The Role of Product: How Much of the Product is the Sales Person?

Last month I proposed a simple framework to help the sales professional decide the area to prioritize for maximum return on effort (or investment). This month I focus on one of those areas, the product, examining to what extent the appeal of the product is influenced by the sales person.

Last month I put to you that there were 3 key components in any sale, stressing that success depended on an understanding and mastery of these components and how they interact.


The 3 components

  1. The Product: How different or valuable is your product to the customer? What is the USP?
  2. The Person: Who and how the sale happens, this includes the sales process/experience (convenience, interaction, ease of transaction, enjoyment, hurdles etc.)
  3. The Deal: The financials (price, terms, commitment etc.)

This month I plan to elaborate on the “product” component of this process and how the salesperson impacts the customer’s perception of the product. You will recall that in my last article I defined 3 different types of products:

  • If the product is unique, highly desirable and differentiated, it offers a solution to a problem that the customer has and this solution is superior to that offered by competition.
  • The product is not differentiated but highly complex! This is often the situation of consulting services (Legal, financial, medical, and business) where essentially the same service is offered by the different suppliers.
  • The product is not differentiated! (Commodities e.g. petrol, milk, bread, generic pharmaceuticals).

1. If the product is unique.

It is rare that we have an absolutely unique product in the branded pharmaceuticals market, most products have to demonstrate some advantage over previous treatments, so by definition, the granting of a product license implies a level of uniqueness. So all that is required is to let the customer know of your product and its innovative characteristics, right?

Think about the sales person’s role for a moment. Clearly it must be to inform. So is the job of the sales person to only deliver the carefully crafted messages of the marketing teams? Is the salesperson only a “walking advert”? Surely not!

This raises a key question: what is the role of the sales person and the role of the marketer? If this question is not clearly resolved, it can be, and is often, the cause of friction between the sales and marketing departments, to which I have borne witness, both as a salesperson and as a marketer.

In my opinion the roles should be: The marketing department and the marketer lead and define the product strategy and product messages. Whereas, the sales person and the sales department lead the delivery of the message to the customer. The implementation of this policy is subject to many “grey areas” which require definition. Since this article is about sales force effectiveness, I will return my focus to the role (and value) of the sales person in introducing the unique product for the customer.

I asserted above that the sales person’s role is to inform, this is true. However, this need to inform often leads to the sales people being asked to “tell” the doctor what he/she should need as opposed to addressing the needs of the customer and “selling” them what they actually want.

This can be a fatal mistake that is all too common. I remind the reader of my assertion in my last article that only buying is an activity, selling is making it easier for the customer to buy your product. Thus, the customer’s perspective is critical. The marketer has to consider the whole market (or market segment) whereas, the salesperson must consider the individual customer. Excited product managers can often be too focused on the need to communicate differentials and this can often lead to product presentations that are “feature dumps”.

If you have any doubts, there is ample evidence that the most knowledgeable sales people are not always the best. The best sales people are knowledgeable, but they also always prioritize customer understanding before product understanding.

The role of a good sales person engaged in consultative selling is to understand the personal needs of each of his/her customers and to demonstrate how the unique elements of the product offer a solution to the doctor’s problem. The sales person should present first the solution (what the product will do for the customer) and only then rationalize how the product feature will achieve this. Finally, only if necessary, a comparison with the competition can be made.

This need for consultative selling is becoming increasingly important as healthcare becomes the domain of many disciplines beyond the medical experts. These “new” customers will require the sales person to understand their needs and will not accept or be impressed with a sales pitch that does not spell out the benefit for them.

2. The product is not differentiated but highly complex!

This is often the situation of consulting services (Legal, financial, medical, and business) where essentially the same product is offered by the different suppliers and it is simply a question of how well the sales person understands the customer that they can demonstrate the value of the product. Indeed the sales person is very much part of the product.

Most of us will trust a good craftsman and we would rarely question materials he uses. In this situation the product is like the material that the craftsman uses. The credibility of the provider/sales person determines the sale. This is probably the single most important situation where the person and the sales process are key to the sale. The salesperson must focus on

adding value and building trust. Product presentation should be done as above, the customer is the key to what is presented. Present a solution to the customer’s problem and they will buy from you, even if they know that the same is on offer elsewhere, because they value you the salesperson and your help in solving their problem.

3. The product is not differentiated!

In this situation, the customer believes that there are many sources for the product offering and the key driver will be the best deal that he/she can get. In this situation the key focus of the sales team must be to demonstrate the superior value (financially) of the product offered.

This again requires a deep customer understanding so that the salesperson can demonstrate the value of the deal. The deal and the value of the deal is not mathematical, it requires an

understanding of the customers circumstances to present the best deal from the customers point of view. The process of product presentation is as above, except when the product is presented it is likely that the deal and the value delivered to the customer will be the primary focus.

From the above you can see that a consultative selling approach for pharma is the only viable method for success. Equally, I hope that I have illustrated that the buyer is the key to selling regardless of the core product characteristics. The sales person is important in the sales process because he/she makes the product/service offering relevant to the customer.

In my next article I plan to discuss the salesperson, sales process and sales techniques. What matters and why.

Please feel free to contact me if you think I can help in anyway, or give me your perspective and comments!

Questions and comments? For more information on the thoughts and theories put forward in this colum, you can contact Ifti Ahmed directly on or leave your comments in the form below!

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