Pharma’s organized customers are experiencing significant financial pressures, both payers and providers are more open to partnerships, health system administrators expect to exert more control over decision-making, and the traditional pharma lever of face-to-face rep promotion has declined. When we add up all these factors, one thing becomes abundantly clear: Key account management (KAM) has never been more important to pharma’s commercial model. During the fourth virtual roundtable in ZS’s Determining the Way Forward After COVID-19 series, 17 industry leaders (representing about 10 life sciences organizations) joined us to discuss how pharma’s KAM teams can contribute during the pandemic—and beyond.


This is a critical time for life sciences leaders to amplify their organizations’ KAM strategies and capabilities. In the current environment, pharma faces two key challenges as it pertains to KAM. First, companies need to figure out how to quickly mobilize their KAM teams to address their customers’ urgent COVID-19-related needs. Second, they must do so thoughtfully without losing sight of their longer-term journey of building an organization-wide KAM capability.


The industry’s organized customers are facing challenges like skyrocketing use of telehealth, care team burnout and trauma, and postponement of patient care, to name a few. As companies begin to understand how priorities have shifted during the pandemic, KAM teams can devise appropriate solutions that fulfill their customers’ unmet needs. In fact, one big question was raised several times during the discussion: How can companies break out of the brand paradigm and move into a customer-centric paradigm?


As one participant shared with the group, “Things that were important to them [customers] three or four months ago have shifted … they’re really looking for people to step in and say, how can you actually help me execute patient care via telehealth and in-person? They haven’t figured it out yet.” Pharma’s customers are looking to organizations to provide solutions that help them through this period. For example, one participant’s customer has requested resources that help patients understand the financial impact of COVID-19 and related healthcare costs. Another has requested that pharma companies design more patient resources in a digital format. By truly listening to their organized customers’ needs, pharma has a chance to forge deep and lasting relationships.


There’s a fine line between providing support and creating value for customers and reverting to a promotional agenda. One industry leader mentioned that it’s helpful to think about how you’ll be scored by your customers during the next six to 12 months. He added, “Are they going to reflect back and say, ‘you’re trying to push something in here that’s not a priority and you went really hard and upset us’? Or, were you thoughtful about that approach and put your products in a position to help based on the appropriate amount of priority?”

One of the interesting things about KAM, and particularly true of pharma, is that the real challenge isn’t our customers or competitors, it’s ourselves and our ability to work in a coordinated, collaborative and cross-functional way as an organization. And, COVID-19 requires a new level of cross-functional collaboration. Because most pharma provider KAM programs haven’t fully matured, companies are facing entirely new problems that have never been solved before. In fact, a poll conducted during the discussion revealed that about 80% of the participating organizations’ provider KAM programs have been in place for less than four years.


How can pharma break down internal silos to devise feasible solutions that create value for customers? Participants expressed that they feel burdened by the complex internal navigation required to drive urgency in developing customer solutions, likening their experience to navigating a maze and then being completely exhausted after the attempt. According to a live, multiple choice poll, participants overwhelmingly chose internal silos (100%) and a lack of compelling programs and solutions (66%) as the top two barriers that their organizations are facing today. Though lower on the list, some companies also struggle with legal and regulatory restrictions (33%) and having employees with the necessary KAM skills (17%).


The work must begin with establishing a cross-functional team that’s equipped with the right background, tools and skills to uncover customers’ needs and match them with the right pharma services or offerings. One roundtable participant said that companies need to start by, “Listening to what the customer needs and not trying to put a plug-and-play answer right in that moment … These solutions are going to evolve over time, but it starts with [bringing] our key insights back to the organization and then being able to mobilize a team to really get different expertise involved.”


Pharma companies need to recognize where they fall short and outline a plan for filling the gaps. One participant mentioned that, “None of the challenges and the solutions we are talking about today are, ‘please come talk to me more about your brands.’ So how are we aligning our teams, their skillsets, their backgrounds, the tools that we give them to be successful in delivering against any of these things?”

These internal challenges aren’t easy to overcome but there are a few things organizations can do to prepare to move forward in the near term. In an ideal world, pharma companies would have a well-defined customer engagement process, customer-facing internal roles would know exactly what they need to do at each stage of the process, and there would be strong cross-functional coordination and collaboration. As a result, KAM teams would be able to dynamically define customer needs, co-create solutions and implement pull-through. But realistically, that’s not really where most of pharma is today.


A technique called “scripting the play” can help pharma companies get cross-functional roles on the same page to ensure agile and urgent system-wide execution in the near-term for specific services and solutions. There are two parts to this:


1. Identify the “play,” or the services and solutions that directly address COVID-19 needs, such as helping customers diagnose new patients via telehealth or address care team burnout.


2. “Script” the responsibilities of the cross-functional roles involved at each stage of the customer engagement process to quickly gain customer commitment, implement, drive pull through and realize impact for the specific services and solutions in play. With this approach, all team members are aligned, know who is responsible for what, have gotten legal and compliance approval, and are prepared to act quickly


During the roundtable, we discussed several ways that KAM teams can overcome COVID-19-related challenges to truly help their customers. The work must begin with understanding the customer’s priorities (and how they’ve shifted due to the pandemic) and then breaking down internal silos to take a cross-functional, coordinated approach. It requires pharma to, in very short order, break out of a brand paradigm and move into a customer-centric paradigm. By helping customers during their greatest moment of need, pharma can build trust and demonstrate the benefits of a true partnership. How prepared is your organization to rapidly mobilize your KAM teams to address your most important customers’ needs now?