Great ideas are precious things. They are the fuel driving innovation, the sustenance of progress, the energy that powers success. Not all great ideas are so great in practice, however. In the life sciences, as in all industries, ideas that are put into action need to be periodically re-evaluated to make sure they are working out to be as good as we thought they were. If they are not, then we would be best off scrapping them and focusing our energy and resources on something else … but life science companies seem to have a very hard time doing so, and this inability is to their detriment.
For your information...Want to learn more about go / kill decision making? You can read about the stage-gate project management technique, from which go / kill is based, on Wikipedia.
The area where this lack of go / kill is most prominent and has the largest effects is product development. Life science product development projects have well-defined milestones and easily tracked metrics, yet go / kill criteria are usually nonexistent and when they are they are most often poorly defined and almost never strictly obeyed. Put simply, not having such criteria is a poor business practice and not obeying them is a poor business decision. Go / kill criteria are defined based on the risk at any point in time in comparison to the revenue potential. This information, which may be subjective but is still based on the best knowledge and information at the time the criteria is created, tells us whether we are likely to achieve our desired returns at any stage-gate (the point at the project when the go / kill decision is made) if we move forward with the project. If you are unlikely to achieve the desired returns, and resources would be better allocated elsewhere then the kill decision should be made, yet it very rarely is.
It is, to some extent, easy to understand why companies so infrequently utilize stage-gates successfully. Kill decisions are hard to make. In our business culture, killing a project is often interpreted as the project failing and this can cloud the business judgment of those on the team who do not want to appear to have been on a failed project. In practice, recognizing the need for a project kill and implementing it should be commendable, a gesture that the project team are willing to put the greater good of the company as a whole. Unfortunately, this rarely happens. No one ever handed out a “best project kill decision of the year” award. Kills are not seen as an achievement but project completion is, so most often projects push on even in the kind of adversity that makes desired returns extremely unlikely.
Other types of endeavors can benefit from stage-gate type go / kill decision making. For example, marketing campaigns can be periodically re-evaluated for ROI determination. If the ROI is not up to par, the campaign can be killed in favor of another which has a greater likelihood of success. Distributor / supplier relationships can be subjected to go / kill, and because of easily quantifiable metrics these decisions can be very easily gauged. Go / kill gates can even be easily and beneficially applied to the continuation of existing products. There are a multitude of other areas where life science companies can benefit from such gates as well.
Ensuring that resources are allocated to areas providing the greatest benefits is a cornerstone of a successful company. Ongoing projects and processes have a need to be periodically reevaluated to determine if they should be continued or “killed” in favor of other more promising endeavors. Despite this, life science companies rarely use go / kill decisions. Implementation of stage-gates and proper adherence to go / kill criteria will help life science companies ensure that that their resources are more optimally allocated and utilized.
All companies making and / or selling life science tools and services have a product portfolio, but often these portfolios are not viewed in a strategic manner. While aligning current company competencies with current marketplace needs is a simple way to have successful products, a broader view of the product or service portfolio is necessary to ensure greater corporate, and long-term, success. In this post, I’ll go over some of the broader considerations of managing a product portfolio.
Note that many companies discuss product portfolio management to effectively be the new product development project selection process. While new product development project selection is an important part of product portfolio management, I believe this viewpoint to be too narrowly focused, as existing products need to be factored into portfolio management as well, and there are issues related to portfolio management that are indeed independent of new product development. I will discuss new product development project selection in more depth in a later post, as it is a critical business process, but for this post I will simply try to address some common questions relating more globally to product portfolio management in the life sciences.
How many products are the right amount?
Deciding how many products should be in your product portfolio is a difficult question, but there is a correct answer that requires balancing a multitude of factors. First of all, and arguably most importantly, is the amount of products that you can profitably develop. If you have the skills and the market need exists for more products, then building more is usually a good idea. Also important, however, are risk and the scope and goals of the company. If your product portfolio is too small or too narrow, then you may be exposing yourself to a large amount of risk by putting too many eggs in one basket, so to speak. On the other hand, if you have too many products you may lose focus of your scope and your goals, or simply lose the ability to effectively maintain or all of your product lines.
Should product X be in our product portfolio?
Again, if you have the skills to build a given product and the market need exists for it, then it is usually a good idea to build it. Before diving in head first, however, be sure you know the opportunities and threats of doing so. Also, if a given product is sufficiently outside the rest of your product portfolio, then other problems may arise. Your customers not view you as having a competency in that area and this can hurt customer confidence in that particular product or product line, adversely affecting sales. Furthermore, a disparate product from others in your portfolio may incur large marketing cots, as the effective economies of scale achieved by co-marketing (effectively marketing for many products at once) may not exist. For older products, you periodically need to ask if the product is still worth supporting. This should not be a simple question of if the product is obsolete, however, but rather will the profits from making or selling the product meet the desired rate of return. Ultimately, strategy and rate of return are the most important deciding factors in deciding if a product should be developed, maintained, or scrapped.
