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Don't underestimate the importance of the first line manager.
The pharmaceutical industry faces considerable changes affecting fundamental aspects of its business operations. Payers are gaining power, providers are consolidating, and physicians are limiting access to sales representatives. Specialty care is being emphasized over primary care, rendering the traditional sales model less effective, while competitors develop capabilities in account management and B2B sales processes. Customer centricity is king, leading to new sales and service roles.
In response to all of these changes, pharmaceutical sales organizations are, not surprisingly, investing considerable energy and resources into adaptive measures aimed at reconciling sales functions with the available opportunities in the market. What strikes us, however, is that building the first line manager (FLM) team—which is truly the force behind the sales force—is frequently only an afterthought, relegated to a mere span-of-control question that can be decided quickly.
In the best case, this means a lost opportunity to help the sales organization live up to its potential. In the worst case, the lack of a strong sales management team can seriously derail the company through poor decisions, mistakes, field anxiety, frustration, and attrition.
Take the example of a mid-sized, US-based pharmaceutical manufacturer. The company launched a newly acquired CNS product with a field force that also promoted a basket of "me-too" drugs to primary care physicians. This added new, very specialized customers to the sales rep's target lists, and the pharma manufacturer both modified its selling approach and expanded its field force by 50 percent. With the expansion, a dozen new FLM positions were created, most of them filled by promoting the company's highest performing sales reps.
The company identified a strong need to adapt its national sales strategy to local market conditions, especially to help address physician access and managed care challenges. The FLM team was instrumental in making these changes, and the company empowered them to make important resource allocation decisions based on their analysis of the business in their districts—decisions that were previously made centrally at headquarters.
A year into the launch, however, it was clear that sales would fall significantly short of expectations. Despite some areas of success, sales reps in many parts of the country received no or only small incentive payouts. Field motivation was low, and many reps decided to leave.
Many FLMs and their teams found it difficult to transition into the more sophisticated selling approach required to gain credibility with specialist physicians, defaulting to the their old approaches and behaviors instead. The FLMs, lacking experience and tools, made resource allocation decisions through trial and error, resulting in loss of direction and inconsistencies across the company.
This was not a product or market problem. In fact, a few FLM teams and reps had adapted to the new approaches and succeeded, either because it felt natural to them or because they had previous experience handling such change. But this was not enough to save the day, and the company had no process to harness these "bright spots." Instead, it settled on a "more realistic" forecast and cut the field force in half. With repeated restructuring, the disruption also impacted the rest of the portfolio. Further cuts may be in the offing.
A key shortcoming was that the pharma company did not have a strong enough team of sales managers to navigate the required changes: facilitating and implementing a new, more sophisticated selling approach, and adopting a new, flexible and localized resource allocation planning approach. The company did not do enough to help the FLM team excel in the changing role, and the FLMs, with a few exceptions, could not help reps succeed.
It does not have to be this way. Investments that strengthen the FLM team can work, as shown by the following story:
A smaller European-based specialty pharma company was competing against Big Pharma with limited financial resources at its disposal. Studying the behaviors of sales professionals in several countries, the company identified and prioritized a number of techniques and behaviors that set the top-performing sales specialists apart from the rest. These were great insights, but what would it take to get everybody to adopt these differentiated behaviors?
The company realized that training alone would not be enough. The FLMs had the crucial role of helping sales specialists apply what they had learned in practice and execute the new techniques successfully and consistently. They needed new techniques and tools to do this effectively, and to embed the new behaviors in the performance management process.
This specialty pharma company did many things right. It included the FLM team in the analysis from the beginning, which was critical for understanding, buy-in, and ownership for driving the new behaviors. It also did not leave implementation up to chance and continued to invest in enabling the FLM. Thus, the FLM could leverage a new coaching process and toolset, regional business planning templates and a new FLM dashboard to help apply the learning to their daily work with their teams.
The national sales manager summarized his experience with the program: "When my managers asked to use our coaching framework in each rep interaction instead of quarterly cycles, I knew that we would be successful. Both our regional president and the global head of operations were impressed when I showed them the sales results six months after rollout."
Two examples with markedly different outcomes, but a common insight: A strong team of sales managers is vital to navigate the changes facing the pharma industry, whether these changes come from the inside (e.g., through a changing portfolio), or from the outside (e.g., through changing customer structures and market conditions).
Identifying potential sales force problems before they hurt your bottom line is critical. Here are some of the most common issues:
FLM "role pollution." Unlike with sales reps and their engagement with customers, many companies don't clearly define the responsibilities of the FLM team. Pharma sales managers must play three roles: people manager, customer manager, and increasingly, business manager. There are distinct behaviors and techniques to be successful in each of these roles. Without role clarity, the FLM team runs the risk of being pulled from all sides to execute tasks that are either in their comfort zone or seem the most urgent, rather than focusing on what is most important for long-term business performance.
Inappropriate FLM selection. Many pharma companies promote their best salespeople to management. This career path may motivate these individuals, and a "known entity" may seem safer than someone from the outside. But it's not always the best choice. What it takes to be successful as a sales rep is frequently different from success as a manager. To compound the problem, in pharma, the sales rep role itself is changing; past success as a sales rep is even less a predictor for success as sales manager. Unless you select salespeople with strong managerial tendencies—consistent with the new role requirements and in addition to respectable sales skills—your sales management team will be average at best.
Insufficient FLM development and support. Pharma companies spend millions on training their sales forces every year, but very little gets directed toward sales managers. Managers typically rank third, behind salespeople and senior sales leadership, with respect to support resources or data and tools that enable good decision-making. The result is inconsistent competency across most management teams, as new managers struggle to make the transition from sales rep, and experienced managers can't keep up with ever-changing job demands.
Pharma sales managers serve as key points of leverage for driving long-term sales performance, now more than ever. It's a mistake to underinvest in this group. By building a winning sales management team, you can capitalize on a high-impact, tangible opportunity to drive sales effectiveness and top- and bottom-line results—and successfully grow in this rapidly changing environment.
Torsten Bernewitz is a Principal at ZS Associates in Philadelphia and the leader of the Sales Force Effectiveness practice. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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