Key account management within cross-functional teams in pharma

by Abhik Sengupta

Key Account Management is fast becoming an integral cog in the medical, marketing and sales wheels of many large Pharma organisations in the digital age. Business leaders have become increasingly more aware of changing prescribing dynamics in the Pharma and Health Science space, with customers now highly active across both digital and physical channels, and external cost pressures forcing us to ‘do more with less’. These changes are adding weight to an ever-present and growing need to become more cross-functionally integrated across the organisation.

Critical to achieving this cross-functional integration is aligning the entire business behind a cohesive strategy, with Key Account Management seen as the tool to effectively enable this alignment, embed roles and build the operational rhythm to bring everything together. But integrating Key Account Management across large Pharma organisations is not a straightforward endeavour, with a myriad of challenges to overcome along the way. Most leaders aren’t sure where they should be focusing their efforts. Is it about realising the best commercial outcomes? Or is it a question of becoming more customer-centric? The reality is that it’s about achieving both.

Below are five common ways to effectively integrate Key Account Management across cross-functional teams within large Pharma organisations, and achieve the right mix of commercial and customer-centric outcomes.

1. Establish a consistent organisational definition of Key Account Management

Amongst many marketing and sales leaders in Pharma, the definition of what ‘Key Account Management’ actually means – or what a Key Account Manager actually does – can significantly vary. In transactional B2B settings, Key Account Management is seen as managing the deal process with the customer, bundling products and negotiating prices, while the Key Account Manager is seen as the person to coordinate the process and cross-functional resources.

This generalised view is directionally accurate, but there are many other elements to consider in the Pharma context that simply don’t exist in the world of transactional B2B selling. Whereas the transactional environment has a clear buyer to work with, the Pharma Key Account Manager has to contend with things such as protocols, formularies, administrators, key opinion leaders, clinical leads, and community healthcare services; all of which can have a positive or negative effect on a product’s route to adoption and, ultimately, being prescribed.

With so many stakeholders and influencers along the path to enabling prescribing, and so many ways to have adoption stifled, understanding how to navigate and influence these dynamics is a vital part of Key Account Management in Pharma. The goal of Key Account Management in Pharma is very much to get to the point of customer product adoption, and then accelerate and expand usage. There will be inevitable setbacks along the way where a wrong turn is made, and it’s knowing who the best person is to put you back on the right path that will keep you ahead of the competition.

These are the people who become targets in key accounts and it essentially comes down to how you prioritise these people and leverage them to drive your brand adoption. For the most effective path to prescribing, Key Account Managers must know what opportunities to chase, what to defend, and what should be left on the table. Prioritisation is at the heart of Key Account Management.

2. Conduct a gap analysis

With a clear organisational definition of Key Account Management, the first step to embedding it into the organisational DNA is to conduct an in-depth gap analysis. We must determine where our capabilities currently lie, and understand where we want to be in order to effectively address the complexities of managing multiple stakeholders in a customer-centric way.

To this end, the sales representative focused on relationship management is no longer effective, with a true advocacy approach required to bring together resources derived from the customer’s needs. The role of the Key Account Manager is to engage with all the stakeholders involved in the patient’s journey to enable the prescriber to make the best decision when it’s time for the pen to hit the paper.

This will require a 'no-regrets', targeted assessment of the organisational selling framework. Focusing on how effectively the sales process challenges the customer’s needs, as well as identifies and opens the customer’s mindset to new areas of thinking to encourage experiential learning.  A higher level of business acumen, accompanied by the ability to leverage technology and data, will enable the provision of strategic insights centred around the customer’s needs.

3. Integrate Key Account Management into the operating model

The Health Science industry is increasingly seeing strong pipelines, or smaller niche brands in targeted segments, challenging the traditional methods of launch planning and execution. In the past, the ‘share of voice’ mindset has seen valuable financial resources invested into increasing sales teams to maintain the active promotion of all brands across differing lifecycles.

With the changing environment and cost pressure to ‘do more with less’, it’s no longer an option for companies to focus on a large range of low-yielding brands. This focus must change to a smaller number of niche brands that provide the best sales outcomes, without the need to expend additional time or resources.

To do this, absolute role and goal clarity must be implemented to ensure awareness of the role of each function at every stage of the journey, and support adoption outcomes. The key here is changing the lens on how the organisation views the customer for maximum benefit, as opposed to creating additional work to get there.

An integrated medical, marketing and sales funnel can help prioritise opportunities and allocate the right resources, at the right time of the customer journey. Qualifying where the customer sits in the journey can also allow Key Account Managers to be more targeted in allocating the resources needed to help progression, with the critical factor lying in the knowledge of what everyone is responsible for at every stage.

4. Embed the Key Account Management structure

An absence of ongoing coaching and training to embed new capabilities can cause people to slip from the new operating model into old ways of working, albeit with slightly more nuanced skills. Critical to ensuring this doesn’t occur is implementing the right cross-functionally integrated processes to act as the vehicle that drives the new operating model. The right processes will also enable the organisation to appropriately leverage the tools and frameworks to further develop capability, and reduce the chances of reverting back to legacy ways of working.

The issue here is that traditional CRM (customer relationship management) technology is typically designed to drive sales effectiveness and accountability, not enable customer centricity. Tools and technology must evolve to a point where it can capture customer interactions and drivers, and be easily accessible for the entire organisation.

With this in place, functions such as medical, marketing and sales will be given a holistic customer view and be more aligned behind customer-centric processes. Whilst it is the operating model and processes that put the organisation on the right track, technology will be what makes these scalable. The vast majority of businesses currently have the core technology in place to achieve this, but don’t have the required knowledge and capability to move forward.

5. Maintain commitment to the transformation

A significant success factor in transforming is maintaining commitment throughout the entire process, where strong leadership and advocacy is developed to establish priorities and ensure old ways of working are not allowed back in. People will generally jump on board with the initial stages of transformation, but tend to lose engagement once the going gets tough. Outlining from the start that the change will take time to filter through is key to keeping people motivated to continue progressing.

A strong operating rhythm is the glue that will hold the transformation together, where everyone involved understands what to do and how to do it. As engagement wanes during difficult periods of the transformation, it’s critical that those involved refer back to the ‘why and how’ in order to stay focused on carrying out and implementing the new framework. Listen to all feedback, understand the pain points, and collaboratively overcome barriers to maintain organisational belief and trust in the new ways of working.

Commit to realistic steps

Every organisation has the capacity to develop at speed, but it is the internal processes and guidelines, such as compliance, that limit their ability to be successful. To this end, integrating Key Account Management across cross-functional teams is essentially a continuum – you can spend infinite amounts of time managing risk, but the sooner you commit, the sooner you can build the required muscle and achieve benefits realisation, whilst defining the grey between the black and white as you go.

Key Account Management is not a point-in-time change, or a destination that the organisation must get to. This transformation requires much forward-thinking to create the DNA-level changes necessary for effective execution. There’s no doubt that undertaking such a large-scale transformation will be considerably challenging for most Pharma organisations. However, maintaining a sense of realism about what is needed will help you prepare people to stay the course and propel the organisation to true benefits realisation.