How do I know my product portfolio has the right mix of products?
Your developed product portfolio should accurately reflect your core competencies and the current needs of the life science research market while your product development projects should be addressing anticipated future needs. Make good use of market research to figure out exactly what those needs are with respect to your business.
Notes for life science distribution companies
If you’re a life science distribution company your job of product portfolio management is in many ways much simpler since you have no product development costs. However, there are still costs associated with bringing on a new product or product line, so having as large an offering as possible is often not a good strategy. Also, consider your strategic positioning within the life science marketplace and align your product offerings to that positioning. If your strategy involves certain segments of the life science market, leverage your product portfolio to gain a reputation as an expert “go-to” seller within that market segment. Since you have less variables to deal with than manufacturers, fully-quantitative, even automated, processes for dealing with portfolio management processes are also sometimes possible.
Effectively managing your product portfolio will not only ensure that your business is profitable in the short- and mid-term, but by aligning with strategies and goals can help lead your bioscience company to long-term success.
Life scientists are busy people. Between bench work, meetings, writing, presentations, seminars, and everything else they may have to do in their day, their time is limited. As such, they appreciate (knowingly or not) situations where the purchasing of products that they need is easy, fast, and simple. While the ease of the purchasing process is usually not so important as to change the mind of someone who has decided on purchasing a given piece of lab equipment, antibody, reagent, or other bioscience product, it can easily sway the undecided buyer one way or the other. By identifying and lowering or removing the barriers to purchasing your laboratory products or services, you can sway those undecided minds in your life science company’s favor.
This is a bit of an oversimplification, but for brevity’s sake we can break down the sales process, from the eyes of the customer, into three steps:
- Finding your product / service
- Obtaining the desired information
- Acting on the desire to purchase
The first step is arguably the most important. It should go without saying that unless scientists can find your product, they are not going to buy it. Getting found is a multi-faceted issue that has no single solution, but rather many different potential solutions that can be used in combination based on your company’s situation. Having distributors list your products in catalogs, traditional marketing campaigns via print advertising in scientific journals, banner advertising on relevant websites, e-mail campaigns, search engine marketing, social media marketing, search engine optimization, word of mouth marketing, and utilizing in-house sales teams are all options with different benefits and drawbacks and a unique mix of any of these may be appropriate for your company and product (note that this list is not meant to be exhaustive). Identify how you can maximize your exposure in a cost-effective manner and implement those solutions so your life science products are easily found.
No matter how a customer finds your product or service, you always need to make sure you provide them with the desired information to get them interested in buying. As a general rule, more information is better so long as it is well-organized, relevant, and positive. Use this information to keep them engaged the entire time they browse it. Any time a researcher wants more information about your product but doesn’t find it is an opportunity for them to walk away or look for different products, so even if in formats not well suited to containing large amounts of information, the location of additional information should be given and this information should be as easily accessed as possible. A key component to this, since it will almost inevitably contain the most information about your products or services, is having a website with all the necessary product information laid out in an easily navigable way. (you can learn more about streamlining your website for additional sales here)
Lastly, the ability to act on the desire to purchase should be a fast, simple, and easy process (or at least as much is plausible given the nature of the product or service). For example, if your product does not require a quote-driven sales process, e-commerce allows your customers to order quickly and easily. Online forms for quote requests or demonstration requests are similarly low barriers to action. Where possible, free samples are a great way to get your products in front of the customer. If the customer needs to contact your company, let them do it in the manner that they prefer to, be it e-mail, phone, a simple contact form, etc. to ensure that they are comfortable establishing the necessary communication to further the sales process.
Scientists, lab managers, purchasers, and procurement agents all prefer simple and streamlined sales processes, and reducing the barriers to purchasing your bioscience product can be an easy way to increase your conversion. While the ease of the purchasing process is most often not important enough to the customer to change a purchasing decision altogether, it can easily sway the undecided buyer one way or the other. By streamlining your sales process, you can tilt those undecided buyers in your favor and increase your life science sales.
Branding is an important part of marketing in the life sciences, as we’ve previously discussed in this blog. The ability to shape and manage the perceptions of your company in the minds of customers is a powerful thing. Simply having strong branding will certainly help your company in a multitude of ways, but you can do even more and leverage your brand to derive even more value from it. One such way is the cultivation of brand champions.
