Kantar Health Blog

Pharma Key Account Managers – the “elephants in the room”?

by Mark Sales | Nov 23, 2012
Mark Sales

When Richard Horton, Editor of The Lancet, recently made a sweeping comment about “unprecedented chaos” in the UK healthcare system, he was reflecting the view of many key stakeholders in the industry. Changes resulting from the Health and Social Care Bill are mainly affecting England rather than Scotland and Wales; here over 150 Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) have been reorganized into 51 PCT groups, and 10 Strategic Health Authorities (SHAs) have been restructured to form four large regional groups. But by April 2013 neither PCTs nor SHAs will exist, having been replaced by Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) and the National Commissioning Board. We could also possibly see the introduction of a whole new host of stakeholders, including Clinical Senates, Health and Well-being Boards and possibly (private) Commissioning Support Units. That’s before you start considering the part that patients have to play in value-based pricing and the changing role of NICE. With so many different people involved in the commissioning process and the new focus on improving outcomes, pharmaceutical companies will struggle to keep up.  

I recently carried out some research asking leading pharma companies how they are changing their sales structures to accommodate all of these changes. Interestingly it showed that
around half of them have simply given their sales reps different job titles. I have personally “carried the bag” in primary care and would say that the type of experience and skills required to communicate effectively in the evolving UK healthcare scene are completely different to those required to deliver a three-product detail (the preferred sales approach in pharma for several decades). The type of people who will succeed in the new set-up are more like business consultants in that they have to manage complex relationships with multiple stakeholders, be excellent communicators and truly work in a trusted advisor capacity.  

Incredibly, the same research showed that around 60% of pharma companies know that their Key Account Managers don’t have the skills to make it in the new world. So what are they doing to resolve this issue and keep up with changes that are happening around them? Anecdotal evidence from sales leaders suggests that the industry is looking elsewhere for their account managers, at junior management consultants and also non-pharma salespeople who are used to selling in complex, multichannel environments. Only time will tell if this is right; however, my fear is that time is running out.

It’s hardly surprising that Sue Kilby, a senior payer in the NHS, mentioned at our recent webinar, “Market access revolution; stakeholder devolution in UK healthcare,” that over 80% of key stakeholders are not satisfied with the way pharmaceutical companies are communicating with them. She stressed that pharma companies need to focus on growing account management teams who understand key influencers and can engage them with appropriate multichannel messaging. It’s all about proper segmentation of stakeholder groups, understanding local market challenges and opportunities, tracking messaging effectiveness for each key stakeholder group and acting on that intelligence to impact outcomes positively – something that up until now has been very alien for product-focused sales forces who are used to pushing the next big idea rather than acting as partners in the drive to improve patient health. The fact that the key targets are moving ones and that they may not exist in a few months’ time doesn’t help either.

So how do we get there? If account managers don’t understand the local legal, budgetary and other challenges that commissioners face and how to help them cope with future uncertainty, then they won’t succeed. It is clear that they need to work within a framework that can help them understand the correct communication channels and messaging and to monitor success against this framework. We set up a stakeholder management dashboard with our sister company, Sudler & Hennessey, to help Key Account Managers manage multichannel relationships in a structured way and form relationships with key influencers. Our dashboard allows teams to pinpoint peer-identified influencers, find out what they think about your brand and competitor brands, work out the best online and offline channels to communicate with them and track the effectiveness of multichannel campaigns by showing the impact your brand reputation can have on sales.


As replacing each Key Account Manager may cost over $100K* (and that does not account for lost sales), a better option to help them cope with “unprecedented chaos” is probably to give them tools that can help them adjust the way they work and ultimately help key UK healthcare stakeholders – whoever they might be – improve the nation’s health in 2013 and beyond.

*Hays survey 2012

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