Supporting First Line Field Managers in Pharma

Man demonstrating with a clipboard showing Supporting First Line Field Managers

Ian Robinson discusses how to provide structure to sequential in-call coaching to enhance customer excellence when supporting First Line Field Managers in pharma.

In the truly dynamic and innovative industry in which we are privileged to work, it’s easy to lose sight of some of the fundamental principles that have enabled us to positively impact the performance of our key brands over many years.

Customer excellence in the digital age means that organisations need to have a well-thought-out multichannel strategy, tapping into the customer’s preferred methods of communication in order to optimally deliver a relevant, credible and compelling brand narrative.

However, an enduring key lever within that strategy is the ability of the field-based employee to engage their customers in positive action for patients, ideally including the company brand as part of that solution. It’s the role of the First Line Field Manager (FLM) in growing and developing their team that, therefore, remains critical in delivering a consistent level of customer excellence as every sub-optimal call is a missed opportunity for the business, and indeed for patients.

“Coaches often don’t receive coaching themselves, and most organisations don’t measure the true impact of coaching as a key performance indicator within their business”

Lack of a consistent approach

In 2013, during my time as a Second Line Manager, I decided to spend time observing three newly-promoted FLMs in my team who had been developed into those roles internally. It was fantastic to see the strengths that they each brought to the role; however, each were very different in style, specifically in how they approached in-field coaching days with their teams. This fired my curiosity as to how the more experienced FLMs within the team planned and delivered the same activities. Hence, I also invested time in observing them and again, each was quite different in their approach.

Whilst coaching styles will inevitably be individual, I was surprised at the variation in how each FLM set up the day and how they executed their coaching visits. There was no clear ‘good practice approach’ defined and whilst we had a set of key performance measures grounded in customer excellence, this was one that had been missed. Whilst I probably didn’t realise it at the time, it was a huge opportunity to raise the bar within our team and would certainly have provided an advantage versus our competitors had we taken the decision to invest time in defining good practice through a consistent framework.

What challenges do FLMs face when in-field coaching?

There are many reasons to define what ‘good looks like’ in order to support FLMs beyond simply using the preferred coaching model that each is expected to rely on. Knowing how and when to coach can be a challenge. During a busy day in the field, the coachee may have a whole plethora of things to discuss with their FLM, ranging from business opportunities to help with administrative tasks and often personal issues outside of the work environment. Consequently, as a coach, manager, teacher, counsellor and mentor, FLMs need to wear several different hats over the course of the day and know when to wear each one appropriately. Moreover, given that in-field coaching days typically only occur every four to six weeks, it’s imperative that time is allocated to focus on the development of specific skills that enhance the customer experience.

Therein lies the challenge for FLMs, in providing structure to ensure that this time is adequately protected to maximise the impact of coaching in-call skills. In addition, it can take time and several coaching visits to secure a skill at an agreed level, hence viewing coaching as a cycle of sequential events rather than a series of single interventions is key to accelerating and embedding customer excellence.

Coaches often don’t receive coaching themselves

As I discovered a few years ago, FLMs typically follow the habits of the FLMs that managed and coached them when they were in individual contributor roles, so both good and not so good practices are transferred.

There is plenty of evidence available to highlight the fact that coaches often don’t receive coaching themselves, and that most organisations don’t measure the true impact of coaching as a key performance indicator within their business.

Linking up new FLMs with those that have significant experience can offer lots of benefits, however experience doesn’t always equal excellence, and the vast majority of FLMs won’t necessarily be consciously aware of their strengths and development opportunities as a coach. Therefore, there is a huge opportunity for organisations to support all their FLMs in identifying and working to establish an approach that enhances outcomes for the coachee and in turn, further promotes customer excellence within the business.

Those organisations that do establish an approach then have the advantage of being able to support and develop their FLMs to become the best in-field coach that they can be and to measure that progress in the quest for true customer excellence.

“Fundamental to success is a clear and consistent framework that can be used to describe the optimal approach in order to measure progress and provide support and development for FLMs”

What does good look like?

Fundamental to success is a clear and consistent framework that can be used to describe the optimal approach in order to measure progress and provide support and development for FLMs.

There are several tips and tricks that can be built into the framework that will add value and these can be considered as part of a pre-visit, pre-call, post-call and post-visit cycle. For example, agreeing a coaching contract with expectations from both parties pre-visit will generate clarity, accountability and bring focus to the discussions. It also creates an agreed platform to protect in-field coaching time whilst providing adequate time to cover any other business issues or opportunities that need to be part of the agenda for the day.

Preparing appropriately for the visit is also critical, both from a coachee and FLM point of view, with clarity on which specific skill or skills will be the focus for the day. This sounds obvious, however it is often overlooked and may result in the coaching being solely a post-call reflective activity rather than the optimal approach of effective pre-call coaching with an agreed standard for the skill, followed by the reflective review.

Furthermore, consistently acting on opportunities to coach post-visit is something that can significantly impact the ability of the coachee to retain and anchor a skill. It also means that FLMs can support their people remotely in order that calls with high priority customers are coached even when the FLM cannot be present. These are just a few simple examples of small changes to in-field coaching activity that can help FLMs deliver an enhanced experience for their people over a coaching cycle as part of a best practice framework.

It has taken me a good few years working with several organisations in our industry to realise the competitive advantage that I missed back in my time as a Second Line Manager. Defining a standard that describes the ideal approach to in-call coaching and coaching FLMs to consistently deliver to that standard is certainly something that organisations should consider as a priority within their customer excellence focus. It could mean the difference between an average performance and a brilliant one.

Ian Robinson is Managing Director of Pharmability Consulting.

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