What is a brand champion?
A brand champion is someone who feel strongly about your brand, understands its message, and promotes it to others. You could say that brand champions are the “stewards” of your brand. While brand champions can be any stakeholder, we’re going to focus on customers as brand champions. Having customers as brand champions is of particular value.
How to Cultivate Brand Champions
Every brand champion starts as an enthusiast. Find customers who like your products and / or brand and have given you good feedback or maybe who your support or sales staff have a good relationship with. Pick customers who can identify with and support your brand values and goals. Once these customers are identified, define and execute strategies that improve engagement with those customers on a personal level. Give them that little bit of special treatment. Once your enthusiasts are engaged, be sure you have communicated the brand values to them. While there are many strategies to perform any one of these steps, so long as they are performed you’ll start creating brand champions out of your customer enthusiasts.
Leveraging Brand Champions
Once you’ve cultivated your brand champions you can leverage the value that you have created in doing so. One common way to extract value from your brand champions is by encouraging word-of-mouth marketing. Word-of-mouth marketing is both free and highly effective – your marketing message will be much more readily accepted by scientists when it comes from a colleague. (Curious how you can encourage word-of-mouth marketing among your customers or brand champions? Ask us.)
Brand champions are also great beta-testers. Have a product you’d like user feedback on before a full release? Ask your brand champions if they’d be interested in trying it out. Brand champions can be trusted to provide quality feedback and not be overly negative to colleagues about any flaws or unfinished aspects of your new product.
Testimonials and referrals are also great ways to derive value from brand champions. Scientists are more accepting of other products when they hear positive things from other researchers / customers regarding the quality of the product, the services of the company, etc, and brand champions will much more readily be the customers that flout your benefits to others.
Brand champions will also help you crowdsource. When you need the opinions of your customers, your enthusiastic brand champions will be right there to help you and provide the feedback or perspective you need.
There are more ways to leverage brand champions as well. No matter how you do so, be sure that your brand champions feel good about the interaction with your company and brand. If they begin to feel like they are simply being used or taken advantage of they’ll turn their cheek to your brand and you’ll lose a loyal champion. Don’t let that happen. Be sure your brand champions feel properly rewarded.
Cultivating customers into brand champions requires effort but is highly rewarding. Brand champions can be a strategic advantage to your business and provide unique value to your company that cannot be derived in other ways.
In business, problems are an inevitability. No company ever sails completely smoothly to success. In the life sciences and elsewhere, companies often fail to step back to understand their own problems and their own situation as well as they should. Because of this, people often develop an overly simplistic view of their company’s problems and then implement solutions that are designed to merely treat the symptoms of a deeper underlying problem. Without recognizing and fixing the root cause of your company’s problems, the symptoms are certain to manifest again.
Let’s take an example. Life science company X is having a problem with half its sales force missing sales targets. On the surface, this very well may look like a problem with sales personnel. After all, if the half of the sales force is meeting expectations, why can’t the rest? The company may be keen to implement a solution which directly targets the manifestation of the problem – perhaps reprimanding the under-performing personnel or increasing incentives for those who meet performance. Would these solutions treat the problem? They very well may, especially if the cause was with sales personnel motivation, but if not these fixes will be an inefficient solution that will fail to alleviate the symptom or address the underlying problem. The problem may be in marketing and the sales force is simply not able to compensate for poor quality marketing or a lack of sufficient marketing. The problem may be in quality and the customer is just not receptive of the product as a result. Alternatively, perhaps the problem lies in the sales force’s training or a lack of technical sales support. Perhaps there are multiple causes. For the purposes of this example it doesn’t actually matter what the problem is, but you can see how one problem could have a wide variety of underlying causes.
So what can you do about this?
Before you can “do” anything, you need to ensure that you fully understand your company’s operations. What processes feed into other processes, and which have a secondary effect on others? How do these processes fit into the tasks, strategies, and goals of your company? (Answering these questions alone can reveal problems, many of which you may not have even been trying to find.) What feeds into the problem area? Once you know the answer to those questions, you can go about analyzing where the problem is originating.
Finding the cause of a problem is not a simple process, but you have one key ally in your search: information. Gather information from as many relevant sources as possible. This often involves getting input from your employees, and it may also involve gathering feedback from your customers. It could be quantitative data from business metrics. Whatever the appropriate sources, just remember that information is your friends. Different perspectives are also helpful, as they may have different views on the cause of the problem.
