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The exact definition of operational excellence depends largely on a company’s aims and objectives, as well as the lifecycle stage of its products. In the context of bringing drugs and devices to the marketplace and putting them into the hands of doctors and patients, operational excellence is about ensuring that the right people are in place, trained with the right skills to work to the best of their abilities, and equipped to prioritise high value customer interactions over low value activities.

It is not simply about having fexible access to resources, but adding value to ensure success. These factors will help to create a team that can communicate effectively with healthcare professionals (HCPs) and gain a return on investment for the company, whether in terms of increased sales force effectiveness (better outcomes per spend) or sales force efficiency (less cost per effective activity).

Putting operational excellence to work in sales

The key steps to ensuring operational excellence in pharmaceutical sales are:

  • Recruitment
  • Initial training
  • Continued coaching and development
  • Performance management

It is important to adapt to a company’s individual needs. These may for example involve launching a new product or maintaining sales of an existing line; dealing with local HCPs in a single country or managing sales across Europe; talking to general practitioners about a drug for cardiovascular disease or dealing with specialist oncologists about a rare form of cancer.

The first step is to establish the end goal and understand the environmental factors that might impact this. These include the existing and upcoming market landscape, incorporating market size, target group and local and national requirements and restrictions. This understanding provides a context for the sales force’s strategic goals, which can be aimed at expanding reach, increasing frequency or improving call quality. Strategic goals may include flexible and agile resource scaling or building up capacity in new therapy areas or geographies.

Getting the right support

Whether a start-up company is launching its first drug or bringing a new therapeutic approach to market, or a multinational is managing established drugs and branded line-extensions alongside new blockbusters, balancing requirements can be daunting, and companies don’t always have the right people and resources in place to address all areas adequately, and will therefore not get the outcomes they want or need.

The outsourcing of sales teams can allow companies to direct their in-house resources to important strategic goals, while placing their products in the hands of experts to maximize return on investment. Choosing the right provider is crucial though. An outsourced team needs to have in-depth knowledge of the products, and be aware of the company’s selling models and styles. The team also needs to understand the commonalities, as well as differences, between countries and regions.

Once a team is in place, it cannot simply be left to ‘get on with the job’. A good outsourcing company will have managers in place who can monitor and manage teams, providing coaching and support with appropriate tools, systems and processes to drive quality - ensuring consistency and alignment to the strategic goals - even when teams are spread across multiple countries or even continents. They should also provide ongoing feedback to the company. This is likely to range from the softer measures of call quality through to the more quantitative assessments of call rates and sales figures.

Remaining ‘top of the game’

High-impact sales training, coaching and management is essential to ensure these teams get the best possible start and remain on top of their game. This may involve courses conceived in close collaboration with the customer, and run by a network of local trainers. In this way teams are given on-going access to up-to-date knowledge, which is tailored to individual markets and remains aligned to the drug company’s selling model. This training needs to be practical as well as scientific, combining classroom-based studies with video training and ‘live’ experience with physicians. By stepping straight from training into the field, the teams can connect the coaching model to the real world.

Once in the field, coaching shouldn’t stop. It needs to be reinforced with target-setting, regular check-ins, ongoing assessment and customer feedback. It should be supported by consistent processes and systems, and there should be opportunities to progress through further training and performance management. This creates a motivated team of people with a single-minded focus on the field activity for the products or brands, which can deliver results that the biopharma company may not be able to achieve in-house.

To remain on top of the game in a highly competitive field, biopharma companies need to ensure that operational excellence is a key motivating factor throughout, from entry level to the very top. Because biopharma has moved on from project-to-project sourcing to more strategic partnering, companies need to choose partners who have the same focus on operational excellence, and who have the necessary infrastructure, and expertise to deliver to mutually-agreed goals.

Topics in this blog post: Biopharma, Commercialization, Data and Technology