Speeding up sales productivity improvement in Asia Pacific

25 October 2017

SFE in Asia Pacific: achieving a steeper learning curve

Pharma companies in Asia are looking to increase the productivity of their sales forces. One client of ours put it nicely:Previously the focus was on top line growth at any cost. Now we are talking about profitable growth

Within the pharma world, sales force effectiveness (or SFE) is typically the function that addresses sales force productivity. Although most of the pharma companies across the region have now dedicated or semi-dedicated SFE roles we are not there yet. “SFE in Asia is, in average, 10 years behind US or Europe” says the Commercial Operations Head for Asia Pacific for a global pharma company.

But companies are catching up. We experienced the peak of SFE in Europe about ten years ago, now it is coming to the region. But we feel that we need a steeper learning curve. We are still leaving plenty of money on the table.

Below are some ideas from recent conversations with our SFE colleagues:

Develop the SFE skills and capabilities in your organization

What we see: not all the SFE people in the region have the right skills and capabilities. The typical SFE role here often focuses on CRM management and KPI tracking. Many SFE practitioners, lack the depth and breadth of knowledge required for a more comprehensive and strategic SFE role

Although there are pockets of excellence – with outstanding SFE professionals – that can be found across countries and companies “…it is difficult to find a company that has good SFE practices (hence SFE skills and capabilities) across all countries” says the SFE director for Asia Pacific for another global player

Multinationals are usually better at SFE than local companies “…foreign companies are more advanced because they have a stronger corporate culture in terms of SFE” says the GM of a Chinese affiliate for a large European pharma company. But still, some global companies, which master the SFE toolbox in more advanced markets, are not familiar with essential SFE practices when it comes to their country affiliates in Asia

How to speed up:

  • Focus on the people. Good people make the difference. We need qualified, skilled SFE professionals; true experts in the field, that have a voice in the organization and can make an impact
  • Define the competencies required. Define exactly what are the skills and competencies required for the SFE practitioner. Use those competencies to develop your people and for hiring
  • Provide (more) training.
  • Send them away. SFE people usually learn on the job. Send them to a six-month exchange to a more developed affiliate.
  • Bring internal experts. Going to embark on an incentive scheme design? Bring an incentive design expert for a 4-month exchange to work with the affiliate
  • Develop standard guidelines to each SFE driver. Make sure they are comprehensive enough (add value) yet simple and easy to follow
  • Send the SFE team to conferences. Unfortunately there are only a few SFE events to choose from. Too many senior people in there sometimes. Try to send some mid management and junior people too. They are usually the doers.
  • Organize regular SFE summits. Provide a platform for SFE practitioners to share their experiences. Not only they will learn from each other but eliminate plenty of reinventing the wheel
  • Hire consultants and make sure your people learn from them. Consultants bring expertise, extra hands and can add plenty of value. But make sure you involve your people in the project (include that in the RFP) so they can learn and maybe run the next assignment by themselves.

Equip the SFE team

What we see: a client made us laugh when he said: “it feels like I go back in time when I enter the office…at home I have an iPad, an apple laptop, online banking, several apps that make my life easier…in the office I have…Excel”

There is plenty of “manual” work around: SFE teams need to build their own tools. Tools for target setting, territory design, incentive calculation, profiling, segmentation, coaching, to name a few. With plenty of reinventing the wheel as it is not uncommon to see neighbour affiliates working on the same thing

How to speed up:

  • Automation helps SFE practitioners to work on more important strategic issues rather than crunching numbers
  • Look for technological improvements and automation. Evaluate external platforms. Most vendors are happy to customize their tech to suit client needs
  • Work close to your regional office to evaluate needs and acquire or develop tech solutions; often your neighbour affiliate has the same needs

Empower the SFE team

What we see: productivity enhancement initiatives such as customer targeting are not always embraced by everyone (we call it the modified 3rd law of Newton: “for every SFE initiative there is a force in the opposite direction”) and sometimes there are silos, kingdoms and roadblocks that need to be dealt with

SFE practitioners in the region are not always empowered to deal with resistance or existing roadblocks. They might sit far away from the GM in the org chart for example. Or they don’t have the right profile for a more strategic role.

How to speed up

  • Bring the SFE team to the table. Develop a strategic place for them
  • Define the right profile. Great data crunching ability is not enough. SFE needs to have the ability and assertiveness to work constructively with both the sales force and senior management: “…we believe that SFE practitioners need to have – apart from their knowledge and analytical skills – a certain degree of gravitas” says the APAC director of a European MNC
  • Coach them. Develop their strategic thinking
  • Define the right expectations. Often the SFE practitioners are left to figure out what they are expected to deliver.

Make the most of Regional

What we see: we see an upward trend in regional SFE positions. But there is a big variance in their role: it goes all the way from simple KPI monitoring to hands-on support. Many of them are “lone wolfs” with little or no support team. And there is also a widespread practice on “suggesting” but “not interfering” with the affiliates.

How to speed up:

  • Help them up. Having a hands-on, proactive regional SFE function helps take affiliates to the next level by providing expertise, support and by helping establish a framework to share best practices across affiliates
  • Work constructively with the affiliates. Be more assertive if required. If something is not right it needs fixing
  • If you need to do plenty of catch-up make sure you bring true seasoned SFE experts (some companies did bring SFE stars) that not only bring expertise but that can engage at GMs and BU levels
  • Run a SFE assessment to understand needs and define priorities. Help affiliates to close the gap by managing and sponsoring some of these initiatives
  • Support your regional SFE person or team. Some of them are completely flooded with work

Pharma companies in Asia Pacific are catching up in terms of sales productivity. But we believe we should speed up a bit by developing the SFE skills and capabilities, equipping and empowering the SFE team and by make the most of the now common regional SFE team.


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