Any hunt for the cause of a problem should be scaled to the severity of the problem – a minor problem isn’t worth a major effort – but regardless the above guidelines can help you identify the problems in your company. Solutions that fix the cause of problems instead of treating the effects are longer lasting, more efficient, and critical to ensuring the long-term success of your company.
What was once “out-of-the-box” is no longer out of the box. As time goes on and progress is made, your company must continuously progress in order to remain competitive. In essence, those companies that can enact positive change faster than the rest will, over time, become more successful, and a key component of positive change is innovation. Knowing how to change and fostering innovation are complex and abstract challenges, and many biotechnology companies have difficulty dealing with them. The challenge of driving innovation, which I will discuss in this post, can be tackled with some creative thinking and by fostering a suitable environment.
Before I get into the “how”, I’d like to offer another important piece of advice. Innovation in many companies is something that is performed reactively. Most companies, especially those beyond the start-up phase, innovate in response to a pressing business need. Innovating in this manner will allow your company to adapt, but rarely will it allow you to excel. In order to start being a leader in your field, you need to innovate proactively. Make it a point to account for innovation in your company’s goals and strategy to help ensure innovation stays proactive.
Innovation more frequently occurs at interfaces where different ideas and perspectives come together, so encourage that within your company. Do your engineers and scientists not frequently talk? Make sure they have an opportunity to get together and talk about product development and your current products and technologies. Mix in personnel from marketing, sales, and support as well since these are the people who communicate most with customers and will be most in tune to their needs. It isn’t enough to just have them generate ideas, however – there needs to be an avenue for these ideas to be vetted and potentially obtain buy-in from the appropriate people in management. Make sure that avenue exists and is communicated to your employees so you can allow innovation to come from all areas within your company. It is also worth noting that a Gallup study found that the most engaged employees are the most likely to be driving innovation, so if you are thinking of creating focus groups or using other inclusive techniques to foster innovation, you may want to select the most engaged employees.
Innovation can come from outside your company as well. Another great benefit to having broad connections with customers (which can be fostered via customer relationship management, social media marketing, directly, etc.) is leveraging them for ideas on how to improve your products. While your customers will be unlikely to drop the next great technological breakthrough in your lap, they are often very happy to tell you what they need. If you have a particular problem that you need solved, you can use “challenges” with high-value prizes to get ideas. Such challenges themselves, however, require a solid marketing effort to ensure that they are well received and that your company gets a good enough response to make it likely that at least one submission will meet your needs. Alternatively, you can leverage existing platforms that post innovation challenges such as Nature and InnoCentive’s Open Innovation Pavilion.
All companies must change and innovate to grow and stay competitive, and the ability to successfully innovate is of immense value to life science corporations. While harnessing the power of something as abstract as innovation can be difficult, building goals, strategies and tasks with innovation in mind can being the process more within reach and under control. Once your company starts reliably driving innovation, you can proactively change to become a leader in your field.
Small life science companies are surrounded by uncertainty. How can we improve our service to customers? What new product would be of greatest interest to scientists? How can we be more certain that our strategic direction is in sync with future realities? What can we do to add value to our products? How can we attract new segments of the market? All of these are almost constant questions among all companies, but small companies are the most likely to leave them unanswered or do an insufficient amount of research to confidently answer them. Especially in rapidly changing markets such as the market for laboratory products and services, having solid information on which to base your company’s actions is highly important.
The Importance of Good Information
“I love talking about nothing. It is the only thing I know anything about.” – Oscar Wilde
All businesses need to understand the potential risks and rewards of any specific course of action. Beyond being a principal tenet of the practice of risk reduction, it is essentially a core business need. Businesses act on this basis. If the expected reward from a specific course of action will result in a return that justifies the amount of risk, then this action is taken. But how do you even know the risks or rewards of a hypothetical future action? … The answer? Market research. Market research provides the information that allows the quantification of uncertainty and risk.
For example, say a company that develops and sells cell lines for research purposes is considering which of a choice of new cell lines to commercialize. Without appropriate information, the choice would effectively be a poorly educated guess. Even if the company has the experience to “feel out” where the demand lies, they will be acting on a short-sighted intuition with little information to justify it. One cell line may be in more demand today, but the market for it may be shrinking while another is growing, and therefore another may have greater demand in the future and provide a better return over the lifetime of the product.
With a well-designed study, almost any question about the market can be answered, and the information discovered can be extremely valuable in reducing risk and uncertainty and maximizing returns.
