Magazine Article | November 27, 2013

Style & Substance In The Pharma Supplier Space

Source: Life Science Leader

By Wayne Koberstein, Executive Editor, Life Science Leader magazine
Follow Me On Twitter @WayneKoberstein

This theme has been on my mind so much I’m starting to repeat myself: What is real, and what is illusory in the world of drug, diagnostic, and device development? How do we know one project will succeed and another fail? From what spring might we even draw some measure of assurance? It is not a matter of random chance. Products going through development do not exist as ideal forms floating in a vacuum. Like a space-probe launch, or the maiden flight of a new airliner, countless components have come together to create a product of life science, and any one of them can go wrong.

Every time a purchaser faces a supplier with a sales pitch, the inevitable question must be, “If I buy this, am I creating a potential weak point, or am I adding another lever of advantage?” Whatever the component — a patient-enlistment plan or data-entry form, a biomarkers study or a human-factors analysis — and whatever factors affect its quality, reliability, and cost, the buyer must know the supplier’s goods or services increase the product’s odds of success.

The thought came to me from a seemingly unrelated marketing research study on why mobile advertising is generally less effective than its Web or print counterparts. Forget the study itself, because I didn’t stick around for the conclusions, but instead wandered off in my own mental direction. Of course, mobile ads are tiny, intrusive, and most often incongruous with whatever app you happen to be using. So, when would you be most likely to break stride and pay attention to one? Remember, style is important, if only to compensate for the small screen and thumbs-on operations of phone or pad. But substance is equally or even more important to overcome one’s natural resistance to any intrusion into the immediate task at hand.

Sadly for me, the first time I clicked on a mobile ad, it led to a dead end. The ad was simple and clean, a picture of a sleek, little device promising “cool connectivity,” which caught my eye because I was looking for a better way to input audio into my mobile devices. Despite the disappointment when I found only a decorated plug-converter at the other end of the ad link, I realized something from the experience: It took both (eye-catching) style and (need-answering) substance to move me to action. Whether by lucky accident or devious design, the advertiser had hit both buttons for its target audience, namely, me, and others like me, looking for substantial material behind the stylistic pitch.

The lesson here is that the supplier might do what the mobile advertiser did — hit the right buttons of style and substance, promising in the buyer’s own language what the buyer wants to hear, but not delivering on the promise. Or, the supplier could take the high road, communicating in the buyer’s language and offering solutions it knows it can deliver, reliably and over the long term. In that case, style and substance work together to form a strong client/supplier bond. Unless you present your “pitch” in terms the purchaser understands (style), it doesn’t matter what you can deliver. But if you cannot deliver what you promise (substance), no matter how persuasively you promise it, your only chance of staying in business is to keep lining up new, short-term customers.

OK, that advice sounded obvious and corny. But it is truly funny how real, adult life has a way of confirming old homilies, making youthful cynicism seem foolish in the rearview mirror of experience. At every event or publication where I’ve seen this industry’s purchasers and suppliers in discussion, each side seems almost to plead for one golden but elusive quality in their relationships: trust. Simple human trust. Despite IT-powered statistical analyses, databases, background checkers, and other high-tech systems for evaluating potential vendors or clients, the main thing both sides are yearning for is to do business with people they can trust — and who will trust them in return.

Naturally, the principle of trust extends beyond mobile advertising, which first sparked this line of reasoning for me. Every supplier has a face it turns toward clients and potential customers. What possible means can the purchaser use to see behind the face and know whether it confirms or conceals the truth? Probably the means that is least used — personal engagement. Go there. Often. Talk to them. Build a relationship — a network of relationships — based on what Genentech calls “value creation,” the non-zero-sum game of mutual problem solving and balanced incentives between purchaser and suppliers.

Most suppliers also have their own supply chain. Get to know the secondary and tertiary suppliers your immediate vendors depend on. Plan for contingencies in proportion to the risk you perceive there. Look for weak points, and, if possible, help your primary supplier figure out ways to strengthen them. Stockpiling reserves of raw material as backup for the next-step producer would be the simplest example of how a purchaser might act to protect a supplier. But opportunities for improvement will likely pop up in any such relationship, varying only by the type of goods or services supplied. The idea is to share the problem-solving mindset, with each side supporting the other.

There is another helpful approach sponsors can take — do an inventory of the problems you have caused for your supplier. You know what I’m talking about: rapid-fire, course-reversing changes; punting on regulatory issues and shifting responsibility to the supply side; forcing the other side to absorb unexpected costs… All that and more happen every day in this industry, effectively destroying any collaborative spirit or value creation that might already exist with the supplier, and certainly arresting any development of the relationship in a collaborative direction.

The more damage you do with one or a few suppliers, the more difficult it will be to find new ones that will cooperate with you in a substantive way. Disappointment and cynicism breed deceit; as your reputation for problem-causing spreads in the supplier community, people will feel OK about feeding you the BS you want to hear without delivering the goods they lead you to expect.

You may notice I’ve used the word “you” interchangeably to mean either purchaser or supplier, depending on the context. This is a journalist’s privilege, or conceit, but also the most direct way of addressing both sides with equal engagement. For either, the style of communication determines how well your message is received and interpreted by the other; the substance of trust and reliability determines where the message leads. Will it be purchaser versus supplier, or purchaser and supplier — plying that great curved sea of product development together?