Since we launched the HIPS newsletters in 2002, we've used this forum to share much of what we've learned about sales force effectiveness in the life sciences industry. Many of our articles have described markets in which the primary focus of selling activity is the physician in the retail physician office setting. For many sales forces, however, whether in specialty pharmaceuticals, biotech, medical device, or diagnostic equipment, the selling process occurs in a hospital or other account-based setting.
Physicians and clinicians continue to be important customers in this setting, but frequently represent only one of many decision makers and critical influencers. In this more diffuse and complex environment, how can sales forces maximize their impact and productivity?
Effectiveness Drivers: Account vs. Retail Environments
During the course of our work in hospital markets in the United States and worldwide, we've learned the basic building blocks of selling – targeting, frequency, message, and first-line manager coaching – are fundamental for any life sciences market. But in account settings, these key activities must often be implemented very differently than in retail markets to drive productivity. This article focuses on one of the key differences between office-based and account-based selling: information management and its implications for the selling process.
Many of the key differences between retail office-based and account-based selling are driven by the availability of customer data. Companies that have office-based sales forces typically can purchase physician-level prescribing data that is collected through retail pharmacies. With this data, sales representatives can understand, with a high level of precision, the likely response of each customer to sales effort, enabling them to plan their activity to maximize sales.
But, in many account settings, sales or prescription data is often available only at the account level and cannot be accurately allocated to the level of the individual physician or prescriber. Developing account plans that will maximize sales, therefore, is a more difficult proposition.
Ultimately, every sales representative must decide how to best allocate limited time and resources to maximize sales. This account planning process begins with a thorough understanding of each potential customer. Without individual-level prescribing data, many account-based sales representatives rely on their “gut feelings” about where the best sales opportunities reside. Many sales organizations implicitly or explicitly encourage this informal approach to account planning, allowing each rep to develop his or her own system for allocating effort.
A doctor or hospital department considered by one sales representative to be a high value sales opportunity might be ignored by another rep with a different gut feeling about the best opportunities. In this environment, information management is often viewed as “busy work” rather than as a critical enabler of sales success, and first-line managers have relatively little information on which to judge and manage the ability and activity of their sales representatives.
This type of culture is often described with some pride as “rep-empowered.” We believe it should more accurately be viewed as managerial abandonment – a situation that leaves reps to set policy and strategy that should be determined with a global view and administered with consistency throughout the sales organization.
and success are often the result of commitment and perseverance rather
than skill or talent." -- George Van Valkenburg
Rather than leaving reps to “freestyle” within their own accounts, we believe sales organizations should strive to standardize customer profiling, targeting, account planning, and frequency goals to ensure:
This approach enables the sales organization to consistently determine and execute the best use of limited sales resource within and across geographies.
For many organizations, profiling takes the form of name, specialty, location, hours of availability, birthday, kids, hobbies, etc. This approach, however, misses the gold mine of information that is available for the asking. A disciplined account and doctor profiling process can produce most, if not all, of the benefit that could be obtained even if physician-level prescribing data were available.The information collected depends on the product and market environment. For instance, for an injectible antibiotic, the sales organization might want to know whether the product is on each account's formulary. Is the product included in the relevant treatment protocols? When will the protocol next be reviewed? Who are the members of the protocol development committee? What is the product reimbursement status? How many patients does each physician in the account see? Which drugs is each doctor prescribing for each relevant indication? Are most sales in an account driven by on-label or off-label usage? Has the account complied with the terms of its contract? Are patients at an account referred out of territory for treatment for certain indications?
A solid profiling process provides central support functions the information necessary to develop optimal targeting criteria and provides reps the information they need to effectively target customers. It also gives first-line managers information critical to the successful coaching of reps on effective targeting and account planning, and allows managers to track and manage the sales activities that drive sales results.
Critical Profiling Factors
Field force buy-in is critical to effective profiling. In many organizations, buy-in begins with a change in mind set. Although the sales force is often regarded as the primary consumer of information, in account-based sales settings, the sales force must regard itself as a primary producer of information as well. Outside the United States, relatively little third-party customer information and almost no physician-level data is available. For decades, international sales forces have developed effective profiling processes to overcome this barrier to sales effectiveness; account-based sales forces in the U.S. can and should do the same.
Training also is critical to successful profiling. Many sales representatives, especially those that have come from office-based environments, are uncomfortable asking key profiling questions and must be trained in and practice effective profiling techniques.
A third obstacle to effective profiling is the common belief that sales representatives know their customers best. While this may be true in many cases, too often that knowledge is not leveraged to its full potential.
Frequently, important profile information is not captured and analyzed systematically, often residing only in the sales rep's head. Yet, despite many reps' and managers' strong belief to the contrary, no sales rep can adequately master all of the key information needed to effectively manage a territory without the aid of written account profiles – whether on paper or in a computer. And certainly, no first-line manager can keep all important information about an entire district in memory.
Finally, all profiling involves an element of estimation. No one knows better the shortcomings of the estimates than the person making them. As reps improve their profiling skills, they gain confidence in the quality of their profiles as a basis for decision making. But in the early months of a profiling initiative, they may resist using profile information as a tool for making decisions.
Profiling sets the stage for important decisions, including targeting. Most organizations implement some sort of formal targeting process designed to help sales reps and managers identify the most potentially responsive customers usually based on customer sales and/or probability of conversion.
But these processes are rarely executed with discipline. More often, formal targeting criteria are treated as advisory or optional, to be implemented at the discretion of the first-line manager or sales representative. Without a disciplined profiling process, targeting will be haphazard at best.
In many account-based sales organizations, rep independence is treated as a point of pride. Targeting execution is left primarily (or entirely) to the sales representative's discretion. And reps typically take one of two common tacks: focusing their effort on:
Nevertheless, attitudes in the industry are beginning to change. Recently, premier biotech firms that once prided themselves on their reps' independence and an exclusive focus on sales results (as opposed to the sales activities that generate those results), have begun to track, report, and manage sales activity for the first time. This sea change in approach is no doubt driven by an appreciation of the impact that standardized sales processes can have on the top line.
Profiling and targeting activities culminate in account planning -- determining how best to allocate the limited sales resource to maximize sales. By implementing thorough and disciplined profiling and targeting processes, account-based sales forces can improve their ability to plan and allocate their effort to their most responsive and productive customers. The result is improved sales.
In most account-based life sciences sales organizations, the perceived unavailability of key customer information remains a significant impediment to sales effectiveness. Organizations that have overcome this barrier to implement disciplined, yet flexible profiling, targeting and account planning processes have created a source of competitive advantage that has proven difficult to emulate.
If you have questions or would like to discuss the contents of this article, please send us an e-mail and a senior consultant will respond to you.
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