Selling to pharma: a view from the service sector

Jon Heeks

ehr executive search ltd

It is likely that many managers in the pharmaceutical industry have thought about the possibility of a pursuing a career with a service provider, a career that takes them out of the traditional management structures of the industry. Essentially, this move means they sell their skills and specialist expertise back to the industry that reared them.

Two key thoughts occur for those considering such a move: “what lies on the other side?” and “will I be suited?” and this article will try to provide a few pointers on both.

Some eight years ago in an article similar to this I asked the rhetorical question “where do all pharma’s career minded middle managers go?” My answer then was to point to the expanding service sector where, for instance, the CSO providers had expanded almost exponentially on the back of “share of voice” and a few blockbuster products to volumes of business that put them on a par with many UK blue chip pharmaceutical companies. Since then the UK service environment has further adjusted in line with the major changes to the customer base. Today, one can observe the rise of (increasingly) sophisticated providers of consultancy, informatics and intelligence solutions, health economics, SFE, partnership experts, thought leadership, CRM and knowledge management providers as pharma becomes more virtual and increasingly specialised skill sets are located outside the companies.

My own career followed the then traditional path through the UK sales functions of a blue chip company, took a relatively unusual turn through the Far East setting up branch offices in major cities as the Asian dragons expanded and, in traditional career terms, stalled on the then declining markets of Africa and one of the first major pharmaceutical mergers. However, I took away great learnings from a traditional pharma company with interesting products, a reputation for training and development as well as a great deal of fun and professional relationships which remain strong over a decade later.


“It is likely that many managers in the pharmaceutical industry have thought about the possibility of a pursuing a career with a service provider…”

Since then I’ve launched more major products , gained broader sales and marketing experience, dealt with bigger brands, closed deals on bigger numbers and learned more than seemed possible as part of that blue chip environment. The roles were varied and sometimes indistinct, some of the responsibilities seemed enormous and many of the tasks frustrating in the extreme. However, what is interesting is that these opportunities were realised in the service sector, working for a major CSO in a gloriously dynamic, challenging and expanding market place, an executive search organisation and subsequently one of the fledgling digital environments.

Which brings me back to the question about those middle and senior managers. As I look around the service sector which I joined in the early 90s I see many individuals making the same move: sometimes company restructuring forces the move, sometimes the desire to work outside the confines of corporate organisations and sometimes the step is driven by an entrepreneurial instinct to grow a business and reap the financial rewards of an innovative idea. Whatever the motivation, it looks clear that some prosper in the service sector, whilst others find the change virtually impossible. Important issues for anyone facing the same move!

Superficially, the environment looks the same, sharing similar healthcare, product and commercial languages. Clearly, many individuals in service providers serve their apprenticeship first in the mainstream industry and there is much in common. However, the first and most significant difference is that in the service sector the customer truly is king. Nothing happens here until somebody sells something and nothing continues to happen unless delivery is timely, precise, seamless and to the customer’s ultimate satisfaction. My sense is that although such customer service is often generated by multi-disciplinary teams the feeling of individual responsibility is often acute and somewhat unfamiliar to some former pharmaceutical employees.

However, my other sense is that the skill sets required for commercial roles in both the sectors have actually moved closer together over recent years as the customer base for the pharmaceutical industry has become more complex, more strategic in its views, more explicitly commercial in its attitudes and with more stakeholders involved in the decision making – something like an account then! In common with service providers the pharmaceutical industry has had to learn the art of selling to multiple stakeholders over long term sales cycles, building relationships and supporting advocates whilst minimising obstacles – nothing desperately new for service orientated organisations but something which probably does still seem quite novel to the sales organisations of pharmaceutical companies.


“In common with service providers the pharmaceutical industry has had to learn the art of selling to multiple stakeholders…”

As the pharmaceutical industry has consolidated through multiple mergers and acquisitions the service providers have found that they have fewer individual opportunities to win business and that commissioning has gone to the central hub of bigger, more complex and more powerful organisations.

Ceri Thomas at Kantar Health (formerly at Pfizer) points to the regionalisation of decision making in his market place and the emphasis that this places on precise business development activity by sales specialists focussed on the sales cycle. For him the day of the practitioner/expert being responsible for winning business and then delivering the project has long gone because of the long sales cycles where service suppliers have to satisfy procurement specialists much earlier in the process than before and where different patterns of procurement mean that detailed knowledge is required. In this context massive business development efforts may be required simply to achieve listings on vendor/supplier lists.

There is always a tremendous focus on delivery to the customer in the service sector and an organisation must focus much of its attention on making sure that the client gets what they are paying for and that the success of a project is measured and understood by the customer. Get that wrong and your service organisation flounders. However, historically, it has led to an overemphasis on placing practitioners and experts in front of the client on occasions when, as discussed, the organisation should be wheeling out business development specialists whose expertise lies in managing the client into the process. They are, by training, normally better at qualifying objectives and managing client expectations along the way. Clearly, a focus on specialist sales activities also avoids the rate limiting trap whereby the practitioner can only sell what he or she can deliver i.e. the practitioner’s ability to grow business is not scalable.

So why make the leap into the service sector at all?

The answer lies in the changing nature of pharmaceutical companies as they respond to changes in their markets. Essentially, they become more virtual as time goes on, employing more and more skills based outside the company and employed on a temporary basis using these skills to inform increasingly vital changes within the company.


“…the day of the practitioner/expert being responsible for winning business and then delivering the project has long gone…”

Richard Augotoski at Parexel (formerly at GlaxoSmithKline) speaks eloquently on the ability of experts outside the industry to guide companies towards solutions through a process of thought leadership, with these sorts of functions offering individuals the opportunity to initiate massive change via their individual expertise.

The answer to “why” then is that there will be plenty of opportunity out there in the world of service provision to make a huge difference, temptingly much more so than within that large pharma. The answer to “who” are those people who can bring insight and originality to the table, who want to work at the cutting edge of change and innovation and who have the commercial nous to make a living. For those ready and willing to take the leap, working life will be fast and furious, perhaps a little risky but very stimulating and full of variety.

So, which side of the bridge offers you the best view?

About the author:

Jon Heeks has run EHR Ltd with co-director Bob Stainsby since 2002, specialising in client facing commercial recruits for pharmaceutical service sector companies, typically business development and account management roles. For further details please visit

Prior to this Jon spent ten years with the UK and International divisions of GlaxoSmithKline followed by ten year period with a CSO, where he specialised in marketing and business development and a two year stint working in the digital marketing arena.

Which is harder: working in pharma or the service sector?