As companies rely more and more on preferred meeting suppliers to help support their business goals and strategic vision, establishing partnerships with these vendors is becoming paramount for success. That means tossing aside the traditional view of the customer/vendor relationship and treating suppliers more as business partners with a vested interest in the success of the event as well as the overall corporate goals.

Sound like a lofty ambition? Perhaps, but at Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp., the meeting solutions department is embarking on this strategy through a process they call “supplier relationship management.” And it's working. The process involves bringing vendors and internal stakeholders together to establish mutually beneficial performance targets and dual accountability for all projects.

Focus on Relationships

The centralized meetings management model at Novartis involves meeting professionals who act as account managers, liaising between internal clients and third-party logistics vendors to ensure the meeting is executed according to the client's standards. Because the company has five preferred third-party planning companies that are brought in to handle meeting logistics and four preferred hotel chains, ensuring consistency and accountability is critical.

“Our preferred suppliers are an extension of the company and play a vital role in helping Novartis achieve its strategic goals,” says Alice Woychik, director of meeting solutions for Novartis, East Hanover, N.J. The company developed a five-step SRM process for preferred meeting logistics providers in the first quarter of 2008 and will be rolling out a similar process with its preferred hotel chains later this year.

Speaking at the Fourth Annual Pharmaceutical Meeting Planners Forum, organized by Medical Meetings magazine and the Center for Business Intelligence, and held in Baltimore last March, Woychik explained the process. We followed up with her to get more details.

Step 1:

Supplier Qualification

A core team consisting of Novartis stakeholders and key personnel from the meetings and strategic sourcing departments develop qualifying criteria for vendor assessment that is consistent across all suppliers. This step mandates that vendors operate using Novartis' uniform processes to ensure consistency across all meetings.

That means having all logistics vendors use the company's standard software template when creating meeting invitations for attendees to ensure a consistent look and feel across all events, and requiring that all outsourced logistics staff be up to speed on any terms and conditions Novartis uses in its meeting contracts.

“When a logistics vendor is operating a program for us on site at one of our preferred hotel chains, they need to be familiar with the terms and conditions in our contracts and hold the hotel accountable for delivering on those contractual terms,” says Woychik. Novartis brought in outsourced logistics staff to complete a half-day training session to ensure they were up to speed on the company's contracts.

Her team also requires that logistics vendors have a roster of dedicated staff who are available for Novartis whenever the company requires additional resources. Another area the meeting solutions team has established parameters around is its policies for handling VIP attendees. “We ask our logistics vendors to maintain dossiers on our VIPs. When they service VIPs at meetings, we ask that vendors establish a control center on site that has a land-line phone for specific hours during the event,” says Woychik. Any request that comes in from a VIP must be resolved within 30 minutes and a confirmation of the resolution must be logged.

Step 2:

Supplier Segmentation

Since different business units may have different meeting planning and reporting requirements, suppliers should be evaluated based on these needs. Supplier segmentation ensures that the Novartis team is analyzing supplier data from different types of meetings in a consistent manner.

In this step, data is typically segmented by meeting type (internal, external) and meeting location, says Woychik. For example, if Novartis is executing an investigator meeting, the supplier will need to track and report on different data than that for a speaker training meeting. “It is our responsibility to provide guidance to the vendor as to what they should be reporting on for each meeting and how they may need to adapt to operate the event,” she adds.

One such variable is the state where the meeting is held. Because regulatory guidelines on aspects such as monetary caps for meal functions for healthcare professionals vary by state, vendors that are operating food and beverage functions must be conscious of the guidelines for that location.

Step 3:

Supplier Performance Measurement

“This is where we focus on the operational performance of each supplier,” says Woychik. That includes setting specific key performance indicators and metrics for measuring supplier performance and getting supplier buy-in on these metrics. “We have a discussion with the vendor to get their feedback and see if they have any additional things they would like to be measured on. Then we come to an agreement,” she says. Key performance indicators are laid out in each vendor's service agreement and typically cover such components as quality of service, cost or economic value, innovation, compliance, and assurance of supply or capacity.

