Please login to the form below

Not currently logged in

Key Accounts

But not as we know it?

How best to deploy your sales force is a vexed question for many companies. The old primary/secondary care divide effectively no longer exists and focus on the individual healthcare professional is giving way to managing a network. Boundaries between organisations are breaking down and a small practice that is an effective organ within a larger decision-making group may be more influential and important than a traditional large practice.

Managing the network is key, which poses issues for companies in how they organise to optimally promote their products within a challenging and at times resistant environment. Thinking nationally yet acting locally has never been more important as promotion does not act within a vacuum, so knowing and measuring your environment is a critical success factor.

The solution for many companies is 'key account management' (KAM) but this label can take markedly different forms within different companies. In the first instance most companies can identify their 'target accounts' - generally by simply ranking them in terms of potential. This process is, however, flawed because, having used an externally sourced list to rank potential, each company will effectively follow the same logical steps. The net result is that everyone focuses on the same individuals that rapidly become overheated.

The first strategic fork is: are we managing a population of named individuals or a live, constantly changing network? If the former then the old command and control mechanistic sales force is still effective with the modern variant using digital calls to take up the slack and drive effective call frequency. If the latter then we need to accept that marketing has to be more locally applied, which requires individuals with greater skill and autonomy backed by much more effective use of information.

In the ideal situation the KAM team acts as an orchestrator who is as willing to attend a local CCG board meeting in order to understand local priorities, as they are to attend an important head office meeting. At the centre of their focus are the key customers in the network - those who either have the ability to shift share in the company's direction or influence the downstream use of pharmaceuticals. These may however not be conventional customers, so measuring key accounts in terms of standard metrics like customer coverage or frequency may be counterproductive.

Effective KAM teams manage resource and set strategy in accordance with the heartbeat of their local community. They are as likely to organise a digital call or a webinar to save their customers time and drive a discussion with key players, as they are to make an individual sales call. Managing a network requires understanding the politics of influence and the mechanism of how to get things done in their local setting. The channel of choice is therefore dictated in part by the customer because the KAM team have researched them well and understand their needs and motivations. It is this knowledge that allows the KAM team to choose the right mix of channels and resources to apply at a given time in order to gain the right response. A significant weakness in many companies is how to assess the true influence of given nodes (customers, practices or hospital departments) within a network and the right mix of channel resources to deploy. It is important to remember however that the key to getting things done through people stems from a relationship that needs to be nurtured, so whichever channel is selected it is important that the human touch shines through - it is the relationship that is the glue that holds everything together.

Promotion does not act within a vacuum, so knowing and measuring your environment is a critical success factor

In some cases the company really provides the team with the skills to do their jobs effectively. Individuals selected for KAM teams are bright, experienced sales professionals who are trained in how to analyse their environment effectively. This investment enables them to put forward a succinct situation analysis and build an effective strategy from a local well-executed SWOT. Sound intelligence gleaned from their environment enables our KAM teams to identify individuals with reach and influence. This knowledge allows them to pinpoint precisely who within their local network is influential and important to 'bring on board' in order to meet their sales objectives. This in turn requires sharp insight drawn from expertly analysed data, accompanied by strong negotiation and problem-solving skills. In short good KAM teams really understand and manage their area of operation and bring the term 'think national act local' to life.

We also have to decide the scope of their engagement. The original KAM concept, borrowed from FMCG, was of category managers who took responsibility for managing large deals, often encompassing a wide range of products, on behalf of their company. Within pharma silos, companies and teams may inhibit such arrangements while negotiating with NHS organisations our clients may expect our KAM team to be able to speak on behalf of an entire therapeutic area or perhaps more. In order to do this well, it will require the necessary administrative and process support to underpin the 'contract'.

To do this effectively, however, these highly skilled people need freedom to act, access to adequate resources and additional support from other organs of the company that they can call in to help them accomplish their goal. They also need to be organised within a longer-term planning framework because good key account work is careful and meticulous; it takes time to put processes in place and build effective support. Managing KAM teams on the basis of tertial sales targets cuts across and may interrupt and inhibit effective KAM team working.

Most companies still struggle with what constitutes a key account

So how do we effectively manage a KAM team? The key is appropriate use of information. Recent research conducted at Aston University developed a series of frameworks that together build a profit and loss account for each individual KAM territory. Within this framework three key elements are measured - effective use of resources, ie the individual ROI for key channels; the effectiveness of behaviours, notably selling and influencing skills; and the degree of customer adhesion. The latter of these is especially important for managing a network. Within a profit and loss framework we can measure and manage both inputs (resources, activities, time) and outputs (sales and ROI).

To date, however, most companies still struggle with what constitutes a key account and how do we deal with the remaining accounts? Other companies simply downsize individual sales teams and rebadge them while still seeking to manage within the framework of their existing teams' structure. This common process contributes in turn to declining sales productivity as, deprived of autonomy, representatives seek to drive sales on a larger canvas without the training, authority and ability to manage channel choice within their network effectively in order to achieve their sales objectives.

In the past pharma was increasingly product-focused, driven by product priorities. In contrast our customers are increasingly disease- and patient-focused and, in order to meet their needs and truly build a meeting of minds, will require new skills, longer-term priorities and perhaps a different mindset. In conclusion the KAM concept, if appropriately embraced, may allow us to work in greater partnership with our customers towards mutually profitable goals. How close your company is to be able and willing to make that journey will vary between companies. The choice is yours as to whether you choose to ambush the future and make things happen or stand on the sidelines and watch what happens.

Article by
Dr Graham Leask

is a practising academic and consultant who specialises in the effectiveness of sales teams. He welcomes comment on this article and may be contacted at

22nd September 2016

From: Sales



Subscribe to our email news alerts


Add my company
JPA Health

JPA Health is an award-winning public relations, marketing and advocacy firm known for sharing our clients’ commitment to making people...

Latest intelligence

Clinical Trials Investigator and Patient Engagement Planning: A Customer Story
New Playbook Alert: Virtual Patient Engagement
Millennials: the wellness generation
Looking at the results from a global healthcare research study focusing on the patients of the future...