Pharma CRM Implementation: The Critical Role of First Line Managers

Most project managers in the life sciences industry know that for a CRM implementation to be a true success, management buy-in and training must be top priorities. This is especially true for global CRM implementations where standardization of processes is even more important than the technology itself. However, without wide user adoption, the project is set for failure.

And to a fault in most cases the sales force — whose buy-in is critical — is treated as one, monolithic group. Rarely is it broken down into sales representatives and first line managers. It should be. First line managers’ (FLMs) adoption is critically important. Consequently, they need to be targeted separately. In addition, FLM-specific change management techniques and tools should be utilized to ensure project success.Why are FLMs so important?

FLMs are critical to driving adoption.  Usually FLMs are the best reps who got promoted. Therefore, they act as SMEs in all aspects of their sales representatives’ work. In addition, most pharma companies strive to get their FLMs to spend at least 50 to 60 percent of their time training reps. This may include: dual calls, f2f coaching, territory, business review, and other related activities. Hence, they are perceived as “brothers in arms” by the field reps.

Also, FLMs often serve as the main communication channel between the corporate office and the rep. Any initiative deployed in the field, regardless of whether it is a new marketing campaign, a new promotional item, a change of strategy, or a CRM implementation, is usually communicated through the FLM. (An initiative that is communicated directly to representatives, excluding or without sufficient buy-in from FLMs, is almost certainly set to fail).

FLMs can also be the best source of feedback, better than the reps themselves. They are close to the field; they are in the field: they know what’s really going on. They participate in sales visits themselves and because of their role, they have a broader view of the entire region. Overall, they have an in-depth, practical understanding of the field. And in multinational organizations, they often act as translators for their reps and they frequently serve as a backup contact for clients when reps are unavailable.

Achieving FLMs’ buy-in is easier than obtaining high adoption across the rest of the salesforce. And it must be done in order to ensure CRM is used daily. It will immediately enable these high skill managers to easily access critical information on their reps: historical activities, previous coaching results, current cycle plans, et cetera.  Sharing calendars is a standard feature of most CRM systems, which can help FLMs validate the route plans of their team. (Note: If target list reviews are a routine practice, why not develop a report serving this specific purpose?).

FLM Adoption

Offering valuable information will drive FLM adoption, such as CRM sales results and other reports, some of which are aggregated from external data sources. CRM value increases as it becomes a one-stop shop — a valuable tool that can be leveraged to save valuable time and guide high-value decisions. The CRM possibilities are unlimited: sales target achievement, competitor market share, sell-out trends – all of these and many other reports can be made widely available internally. This information will certainly make the CRM more palatable to the salesforce and FLMs.

It will also save time in producing reports, another buy-in factor that can persuade the team to implement and use it daily. For example, we know of one U.S. antibiotics manufacturer that would ask each of their FLMs to prepare a short business review presentation for their cycle meetings. The presentation would follow the same standard format: containing both a descriptive section, as well as several salesforce metrics. After receiving feedback from the manufacturer’s FLMs, the CRM implementation team designed a report specifically reflecting the presentation format. Hence, FLM time saved.

FLM Involvement

For a CRM implementation and adoption to be truly effective, FLMs should be involved early in the project. Get them on board as early as the discovery/analysis phase. This serves two purposes: it enables the business analyst to capture FLM-specific requirements and it ensures these stakeholders will take some ownership in the CRM project because their concerns were heard. An experienced business analyst knows that it is not a “sacrifice” of system integrity or the so-called “purity of design” merely because the analyst involved other stakeholders.

As in any project, selecting the right people because of the valuable input they offer increases the success of the project. However, keep in mind that FLMs will only engage if they know project members have at least a basic understanding of their job. That said, another important factor to take into account is the relationship between FLMs and project team members. If a relationship already exists, it can dramatically increase the chance of the project’s success. In an atmosphere of mutual trust, FLMs can freely express their ideas and provide honest feedback during all phases of the project including requirements gathering, testing, and training.

There are a number of ways of building this relationship. One pharma company, for example, required all IT project members to spend at least one day in dual-calls per quarter. With that opportunity, they learned about reps’ work cycles and how to solve their technical issues with their assistance. Some companies allow IT to attend cycle meetings. This gives members of the salesforce team the opportunity to meet IT and discuss issues or offer feedback. There are many other approaches to building bonds, but each company needs to find the approach that works best within its particular context.

Global Rollout

In recent years, most CRM implementations have involved large-scale global rollouts that traverse several markets. Seeking process harmonization and cost efficiency, pharma companies have been striving to incorporate a “one size fits all” solution — at least regarding key processes and functions. However, this approach is troublesome when it involves highly regulated and compliance sensitive areas, such as sample management, event management, and consent management. Country-specific regulations need to be taken into account and many of them directly affect how FLMs work. Only an in-depth understanding of local peculiarities — enhanced by developing a robust stakeholder engagement plan — will ensure FLMs are brought into the project early.

Other CRM/FLM Factors

In Japan, you must by law submit medical rep call reports within 48 hours of the calls to regulators. A robust CRM solution will help ensure this obligation is met. It can also be used as a selling point for FLMs: there is no need for them to waste time creating additional documentation. That buy-in factor and others described here should be folded into your CRM implementation communication plan.

In France and Germany, work councils need to approve any changes or upgrades made to the CRM. Typically, there is at least one FLM on a worker council. Not having this important stakeholder on board can delay the whole project by months. In the Czech Republic, all fields should be monitored for compliance reasons. Implementing a CRM solution that will automate text field validation will greatly help FLMs since they are in charge of scrutinizing all call reports from their sales team. Again, starting engagement with these value propositions will greatly increase buy-in.

Other country-specific constraints include: strict compliance regulations and aggregate spend reporting as stated in the French Sunshine Act. For a pharma company planning a global CRM rollout, an experienced implementation partner, who has been engaged in several multi-national implementations before, can help avoid major risks and be an excellent source of knowledge.

So, citing the words of Ursula K. Le Guin, here’s my final take-home message and advice to you: “It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.”

Working on FLM engagement does not end with the implementation of a CRM. Quite the opposite: it is an ongoing effort, but one that pays off immensely. But you must get the FLMs on board. They will be your strongest supporters in every CRM project.