What’s next for account management?

In response to the pandemic, many healthcare providers and pharmaceutical companies have changed how they operate, rapidly and radically. Often this has simply accelerated developments already underway and introduced ways of working that are here to stay.

Lessons have been learned about how healthcare can be delivered and how pharmaceutical companies should operate going forward. So, what is crucial for the future of customer relationships and key account management? Caroline Gosling, director of Culture & Engagement at Rubica, asked senior leaders from the pharmaceutical industry for their perspective.

Responding to, and learning from, the pandemic

For Hassan Sabbah, general manager, South Africa & Region Africa at AbbVie, an incredibly challenging year has taught lessons the company will build on moving forward. “Such an unprecedented and unexpected challenge brought us closer to each other as employees and to our customers. The pandemic worked on bringing us even closer to each other as a team. We responded by quickly adopting and adapting to the new environment, utilising technology platforms, and ensuring we met the needs of customers and patients. It has made us far more open to how things can be done and highlighted the importance of utilising different communication channels with our customers and stakeholders.”

Some things will never be the same. Ross Grey, a senior leader in primary care, doesn’t see a return to “90% face-to-face interactions”. Daniel Zolnierz, business unit head, Neurology, UK & Ireland at Merck KGaA agrees: “The majority of our physician meetings in 2020 were virtual, which we expect to continue in 2021. Even as the COVID situation improves, we believe a sizable portion of our physician interactions will remain virtual in the UK, particularly in the one to two-year time frame.”

Janssen UK’s response was to switch to reactive engagement. As Sarah Scanlon, business unit director, Oncology, Haematology & Pulmonary Hypertension, explains: “For two months, we were there for customers if they needed us. Meanwhile, we concentrated on accelerating our digital dexterity skills and looking at our platforms.”

Changing approaches to key account management

“As we began to engage with customers more we needed to be more flexible as a management team,” said Sarah. “We were also asking for more flexibility from account managers. That was a big change in a traditionally very metric-driven business, especially for those who had been with us for a long time. To give them confidence, we had to support them in a much more agile way.”

Ross emphasises the need for change. “We’ve had to create a new vision for our sales team. We now call them NHS engagement managers recognising the need to engage with, and connect, every layer of the NHS.” He sees the ‘new world’ of customer engagement as around “40% face-to-face and 60% digital. That will determine the direction in which the company develops its capabilities.”

The role of the account manager has evolved in 2020, says Daniel. “Account managers have always built relationships by providing important product information, but more physicians are asking for a broader set of insights about COVID-related market trends and best practices in areas such as patient pathways.”

Hassan highlights that “the notion that we can’t run the business if we’re unable to be physically together is out of the window. We’ve proven we can get things done in the virtual world. In fact, the pandemic has highlighted the need for us to continue evolving our customer engagement model to complement what our teams do in the field.” Hassan’s team is already preparing live and virtual presentations for future customer engagements and product launches to take into consideration the evolving preferences of stakeholders and to expand the reach and share of voice.

Developing key capabilities for future customer engagement

As Sarah points out, most newly appointed clinicians have grown up with the internet and are used to interacting digitally. “Account managers need to be more comfortable in that space, in order to collaborate effectively and relevantly with healthcare providers. We are also running broader focus groups at different levels to get those voices into the organisation. We want people to help shape the direction of the business rather than waiting to be guided. We need a culture in which they feel empowered and safe to say, ‘this is inefficient’ or ‘we really need to do this’.”

Becoming more strategic

One thing that emerged from our conversations was the recognition of the importance of an account-first mindset. That’s not simply a question of motivating and informing account managers but ensuring that back and front office work together across key accounts through a formal structure and process.

For Daniel, the pandemic has sharpened the need for key account managers to understand all aspects of their accounts. “We need to put ourselves in their shoes. This requires account managers to have a greater understanding of how trusts operate, how multi-disciplinary teams function, and the impact of future changes in the national healthcare system such as the ICS (integrated care systems) transition.”

Sarah sees a change in the conversations that sales reps and account managers must have: “Rather than product-led, they have to be about the end-to-end patient pathway.” Janssen UK is looking to support clinicians in the use of telemedicine or remote monitoring. “There’s a lot to do but the pace of change is huge. We are trying to support teams, here and now, by helping them to evolve digitally. At the same time, we’re looking at the capabilities we need to accelerate.”

Evolving customer communication has also been important, says Daniel. “We’ve had to dramatically increase the rate at which we push new information out into the market, as the situation is constantly changing. We have also changed how we communicate, with key marketing materials now available in digital format and short webinars covering COVID-related topics.”

Ross reinforces the need to create value in every customer engagement. “If we can’t simply walk into a surgery, we might only get one opportunity a year. To make the most of that, you need everyone in the organisation to be on board. An integrated internal system is essential.”

Orchestrating resources and channels

In a rapidly evolving environment, key account managers are increasingly called upon to react flexibly to customer preferences and opportunities. That means drawing on their evolving experience to orientate the company’s resources and channels around account needs and wants.

“Our field teams need to build their digital capability – and quickly”, says Ross. “I tell them they will all need the metaphorical equivalent of a digital MBA – becoming specialists in omnichannel engagement! They are the conduit, recognising when to mix internal resources, bringing the right person into a conversation at the right time.” His key message is: “Bring other members from medical, legal, compliance, etc with you. It can’t be an ‘us and them’ mentality”.

For Sarah, partnership is key. “Like us, the NHS is going through a journey of change, figuring out the new normal with the addition of increasing budget pressures. We have to figure out how we can offer them agile partnerships.

“Digitalisation is about more than creating a channel. We need people to feel confident in tackling things differently. That takes agility, flexibility and a growth mindset because sometimes we are going to try things that may not work first time and that’s OK.”

Becoming better networkers

In an increasingly interconnected world, with numerous stakeholders relating to each other, directly and indirectly, the challenge is to build mutually dependent, mutually appreciative relationships.

Successful key account managers work as a compass, pointing people and resources in the right direction. They act as connectors, talking to pharmacists, nurses, administrators and physicians in what is a web of relationships and influences. That makes influence mapping at a system level as well as in an account an increasingly essential part of their job.

A different approach to planning

COVID-19 has shown how the best-laid plans can be overtaken by events but also that a more responsive and flexible approach can often enhance relationships.

There can be obstacles to achieving this. For Ross, “there can be a ‘fear culture’ in pharma. ‘If we can’t measure something, how do we know it exists?’ We need a culture of learning with a genuine sense of curiosity. We need to be asking ‘why’ more and be exploring alternative ways of doing things. Never has there been a better time to show what this industry is fully capable of…let’s not miss it.”

Internal operating model changes have been equally important. As Daniel says, “Internally, we moved away from longer training sessions and team meetings to more frequent, shorter discussions, that are a maximum of one to two hours. Culture-wise, it’s also been important to emphasise flexibility, empathy for individual situations, and focus on mental and physical well-being.”

Looking forward

It’s clear from our conversations that account managers have a critical role to play. That role, however, will become increasingly sophisticated, calling on new skills, an evolving mindset and a broader view of the customer. Our opportunity, as an industry, is to use this moment to let go of some of our traditional thinking and assumptions about what works and what’s possible and to invest in expanding field and head office capabilities, so we all feel equipped to build thriving customer relationships in the context of whatever comes next.

Caroline Gosling is director of Culture & Engagement at Rubica Change & Analytics