The way pharma companies try to engage with their customers has gone through a significant change over the past decade or more. The traditional sales role, often referred to as the field salesforce, has given way to a more nuanced and customer-centric approach.
This has led to the rise of what we know as key account management or business development, where the focus is much more on aligning what a life science organisation makes and sells – its drugs, devices, services, etc. – with what the end client wants or needs.
I’ve watched and been part of this change since the start of my career in large pharma in 2006. I joined the industry after graduating as a physiotherapist with a clear objective of helping patients. My first role was very sales-driven, but already that role was transitioning into one that was more focused on helping patients and aligning the approach with the needs of the end customer rather than selling features.
I then moved into more of a market access role, which was very much about making sure the right patients got access to the treatments that met their needs and using health economic data to support the long-term cost benefits. That led to a more strategic role of supporting the organisation’s commercial teams and, specifically, key account management teams, in having more engaging conversations with their customers. The strategic objective was to make sure those teams had the training, tools and resources available to them to be able to have conversations to support the “why” around a product rather than just selling the “what”.
What is key account management?
The objective of key account management or business development centres on identifying the opportunities that exist within an account, and how the organisation can best communicate that to the people they are trying to sell to with the goal of identifying and planning for mutually beneficial opportunities.
At Gatehouse, what we’re trying to do is encourage our customers to identify and understand who their ideal customer base is. What do they need? How can the organisation communicate the offerings they have in the most effective way? Where is the aligned benefit to both parties? We might start by working with the organisation to help them create their value message, define their purpose and provide our insights on how best to communicate that purpose. Once you understand this, you can better identify how to truly partner with someone else.
There are many different channels that can be leveraged to communicate that purpose. We predominantly focus on LinkedIn because it's a professional network. Whatever the forum, whether through channels such as social media or in a face-to-face conversation, the message must be focused on communicating the purpose, or the why, and how that organisation can help clients.
Our approach to key account management has evolved in the past few years, and that reflects the transition that has occurred within the industry where the purpose and the why is channelled according to the needs of the end client.
As an example, when a pharmaceutical company is selling a drug/technology to healthcare providers in London, the conversation has to be about health inequalities and variances in need across localities. As those with experience with the area and the industry know, there are very affluent pockets around the city as well as some very deprived areas, with wide ranging ethnic diversity. The health needs and requirements of those groups are very different so, going out with a very generic message, “we’ve got this brand do you want to buy it”, will not land in the same way across those different places.
Key account management, as opposed to pure selling, is about understanding what the local health needs are. Who are the people that are driving that agenda, who are the people that are burdened by that agenda? And, in that context, can a treatment a company is selling help that population and the local health system?
This approach enables organisations to recognise that a mutually beneficial partnership may sometimes not directly include its product but be a more patient-focused solution such as disease awareness or patient education initiatives. Such programmes support the NHS to achieve their goals, which are to help their patients and increase access to medicines more broadly.
A dual perspective
Even on the consultancy side, it’s clear that some organisations are further along in that key account management vs sales journey than others. Some are better able to define that difference – the “what” vs the “why” – and support pharma companies in having that conversation with the NHS.
Often, consultancies are working with very role-specific specialisms, such as those involved in statistical and economic analysis, and that sales conversation is not one they are always comfortable with. As that conversation shifts more to the “why” and what that individual is passionate about, those individuals become more at ease and more able to align to the person they are talking to. They are talking about things they are good at and passionate about. It’s what their purpose is rather than what the organisation is selling.
That’s the beauty of key account management. You can have really relevant, valuable conversations as long as you understand the need of the person or client you are engaging with.