Types of Market Research
“Be curious always, for knowledge will not acquire you; you must acquire it.” – Sudie Back
Market research can be segmented into two distinct types: secondary research, and primary research. Secondary research utilizes information that already exists. This may consist of mining databases, utilizing demographical data, analyzing existing research reports, etc. Primary market research involves reaching out directly to individuals within the target market. Primary market research can be in person, online, or via any other mode of communication, and may involve interviewing, surveying, questionnaires, etc. Either type may be quantitative or qualitative, although secondary market research is almost always quantitative.
Making Market Research Work for You
“Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.” – Anton Chekhov
The first issue of importance when conducting life science market research, and one that you will have a large part in answering, is understanding what you want answered and who should be providing the answers. What information is it that you are looking to collect? Will this information answer the question you have in mind? Will answering that question help you reduce uncertainty in ways that are relevant to your business needs? Who should be answering this question to make the answer relevant? Would there be a subset of life scientists who would best answer the question, or maybe lab managers, or perhaps even distributors? These questions need to be answered to ensure the relevance of the market research study.
The next issue is the study design. How should the information be collected. Would secondary or primary research be most appropriate (or a combination of both)? How important is the question? Do you need a very thorough, and therefore more expensive, study or would a less thorough or less structured study be sufficient? How should the data be collected and analyzed?
The last and most important issue is using the data! No matter how much market research you do, it’s not going to help you unless you apply the information to help guide your decision-making.
The life sciences are rapidly evolving and in a near constant state of change, and uncertainty and risk are abound because of it. Utilizing properly designed and executed market research can give your life science company a more certain future, improved returns, and the ability to act with confidence.
Many companies under-utilize their website, and life science companies are no exception. There is often a lot of marketing going on, and that’s good, but most websites seem to stop there. While good online marketing will indeed reflect well on your products / services and make customers more likely to buy, companies often fail to think about how their website can take that one step further and leverage it fully to dramatically improve lead or sale generation. In order to do this, however, you need to know how visitors are using your site and analyze why they use it like they do.
Important TipMake friends with Google Analytics. It’s free, it’s fairly easy to set up (it just requires adding a small amount of HTML to each page on your site) and for basic analysis it’s quite easy to use as well. Google Analytics will tell you how visitors to your site are getting there, what keywords they are using when finding your site via search, what pages they are looking at, etc. Put together, this is powerful information.
Chances are that some users will enter your site via virtually every page. You should, however, be able to determine what pages users enter your site from most often. Are these the pages that you’d want them to be entering your site from? If not, you may want to rearrange some content or add / change the content of the pages to make them pages you would want visitors entering from. There are other techniques for influencing what page users enter from as well. Just don’t expect all users to enter your site via your homepage – it’s never going to happen. The majority probably will, but that’s as good as you’re going to do.
Imagine you are a salesperson. You have all sorts of pitches and responses to customer inquiries and concerns. As you stand in front of a scientist, lab manager, etc., you can alter your responses to their statements in real-time. You can have a dynamic conversation. On your website, you don’t get that luxury but you still want to make the sale or get the lead. Your website, in effect, is the salesperson that talks to the most customers so make it behave as such. Since your website cannot have that fully dynamic conversation you therefore have to anticipate what the viewer is going to want to know or do after viewing a certain page and make sure that they have access to the desired information (or action) from that page.
Along those lines, you do not want any page to be a dead-end. If you get to a page where there are no good options to continue looking for more information or enter the quote / sale process, you probably found a page that a lot of viewers are exiting your website from. Even at the end of the sale or lead generation process, lead users back to the homepage to continue browsing your products / services.
Side Note from BioBM Principal Consultant Carlton HoytA tactic that I’ve seen work wonderfully in the past have been free samples of consumable products or demonstration requests of equipment. These tactics significantly reduce the barriers to getting your product in front of the customer. There are both pros and cons to this strategy, however. We’ll discuss this in more detail at a later time, so be sure to check back, or contact us if you would like to discuss it in greater depth now.
Another web faux pas is not having a way to complete the sale or lead generation process online. There are situations where companies have a reason for not implementing an e-commerce platform (for example, they do not sell directly to scientists) but there is never a reason not to at minimum capture lead information on your website. Some people will find filling out an online request for more information or performing an online purchase easier or simply preferable to calling to inquire about a product or faxing / calling in an order. You want potential customers to progress with the lead / sale process in the way they find easiest. Taking into account the preference of your customers by utilizing these relatively easy measures helps lower the barriers to purchasing and therefore increases conversion and helps you derive more value from your website.
Having a well-designed website is about more than just the look and feel. A well-designed website will ensure that maximum value is captured from your website. It is often not possible to know how to optimize this value upon the initial design of your site, but by monitoring and analyzing your site’s analytics you can determine how to best lead take your audience of scientists and researchers from site to sale.