Key Account Management in Pharma Consultancies: Why you need a Nimble process

How to avoid common mistakes when building business connections.

During my time at a global life sciences consultancy, I was tasked with designing and rolling out the key account management process, which we evolved through a number of iterations in response to learnings about this particular industry niche. It therefore made sense to draw on my experience and support consultancies with their key account management processes when I established Gatehouse ICS. I later merged this experience with learnings from the other Gatehouse directors who had held similar roles. Key account management support and training specific to the pharma consultancy environment is now one of our most prolific services.

For me, the most important tip regarding key account management in this space, is that it has to be pragmatic and it has to be nimble. With the best will in the world, consultancy based key account managers will find it hard to carve out the time needed for non-project work if it is too onerous. As a result, they will race to cobble together information that is meaningless and often outdated before they finish the task; whether about staff at a company who have moved on or therapeutic areas that are no longer a priority for that pharmaceutical business.

Avoiding missteps

To avoid these missteps, we developed a strategy that leverages nimble as both an approach and an acronym. So, it’s Nimble by name and nimble by nature.

We start with “N” for numbers, which is about gathering information about the number of contacts and the amount of business generated from that client relationship. Here we remind people it is not just about the financial metrics; a key goal is to increase the contact points between the two organisations. In fact, we often advocate a change in terminology to client relationship management, which resonates well with our research-focussed consultancies who prefer the emphasis on non-financial metrics. With this goal in mind, an important misconception we address is ensuring the key account manager is not the gatekeeper to that account, but is rather actively encouraging introductions to their colleagues.

The next letter in our acronym is “I” for information, where the task is to find information from the client perspective in terms of their therapeutic or geographic landscape, goals and challenges. Very often, key account managers miss this “putting yourself in their shoes” perspective and instead, ironically, develop a focus that is overly detailed and at the same time too one-sided. One of the training sessions we offer focusses on insight-based selling, where conversations lend themselves to showcasing skills through insight, and that can only be achieved if you're well informed. If you don’t research from the client perspective, you might miss crucial information, such as a shift in therapeutic direction, a change in geographic focus, a background crisis or deadlines exerting pressure on the person or team you are dealing with. All of our training is embedded in reframing the seller and the customer as a person with goals, needs, challenges and feelings, which is the key to striking an authentic trust based relationship.

The “M” in our acronym stands for mapping, and this is where we map all the pertinent contacts that we have in the company by therapeutic area, discipline and geography. We produce a traffic light grid to indicate strength of relationship, which immediately shows you where there are gaps and suggests ways to address those gaps. For example, if you notice the company is moving into a new therapeutic category, you might ask your contact in the company to introduce you to the person in that new area.

Tapping internal knowledge

Next is “B” for brainstorm, where we advocate tapping into your internal knowledge pool. Brainstorming with colleagues can reveal people who have had experience with a client, a specific therapeutic area or a methodology in previous roles. For example, while a consultant might be focussed on economic modelling they may have close contacts with people or teams that work in patient reported outcomes. Generally speaking, brainstorming and sharing experience is really valuable since it gives you greater insight into your colleagues’ backgrounds. One area we often neglect with our colleagues is their academic background. I remember pitching in the area of dental health and realising too late that this was the subject of my colleague’s PhD thesis. Too often we are head down in our work and deadlines and miss out on the valuable collective experience around us.

Leadership, the “L” in our acronym, is where goals are set. We recommend only ever having three goals, which we call “water cooler actions” because wherever you are in the organisation (next to the proverbial water cooler) you should be able to recall the goals for your account. You cannot do this when you set too many goals. Every time you achieve a goal, you replace it with another one. This also taps into our proactive project team training, where we help consultants to ensure that every encounter, meeting or conversation leads to a planned destination. To achieve that, you need to know what success looks like, both for the consultancy and the client, highlighting again the importance of gathering the client-perspective information mentioned earlier.

The last letter in our acronym is “E” for excellence, and our adage is that if you don't deliver with excellence, then there is really no point in doing all the cold call outreach, because excellence is the fundamental predictor of repeat business. We advocate customer satisfaction interviews, and we do those on behalf of our clients based on six questions, such as: “How likely would you be to use us again for this service area? And how likely would you be to use us for our other services?”

A team rather than an individual approach

For busy key account managers, we strongly advocate that research teams help with gathering numbers and information. This is an excellent learning opportunity for entry level staff and ensures that all team members see client relationship optimisation as part of their role. The key account manager takes the gathered research and interprets it, evaluating the strength of the relationships in the mapping section and setting the direction and goals in the leadership section.

Our training is bespoke and tailored, training different roles and seniority levels in how they can participate and empowering consultants to use their natural research skills and project insights to generate new opportunities, without forcing them to take on a false sales persona. Our key account management support can include one off training to managing the whole process, including monthly goal review and re-setting coaching meetings for teams or individuals.