Strategic Partnerships for Building Account Management
Feature Story – By Wendy Heckelman, Ph.D., and Sheryl Unger, MILR
What does a good strategic partnership look like?
COVID-19’s disruption of the healthcare marketplace necessitates up-skilling all account managers assigned to larger organized accounts. Learning and development (L&D) professionals must rethink the capabilities and skills account managers need to provide value-added solutions to their customers, while learning to navigate accounts with limited access.
This article highlights key lessons learned and the importance of strategic partnerships between L&D professionals and their sales and market access clients. It starts with a question: What does good strategic partnership look like between commercial leadership and L&D?
1. Revisit strategic priorities and the skills needed to compete in a disrupted healthcare marketplace.
In a growing biotech, the L&D function engaged leaders through use of a comprehensive diagnostic to clarify the company’s strategic direction and define the skills account managers needed to be effective. Survey results showed that relationship management skills remained critically important, with an even greater emphasis needed on empathetic engagement.
While the industry shifted to virtual detailing throughout the pandemic, sales leaders recognized that healthcare providers’ capacity was strained from the increased demands of providing care. As a result, customer engagement – virtual or face-to-face – required different questioning, listening and connecting skills to better understand customer needs, prior to exploring potential opportunities. Additionally, sales leaders were compelled to provide clear expectations and guidance for becoming a trusted adviser, and its importance to remaining competitive.
2. Involve leaders in defining and delivering the account management curriculum.
Account leadership and field directors need to be committed to and involved in creating account management excellence. At one company, the leaders agreed to introduce a consistent account planning process and template with a clear focus on strategic thinking, business acumen and account team collaboration. When it came to the deployment of the learning solution, the leaders participated throughout the journey.
Looking back, one field director shared that the consistent account planning process not only improved the quality of the account plans, but also led to more meaningful quarterly business reviews:
“In the past, everyone presented their plans differently. Now the consistent process makes it easier to review account goals and action plans, and to roll-up details creating a better picture of what is happening across accounts and the region. Now our conversations are more focused and strategic.”
3. Design a learning journey.
Achieving account management excellence is not a one-and-done event, especially with most people working virtually. Greater emphasis needs to be placed on periodically pulsing out information and including specific application exercises and coaching check-ins.
For example, even the most experienced account professionals can use a step-by-step approach to understand healthcare marketplace disruption and the impact to specific accounts. One field director indicated that all account professionals were better able to connect the dots and obtain a deeper insight into local markets.
More importantly, exploring external marketplace pressures, such as shifts in coverage due to high unemployment, provides account managers with a deeper awareness that leads to more thoughtful and empathetic exchanges with healthcare providers, and ultimately to better support patients going through therapy.
4. Go virtual with confidence.
Learning professionals know that the same approaches and exercises designed for a live workshop cannot be simply applied in a virtual setting. When delivering a blended learning solution, the focus turns to keeping the engagement levels high and deploying various online tools.
For example, when engaging the ecosystem marketplace analysis, an online mind-mapping tool was used to capture the information interactively. This helped participants visually see the level of interconnectivity between various trends and
how to translate these insights into actions.
5. Build tools for sustainability and effective coaching.
Learning professionals are a critical resource who can create structured on-the-job activities that support development of account management capabilities. For a small medical device company, challenged with making inroads with large integrated delivery networks, L&D provided account directors with specific profiling guides to better understand their customers’ unique business, clinical, operational and reimbursement practices.
Use of these profiling guides helped the directors extract specific insights to incorporate into their account plans. Even more important were the structured coaching guides provided to directors who were able to follow up with direct reports to ensure learning was applied in actual customer situations.
Directors reported that these tools enabled richer, more meaningful conversations with both new and experienced account managers about their specific challenges and opportunities.
6. Remember skills need to be effective within the organization.
Even though account management curricula focus is typically directed outward toward understanding the marketplace and customer engagement, one of the most important internal skills to develop is leading without authority. Most account managers must work with an extensive network of internal roles to be effective. Unfortunately, specific skill development to ensure higher levels of collaboration, coordination and communication are often overlooked. Additionally, as value-added solutions become more comprehensive, more internal resources may be needed to develop and contract viable solutions.
Therefore, a comprehensive account management learning program should include specific guidance and application on how to navigate internal resources and how to work more effectively as an account team.
7. Measure the impact on the business.
When consistent and robust account plans are in place, measuring the impact over time becomes easier. At one company, the strategic partnership between L&D, account leadership and field account professionals could be measured and directly linked to expanded business opportunities with targeted, large, organized customers.
Achieving business goals under normal circumstances would be difficult enough; however, meeting goals while working remotely and facing the many other challenges brought on by the pandemic required a refocusing on foundational skills.
When sales leadership is fully engaged throughout the learning journey – including clearly stating its needs, aligning on an account management process, leading part of the virtual engagement effort and most importantly, pulling-through learning with effective coaching and support – the impact is much greater. And account managers who apply new concepts to targeted accounts also benefit from learning on the job.
L&D must develop curricula that meet the needs of a diverse client group – from sales representative transitioning into account management to the extremely experienced account lead. In total, these strategic partnership best practices illustrate the importance of creating an agile and innovative L&D function, and revisiting and redefining their approach for developing account management excellence throughout the organization.
Dr. Wendy Heckelman is president and founder of WLH Consulting. Sheryl Unger provides project management support for WLH Consulting. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.