Assessment and Selection
Note the significant effort in planning and attention to detail required up to this point—all of which is still prior to the actual assessment and selection of candidates! This approach is intentional. It is crucial to perform a distributor assessment methodically and correctly (as one of my keenest clients eloquently put it, this process should be treated “like a marriage,” as the relationship can be easy to get into but painful to get out of). This is why many astute executives have come to understand that enlisting the guidance of an external expert can be an investment that really pays off in the long run.
The above point is especially relevant for those executives focused on multiple markets and/or roles (operations, finance, marketing, sales, etc.). It can be extremely difficult for them to find the time and focus to perform the proper assessment. While the ultimate decision of which distributors to partner with lies with the principal, working with an expert on the matter can particularly: 1) mitigate the risk of rushing through and missing important considerations or details, and 2) help get buy-in from other internal stakeholders about the decision to enter the market and with whom to partner.
Another consideration that comes up frequently regarding candidate assessment is that of the business plan: Can (or do) your distributor candidates make a business plan for your planned product launch, and if so, how important is it in your decision of whether or not to entrust them with your business?
If you were to ask 10 biomedical business development executives this question, you would likely get twelve answers. But the answers that matter the most are the ones from those who have a track record of working with distributors in the emerging and frontier markets. Personally, I believe that for most emerging and frontier market distributors, the importance of their ability to submit a comprehensive business plan is overrated. I place much more value in their history of past growth, response/follow-up time, complementary call points/products, engagement of the company leadership, and level of English (or the primary language of communication).
Also, if you look closely at “good” market assessments or business plans submitted by distributors, they often have signs of being largely copied from past submissions. You may see the name or logo of an unrelated firm or category that was accidentally left in, or perhaps the file name or slides template were not updated. Likewise, the strategy might simply be “one-size-fits-all” in nature, lacking in approach specific to your products. If you read through the business plan and can mentally substitute another product from another segment for any mention of your product, then this is likely the case.
Similarly, I become concerned when a distributor candidate submits a market assessment or business plan without taking the time to learn from either me or the principal what worked well in other markets, and to find out what resources we can provide to support them (for example, if the principal is able to send clinical trainers and medical KOLs to trainings and conferences in the local market).
Finally, if the business plan is lacking in content or quality, it may just be a reflection of the distributor’s leadership’s lack of formal business training or comfort in business English. Often, such personalities make up for it by being heavily involved in sales training and customer relationships, spending much or most of their time in the field, actually selling, which can be great in terms of driving new product adoption and usage. Do I appreciate a solid, professional, tailored business plan? Absolutely. But is it a deal breaker if it’s lacking? Not necessarily. I still request one from all candidates, but what I’m looking for is:
- Do they commit to a timeframe to submit it, and then either submit on time or contact me beforehand to ask for an extension? Accountability for follow-up is crucial, especially when managing distributors remotely.
- Did their business plan incorporate field visits and discussions with potential KOLs within the industry?
- What did they learn about the competitors (or lack thereof), and how do these insights compare with what I learned when performing my own on-the-ground market assessment?
A year ago, I met a U.S.-based executive for a European wound care and regenerative medicine firm at an industry conference. This executive was responsible for a large part of the firm’s U.S. operations, in addition to finding and managing distributors in certain emerging markets (Note: Giving these two vastly different roles to a single executive is almost guaranteed to result in the poor outcomes of one or both business objectives).
Genuinely curious, I asked him about his process for identifying emerging market distributors. “They usually just hear about our products and contact us directly,” he remarked. “And how do you assess them when making your selection?” I asked. Mustering a confident grin, he replied, “I make them do a business plan!”
I am not sure what this firm’s targets are for the emerging and frontier markets. But since that conversation, I always keep an eye out for them during my travels, as their products should be well positioned for success in some of the regions in which I operate. Unfortunately, I never saw them represented at a single industry event across any of the markets in which I am active. I also have never spoken with a KOL, provider, distributor or other stakeholder in the emerging market wound care space who ever heard of them (including in markets in which they supposedly operate). That firm should have been realizing significant revenues from the emerging markets, but it seems that for now it’s just a missed opportunity. This shows that a business plan can be a valuable assessment tool, but it should not be the cornerstone of your distributor assessment.
Some additional key considerations and questions to ask during the assessment and selection phase:
- Should we segment by geography? By product? By public vs. private hospital? Or a single distributor for the whole market and portfolio?
- Will they have a dedicated sales team for your product or portfolio? If not, which team(s) will sell it, and are their calling points complementary? Do they have competing or conflicting interests?
- Is their strength in the distribution/tender process? Or in product education and clinical support? The CEO of an innovative German wound care firm I recently began working with shared information about their product launch in Mexico: They initially picked a distributor with a strong logistical competency, but eventually realized that they needed a partner with a more hands-on, clinical education background. They eventually switched, and sales in that market are now picking up significant momentum.
- Does the distributor plan to use sub-distributors (sub-contractors)?
- Do they have storage and logistics capabilities (will time and temperature/humidity-sensitive products be compromised?)
- Are they motivated to grow your business? Or are they an established, complacent firm?
- Is their size a good fit? Do they have the manpower and geographic reach for your target regions? Conversely, are they so large that they may not give your portfolio the focus required (especially important for products requiring heavy end-user support and education)?
- Are you able to get in touch with the principal(s) of the other products they distribute? Can they corroborate the candidate’s claims? Note: You’re more likely to get cooperation from the principal if they see your product positioned as complementary or totally unrelated to theirs. If they think it might take away from the focus on their products, they may not see any incentive to be helpful.
- Are they willing to demonstrate commitment by significantly investing up-front in your business (in the developing markets, this is far more important than the contract itself)?
Selecting and Enlisting Market and Distributor Assessment Consultants
As has been pointed out throughout this article, there are many good reasons to work with an external market and distributor assessment consultant for this important initiative. But we would be remiss if we didn’t take a moment to consider what qualities the consultant should have to increase the likelihood of their success.
Ideally, the consultant should have:
- Deep familiarity working with the types of biomedical products your firm seeks to distribute in the target market, and the call-points where they are sold and used
- Extensive experience and relationships in the target region (perhaps even speaking the local language)
- A strong track record of similar distribution selection and results for like-firms
Clearly, finding all three qualities in the same consultant is desirable but not always realistic. Still, I have seen cases of distributor assessments performed by consultants who have a deep knowledge of the region, but it is spread across multiple industries. Conversely, there are many firms that specialize in a niche medical/surgical specialty, but have never worked outside of the developed markets.
When choosing between consultants that do not meet all three criteria above, I recommend prioritizing criteria #1: Ensure they know your products and how they are typically sold. While they will need to consult you for specific product details, you want them to be able to independently articulate your product usage and sales process to distributor candidates. This means that if you wish to sell a cardiothoracic surgery product in Latin America, be careful about selecting a consultancy that has only sourced distributors for pharmaceuticals or over-the-counter products. The next most important factor is familiarity with the local market (or at least developing markets in general), where the payer and related systems are very different and unique, and may require an adjustment to your business model or pricing.
The emerging and frontier markets represent a tremendous opportunity for biomedical firms. Partnering with distributors and consultants to enter and grow your business in these markets is an important approach, but if not planned and executed properly, the long-term outcomes can be disappointing and costly.