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Bonus Focus - Best Practices for Developing Business Acumen & Planning Skills in Field Organizations


By Wendy Heckelman, Ph.D.


Best-in-class pharmaceutical companies realize that the dedication of time and resources to developing business acumen is critical to overall success and creates a competitive advantage needed to excel in the changing healthcare marketplace. There is a greater need for effective business acumen and planning skills to analyze their environments, identify opportunities and maximize resource allocation decisions. The development of business acumen and planning skills is more than introducing a one-time learning program. An integrated strategy for developing superior business acumen skills requires clarity around business planning and execution, effective use of analytics and the commitment by senior leaders and the organization for ongoing coaching and feedback.

Leaders recognize that the greater the number of people within the organization who have an understanding of how their customers’ businesses operates and how their own business works, the more effective they can be in delivering value and producing results. 

Learning professionals can play an important role in ensuring that sales professionals are developing their business acumen skills. Learning professionals should be part of a cross-functional team that updates the business planning process and advises on the tools needed to support business planning efforts. Use the following best practices and questions to help you form effective partnerships with the business and design learning programs that develop business acumen and planning skills:

1. Conduct a needs analysis 
• Identify the gaps between current and future state required skills. 
• Partner with sales leaders to identify needs and to better understand the evolving marketplace.

2. Assess current business acumen and planning skills
• Ensure you clarify the desired end state for business acumen skills. What does good look like? Are there differences by roles?
• Get specific behavioral examples. 
• Common business acumen and planning skills include:
o Conducting a marketplace analysis (geographical performance and marketplace changes and trends) to determine local drivers, barriers, and opportunities
o Customer analysis (profiling) and prioritization
o Account planning / Action plan development
o Resource allocation decision-making
o Plan development and recalibration

3. Determine business planning process and field coordination requirements
• How does business planning need to evolve at your organization to better identify opportunities and address larger more complicated healthcare customers?
• What changes are being made to the business planning process and how radical a departure is it from the current state? 
• Does your planning process require following a new set of steps or changing the way sales professionals think about their geography and customers?
• How much of the business planning process involves teamwork and with what roles / groups? Are there historical issues with any of these roles or groups working together and if so, can any teambuilding be designed to start individuals on a more collaborative and aligned working relationship?

4. Develop a planned implementation cascade
• Identify who the implementation cascade needs to include (e.g., sales force groups, marketing, business analytics, business technology, compliance, legal, HR and other customer-facing teams).
• Understand desired timelines and who would be involved in business planning efforts to ensure the cascade has needed internal stakeholders involved.
• Identify early any organizational constraints such as timing, distance and budgets to ensure the blended learning solution best addresses organizational realities.
• Lobby for the value of having interactive workshops where individuals who are responsible for overlapping geographies and various customer segments can workshop real business challenges and begin to develop joint plans.

5. Design effective learning programs
• Include various learning methods, with multiple touches and on-the-job experiences as a way to reinforce and sustain skill development.
• Make sure to translate generalities like “strategic thinking” into tangible behaviors and practices.
• Provide learning tools that can be used by managers and field trainers to limit travel.
• Develop participant guides for use during training sessions, sustainability tools like laminated summary pages and electronic toolkits for future reference. Toolkits can include specific tutorials on how to access and interpret data sources, how to identify opportunities, the business planning process steps and requirements and how to prepare for and conduct business reviews.
• Include sustainability tools that ensure field application and pull through of key behaviors and learnings.

6. Enhance Leadership Development programs to include business acumen and planning efforts
• Design and deliver complimentary training programs to sales managers to strengthen their ability to coach and develop their teams through the business planning process.
• Develop coaching guides with instant assessment for managers to use to determine further learning needs.

7. Utilize field trainers to provide coaching and mentoring to sales professionals
• Leverage field trainers as an additional resource to deliver programs and facilitate interactive sessions with teams in the field.
• Ensure that field trainers are part of the business review process so they can support any coaching and additional training needs.

8. Help identify critical metrics and feedback loops to ensure process is adopted and skill development takes place
• Consult on metrics use to demonstrate the effectiveness of the new business planning process (e.g., pre, during and post measures) and its impact on planning, collaboration and plan outcomes. 
• Advise on the use of ongoing feedback to continue to streamline the process, improve effectiveness and enhance tool functionality over time
• Advise on the development of procedures and use of tools to gather and leverage lessons learned across the organization.

With so much happening in the healthcare marketplace, it is critical that learning organizations play an active role in the development of business acumen and planning skills. Targeted programs that help sales professionals understand their local marketplace, their customers’ needs and challenges and how to analyze data for opportunities can contribute to successful sales execution. 

Wendy Heckelman, Ph.D., is president of WLH Consulting, Inc. Email Wendy at


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