research among their sales representatives.

These changes can range from recent company reorganizations to the launch of an important new sales tool (e.g. tablet or iPad).

In the healthcare setting, several trends have contributed to challenging changes in how sales representatives interact with their customers, including:

  • ·   Restrictions on sales representatives' access to customers (office & hospital policies)
  • ·   Constraints on what sales representative can discuss about their products
  • ·   Limitations on sponsored events and programs
  • ·   Busier customers / physicians (more bureaucratic work, reduced reimbursement)

 


Beyond determining how a company should adapt and respond to these changes, a sales representative ethnography can also help in identifying and bridging gaps that commonly exist between brand and sales teams.

Sales teams, for instance, may not execute in the strategic manner envisioned by the brand team.

Brand teams, on the other hand, may not be aware of the nature and extent of the challenges sales teams face in the field with customers.

While periodic brand team ‘ride-alongs’ and sales representative panels are helpful in uncovering some of these gaps, sales representatives are often still hesitant to offer critical feedback in these situations.

We place a central emphasis in our sales representative ethnographies on cultivating candor and comfort with the participating sale representatives. We accomplish this, in part, by:

  • ·   Firmly assuring sales representatives of their anonymity
  • ·   Clearly defining the research objectives
  • ·   Presenting ourselves as anthropologists with a research orientation and scientific demeanor
  • ·   Spending longer intervals and informal time with each sales representative

 


An important initial step on these projects involves meeting with the brand and sale team leaders. We believe that the ethnographer must not only know how these individuals prioritize strategic issues, but also understand their assumptions about sales representatives’ behavior and the current characteristics of the customer landscape.

Below follow several areas where sales representative ethnographies produce strategically useful insights:

  • ·   Types of customers visited, frequency of visits, duration of visits
  • ·   Product messages discussed (frequency and how discussed)
  • ·   Customers' objections to product (types, frequency, and how handled by sales representative)
  • ·   How sales representatives manage 2 or more products (privileging one? transitioning between each?)
  • ·   Use of tools and resources (electronic and other) in visits
  • ·   Unmet needs for new or enhanced tools and resources
  • ·   Culture and attitude of sales forces (frustrations, challenges, and unmet needs)
  • ·   Tactics differentiating top vs. moderate performing sales representatives

 


Depending on the brand and sales teams’ strategic interests, greater research emphasis may be placed on how product messages are transmitted, the role and usability of new electronic tools, or how sales representatives can provide better customer value.

Methodologically, our ethnographers spend 2 full days with each of several sales representatives. The ethnographer shadows and observes the sales representatives through their various activities, including their customer visits.

Since audio and video recording of the customer visits is not possible, a tracking sheet is developed to collect key data points. The ethnographer completes the tracking sheet right after each observed visit between a sales representative and customer. Additionally, we maintain diligence to write-up and synthesize findings at the conclusion of each day of fieldwork.

An extensive discussion guide is also developed for more open-ended qualitative interviewing of the sales representatives throughout the 2 day experience (i.e., when traveling between customer visits, during lunch, over coffee at day’s end).

Given the frequency of their customer interactions, sales representatives often develop a strong familiarity with the voice and preferences of the customer. In this sense, sales representatives also represent a rich, and often overlooked, resource on customer insights—a perspective that the ethnography also effectively captures.