The Current and Future Role of the Key Account Manager in Pharma

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Only the fewest products sell themselves, and even the best product can become a sales blunder with the wrong person in the role of salesperson. Therefore, it is crucial, for a sales organization who is faced with hiring a new salesperson, to be able to spot the right candidate.

But what characterizes a skilled salesperson? What competencies should a sales candidate already have poses, and what competencies can they learn?

Managing director at LEO Pharma’s Nordic division, Klaus Abel, has been in the pharma industry since the turn of the millennium. He describes the requirements that the modern pharma salesperson must live up to.

Strategic and business-related experience from more than 15 years in the pharma industry. Has contested international director roles with Leo Pharma and Lundbeck, among others.

Klaus Abel

Managing Director, Leo Pharma

The successful pharma salesperson

The role of the salesperson has changed drastically in recent years, and the aggressive salesman has lost ground. To succeed as a sales person today, one must be able to do more than simply force a deal down the throat of the customers.

Over the last 15-20 years, the field of pharma, has gone from a parrot-like sales organization to a more advanced, customer-focused service organization, says Klaus Abel.

But what qualifications are then needed, and what should one look for when evaluating applicants for a position as salesperson in a pharma company? According to Klaus Abel, there are four competencies that separate the wheat from the chaff:

The ability to identify relevant stakeholders in the decision-making process (direct and indirect)

The ability to create relationships

The ability to identify customer needs

The ability to build a bridge between the customer's needs and the company's solutions

The skilled pharma salesperson is thus a more low-key and socially intelligent person, who understands that a successful sale is based on two-way communication, which stands in sharp contrast to the classic salesperson’s monologues.

The demands are rising

According to Klaus Abel, it is no longer enough to be strong in a single field, and the salespeople of the future will be faced with more and more competence requirements over the coming years.

No competencies can stand alone. Salespeople do not only have to be technical specialists in relation to the product they are selling. They must also be human beings, who can understand the complexity of the decision-making process in the purchasing environment, in which pharma and MedTech operate, Klaus Abel believes.

The job as a salesman includes many different tasks that must be solved in parallel. It requires both structure, overview, timing, and a strong ability to execute. The old Danish phrase “having a lot of balls in the air” covers quite well the salespersons way of working, and a skilled salesman naturally manages to grab each ball at the right height and send it in the right direction at the optimal speed without losing the other balls along the way.

Should you hire specialists outside the industry?

Specialist-knowledge is an important resource in pharma sales. At first, it might seem obvious to recruit specialists from the outside. However, this solution is not always the best. There is no guarantee that an external specialist will fit into the culture of the company, and in any case it will take a while before he or she becomes familiar with this culture.

Instead, as often as possible, Klaus Abel prefers to upgrade the skills of people who are already working within the organization, because they already are adapted to its culture. While this upskilling can be costly and require a lot of resources, the value of their relationships and history makes up for it.

At the same time, Klaus Abel emphasizes that you should strive to have a lot of diversity in your sales team, partly because of the different phases of the sale place different demands on the salesman’s competencies.

At the beginning of the launch of a new product, the relationship part is hugely important. If you have built a relationship and a credibility through a long-term interaction with a customer, he or she will be more likely to try your product, than if you can simply present the technical merits of the product, says Klaus Abel.

Later in the process, the salesman’s ability to handle the complexity in a larger volume may prove to have a greater impact on sale than the relational part.

According to Klaus Abel, in an employment situation you should keep in mind what type of profile the company needs. He also points out the importance of choosing a candidate who possesses both the will and the ability to develop and improve.

(Note: There are continuous changes on a larger and smaller scale in any industry, and that is also the reality since this article was written. Today, we are seeing an exciting development within MedTech and Pharma, where there is an increasing focus on digital competencies in connection with the sales work. This also means that we now recommend our customers to look outside the branches when the strong digital profiles need to be identified and recruited. Read more in our article highlighting the future of KAM in the MedTech and Pharma industries.)

Can a MedTech salesperson add value to a pharma company?

Traditionally, the sales of pharma companies have primarily targeted the primary sector, but now the winds of change are blowing.

We are in the process of building a new type of organisation that is more focused on hospital sales. That type of sale is closer to MedTech than the sales in the traditional pharma sales organization, says Klaus Abel.

MedTech salespeople are used to handle complex decision-making processes of the hospitals, which involve many different direct and indirect customers. The entry of pharma sales into the stage of the secondary sector thus makes salespeople with MedTech experience attractive to pharma companies, who can benefit from their insight and knowledge in the field. LEO Pharma took advantage of this recently when they chose to hire a MedTech graduate with no experience from the pharma industry.

Klaus Abel is also not averse to recruiting salespeople from other industries, but still prefers to stay in the healthcare field, as the necessary upskilling requires more resources the further one moves away from one’s own industry.

Increasing similarity between pharma and MedTech

Pharma and MedTech are approaching each other, not least in the area of compliance. Klaus Abel points out that pharma has become more complex and technical in its sales model, while MedTech has moved in the opposite direction.

There will be greater transparency regarding the entire sales and purchasing process in MedTech, which therefore will undergo the same process as pharma did 15-20 years ago. In that area, pharma is further ahead than MedTech, while MedTech has come further in relation to some of the key account processes, Klaus Abel believes.

Health economics has become a central and important field, which both pharma and MedTech, give great attention. Salespeople in both industries must have a great deal of understanding and insight in this area to do their job well. However, there is a significant difference between how salespeople in the two industries should put their health economic competencies to use.

Within MedTech, the health economic data is often relatively easy to comprehend, and the salesman will typically be responsible of making the necessary health economic calculations.

In pharma, on the other hand, the calculations are often extremely complicated and are therefore managed by specialists in the field, while the salesperson simply needs to understand the concepts and be able to convey the essence of the specialists’ calculations to the customer.

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