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Do not ask again

The Veterinary Marketing Association’s (VMA) Annual House of Lords Debate at the prestigious Palace of Westminster took place this week. The question for discussion was: will reps still be needed in five years, or will they continue to be the VIPs they are in practice today? Hallmarq’s Marketing Communications Specialist, Sara Horner, attended the debate and gives us her summary of this highly emotive topic:

Expert Panel

Generously hosted by Professor The Lord Trees of the Ross, he welcomed all attendees before introducing the panel of guest speakers comprising:

  • Donal Murphy – THE NOAH Certificate of Animal Health (NCAH)
  • Martin Sutherland – Director & General Manager for IDEXX UK & Ireland
  • Rita Dingwall – Federation of Independent Veterinary Practices (FVIP)
  • Paul Horwood – Country Head of Farm at corporate practice IVC Evidensia

Qualified to support and advise

Largely focused on the small animal sector and pharmaceuticals, the meeting opened with insights from NOAH’s Donal Murphy, a firm advocate for the rep as VIP.

His argument that reps are inextricably linked with their customers was backed up by the need for qualifications and strict adherence to the 1974 Code of Conduct. Passionate about the role of reps in providing pharma support, he acknowledged their importance in providing technical expertise around complex subjects surrounding animal health.

Currently not obligatory, Donal suggested that all pharma reps undertake the NOAH Certificate of Animal Health (NCAH). Academically accredited by Harper Adams, the qualification helps maintain standards in an industry heavily regulated and ever-changing. It also helps support the credibility of those undertaking the qualification. The role of educator and technical advisor is far more than that of the traditional salesperson looking for a signature.

NOAH is currently looking to expand its remit to encompass more than just veterinary medicines as the complex use of certain drugs expands to include the use of diagnostics, pre-treatment, to maximize efficacy.

Outdated language

In firm agreement, Director & General Manager for IDEXX, Martin Sutherland suggested that the industry abolish the word “rep” and replace it with “professional.” Martin argued that these professionals, equipped with the right attitude and qualifications, build relationships with customers that no amount of AI or digital content can. Rather than being sold to, vets are increasingly looking for solutions to specific problems they encounter in practice.

A professional, well versed in technical know-how, adds value and growth as they become problem solvers for customers short of time. Martin states:

“There is no better customer experience than face-to-face interaction.”

Martin Sutherland, Director & General Manager, IDEXX

He further suggested that continued investment in sales professionals and technical experts is key. Talent acquisition continues to be a challenge for the industry but the importance of recruiting the right individuals cannot be underestimated. 

Collaborative efforts pay dividends

The intangible assets that the professional rep brings to veterinary practice were a key theme for panel member Rita Dingwall. Representing the Federation of Independent Veterinary Practices (FIVP), Rita suggested that, particularly post-covid, reps have increasingly become part of a collaborative team, focused on leveraging efficient use of time. She highlighted the different types of decision-making that corporates and independents are faced with, acknowledging that independent practices usually have a shorter procurement process. This doesn’t mean, however, that it’s any less of a minefield. As Rita states:

“Your professional can be your very best friend during difficult times. Talent acquisition must be constantly reviewed, and ROI is not guaranteed, but face-to-face interactions with the right people will pay dividends.”

Rita Dingwall, Federation of Independent Veterinary Practices

Firmly in support of reps as VIPs, Rita also encouraged increased collaboration in the relationship between practice and professional. The extension of the team to include a professional who can support both decision-making and regulatory adherence can only be a good thing.

Strategic alignment

Paul Horwood agrees. Now Country Head of Practice with IVC Evidensia, he also has first-hand experience of running an independent practice. Paul acknowledged that the “traditional” veterinary rep’s visit was typically associated with negative connotations. Often purely transactional, their arrival at the front desk was not always welcome or timely! However, Paul now sees a transition towards group rather than local buying with the whole team included in negotiations that are hugely beneficial for all parties. Not only has the role of the buyer changed but that of the professional too. Individuals are welcoming the move towards being better qualified in offering a support role. Sharing best practice to inform and educate means all parties can better align strategically.

Consistency is key

Increasingly more aware of the environment and sustainability, Paul raised the issue of one-off rep visits to site. Accordingly, he encourages hub-based meetings with groups of local vets, who benefit from group information, sharing live rather than virtual conversation. In addition, leveraging every asset available is vital to reaching a segmented audience. Face-to-face interactions should be supported by multiple but consistent messaging across varied platforms for maximum impact. For some, this also includes remote operations or “a vet on the internet,” whilst for others it’s the opportunity to discuss a particular and timely issue that requires broader discussion. Whatever the need, Paul’s thoughts around veterinary reps are:

“The role of the rep as we know it is not dead, just different.”

Paul Horwood, Country Head of Practice, IVC Evidensia

It is this difference, encompassing technical expertise, clinical knowledge, and training and support, which separates the consummate professional from the average rep.

Investment in people

Both panel and audience were in unanimous agreement. A plethora of people qualified to upsell, train and educate, are very much in demand if the industry is to continue to grow with integrity. Cost and ROI are always deciding factors but, as Rita suggests, not everything can or should come back to money. Investment in the right people will pay dividends. In response to the question “Do busy vets really have the time for a rep’s visit,” Paul suggested the introduction of shorter and more proactive engagement on both sides for meaningful solutions that work and benefit all. As conduits of information, sales professionals can take valuable feedback to companies ensuring that it reaches those who can and do effect change.

A new generation of professionals

In closing, Professor The Lord Trees of the Ross summarised the debate, asking the audience, is the veterinary rep as we know them VIP or RIP?  Hallmarq’s CCO Annie Makin believes that old perceptions need to be removed stating:

“The day of the rep is well and truly dead. The role of the consummate professional however is not! As industry advocates, educational partners and technical experts a true professional, offering face-to-face interaction, will always be welcomed by those looking for solutions to the myriad of questions that animal health brings.”

Annie Makin, CCO, Hallmarq Veterinary Imaging

As the debate continued over an exceptional lunch, it was apparent that all agreed. Complicated problems and products call for trusted advisors who cannot be replaced. The value of a new generation of professionals should not be underestimated as part of a collaborative team.

Long may that continue!

With Hallmarq for over a decade, Marketing Communications Specialist Sara Horner, BA(Hons), has a clear understanding of the challenges facing the industry in which she works. Able to hear the message above the noise and with a keen eye for detail, she works collaboratively with the wider Commercial Team to support company visibility globally.

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