Aspen’s high level of flexibility has shown demonstrable business outcomes in addition to the attraction/retention of diverse talent, including consistently meeting sales objectives and extremely high value customer relationships.
4. AUS case study: Flexibility at Aspen Pharmacare
At Aspen Pharmacare the workplace is marked by two distinct features; (i) nearly 75% of staff work flexibly, either part-time, from home, using flexible start and finish times, or a combination of all three; and (ii) the average age of the sales force is around 60, with the youngest sales representative aged 40 and the oldest age 83 (amounting to an accumulated 1480 years of experience!). According to Greg Lan (the Managing Director) and Rob Koster (the Director of Sales and Marketing) Aspen’s high level of flexibility has shown demonstrable business outcomes in addition to the attraction/retention of diverse talent, including consistently meeting sales objectives and extremely high value customer relationships. We interviewed Koster and Lan to find out what’s going on.
Aspen Pharmacare is a South African based company which commenced operation in 2001 in Australia. The Australian arm employs 79 staff across sales, service and management roles, and of the 53 sales and marketing staff, 38 work flexibly (part-time with flexible hours). The company has a portfolio of products which generate current annual sales of around $150 million and are owned by the Aspen Group and also licensed by other companies, including pharmaceutical multinationals.
The head office is based in Sydney and every state has a storage facility so that interstate employees work can from a “regional home office”. There are 26 people in the head office who work in supply, accounts, finance and regulatory affairs, and of these staff, 8 are full-time and the remainder work flexibly. Everybody in head office “multi-tasks” (eg by answering a ringing phone or responding to a customer when needed) rather than responding according to a rigid hierarchical task allocation.
4.2 Flexibility and maturity at work
Of the 53 sales representatives at Aspen, 38 work part-time, also accessing work from home and/or flexible start and finish times. The organisation provides workstations at the Sydney office, but when and where sales staff complete their work is up to the individual. A very high level of trust and autonomy is afforded to staff at Aspen who are allocated their customers and defined sales territories and left to decide how best to conduct their sales strategy depending on the number of days they work. When workload becomes too high, or employees want more work, they can negotiate a change. This model differs markedly from many other pharmaceutical companies where flexibility in the sales force is restricted by historical cultural barriers (eg head count) which dictate a requirement for full-time sales staff.
Interestingly, within head office, where a high proportion of staff work flexibly, each team shares the workload according to capacity and hours. So, for example, a team of five in a particular department may all work part-time, but structure their days, hours and workload to ensure that all tasks are covered and deliverables are met. Rather than “job-share” Aspen has employed “work-share” as a job design strategy.
The mature age workforce at Aspen was the result of a strategic decision to employ people who had experience, a track-record, existing contacts and reliable relationships that they could bring with them to the job. Frequently, the people applying for positions in the company who bring these attributes are also mature age, and highly motivated to continue working. The company offers flexibility to respond to many of these people’s need to reduce their very heavy workloads whilst maintaining a good salary and interesting work. Tax benefits associated with fewer hours often mean that an employee’s salary is still competitive despite working part-time.
4.3 The business outcomes
(i) High quality customer relationships
Aspen has data which demonstrate the success of their sales force in comparison to their competitors. A survey conducted in 2008 by CEGEDIM of Doctors assessing pharmaceutical sales representatives showed that Aspen ranked higher than many other companies on their objective and ethical behaviour, quality of relationships, flexible and adaptive behaviour and the ability to handle questions and objections. Some sales staff at Aspen who service regional Australia actually stay with the Doctors they sell products to, rather than hotels, an example of the close personal relationships they have established over time.
(ii) Achieving sales targets
Aspen consistently achieves its sales targets and their focus is very much on products which have a well-established and particular use, so the sales staff know where and how the products should sell. Their sales strategy is deliberately non-aggressive, they provide the information without pushing and because of many of their long-term relationships, individual sales staff know the products a particular customer will want.
(iii) Positive work environment
Staff concentrate on their core activities at Aspen and because the company is small and flexible, sales staff spend only essential time on administration and additional activities. The work environment is positive and employees can discuss their flexibility requirements openly with colleagues and management. All internal salaries for sales staff are equal, so people can move around, take-up or reduce their workload without the hierarchical constraints found in more rigid workforce structures. According to Lan and Koster salary is not the driving motivational factor for staff, rather work-life balance, work satisfaction and customer relationships are the drivers for engagement.
The organisational model of Aspen Pharmacare is unique in the Australian pharmaceutical industry and there are elements of it which are made possible because of size and autonomy from their global parent and which may not be possible in a larger Australian pharmaceutical. However, in terms of the mindset and culture around flexibility, the elements of openness, responsiveness, trust and autonomy within the organisation could be useful lessons for other companies employing a sales workforce who are struggling with flexibility for this group.
For more information about Aspen Pharmacare, go to www.aspenpharma.com.au. Thanks to Greg Lan (Managing Director) and Rob Koster (Director of Sales and Marketing) for sharing their experiences.
Content Last Reviewed On July 16, 2018