Step 4:

Supplier Assessment

Here, suppliers are measured on whether or not they are meeting the previously established KPIs and metrics. “We review these on a quarterly basis with our core team of stakeholders and an extended team that includes those employees who utilize the services of the supplier.” Vendors are at the table during these review meetings to discuss performance data and the team meets with each vendor separately to provide feedback. “Because we manage so many meetings, we're really trying to identify and address trends in performance with this step, as opposed to focusing on one-off performance issues that may have occurred.”

Woychik says that while this two-way dialogue can be very beneficial in managing performance, the challenge is in ensuring the feedback is constructive. “The best scenario is if the [internal client] can provide the vendor with some feedback prior to the sit-down, so the vendor has a chance to digest that information. Sometimes they are presented with new information in that discussion that they were previously unaware of. That can be a bit awkward.”

Woychik is quick to note that if the discussion format is not working for a particular vendor, the team will also rely on survey data collected from meeting attendees. “We will summarize the data and share those results with the vendor.”

Step 5:

Supplier Relationship Optimization

In this step, Novartis aims to optimize supplier performance with a focus on future development. These discussions involve analyzing what is going right and what is going wrong and determining how both parties can better work together to further the company's strategic objectives.

The challenge here, says Woychik, is that “we're so focused on the day-to-day aspects of planning the meeting, it's difficult sometimes to look further into the future.”

It's an opportunity the company believes is very important, she says. “We don't want to be an organization that is standing still. We want to constantly push forward to the next level and evaluate how our vendor partners can help us get there.”

A Symbiotic Relationship

Woychik says the key to developing successful partnerships with suppliers is to be proactive, looking at your core objectives as a team and as a company and communicating those to vendors, she says. But in a service-oriented industry like meetings, establishing metrics to quantify performance may make some suppliers weary. “For the vendors, there is a part of the process that they don't have control over and that can be pretty daunting, like when asked to deliver a product launch for us four times faster than a standard cycle time — knowing they would be measured on their performance.”

But Woychik is quick to note that performance shouldn't be overengineered under this system. A common pitfall to avoid: developing more KPIs than are necessary. “When we first came out with this process, we thought we needed a big list of KPIs, but in reality many aspects of performance roll up under an overall indicator that is enough to tell you whether or not the performance level is really there.”

Woychik and her team also spent a lot of time communicating the process to the vendors during the initial rollout. She advises planners to make sure it is a two-way conversation. “Don't develop all the KPIs on your own.” It should be a discussion and an agreement that the meetings department and the vendor come to together, and planners should get all the stakeholders involved in the discussion.

“It has to be an open dialogue where both parties have an opportunity to address issues and put them on the table,” she says. “At the end of the day you want your objectives to be met or exceeded and you want your supplier to succeed, because that is how you both win together.”

Need for Speed

The supplier relationship process at Novartis has already led to an innovation in technology that has helped the meeting solutions department become more productive. In the past, the team would build custom registration Web sites for each meeting — a process that could often take up to two weeks' time to complete. As a result of bringing vendors in to brainstorm ways to accelerate their process, the idea came about to use a software tool that allows users to build registration sites from a template. “We went from spending two weeks on building these sites, to creating and building them in a single afternoon,” says Alice Woychik, director of meeting solutions, Novartis, East Hanover, N.J. Starting this year, the team migrated over to the new software tool for all its meetings and no longer builds homegrown sites for each event.

More On/Meetingsnet.com

• For more coverage of the Fourth Annual Pharmaceutical Meeting Planners Forum, visit meetingsnet.com/medical meetings and check out the cover stories in the June 2008 issue. For info on upcoming conferences, visit www.pharmameetingplanners.com/west and www.pharmameetingplanners.com.

Pulling Off a Product Launch

The five-step supplier relationship management process at Novartis involves a significant time commitment from Alice Woychik, director of meeting solutions, Novartis, East Hanover, N.J; and Michael Bruckner, director, strategic sourcing, who co-lead the team that is responsible for managing the model. But Novartis has good reason to invest effort in the process for both its meeting logistics and hotel partners; the success of its events often lies in their hands.

Take the product launch meeting Woychik and her team executed in Dallas last June for 3,200 attendees — with just 10 days lead time. “That was a critical moment when we really needed to rely on our partnerships with suppliers if we were going to pull this off,” recalls Woychik.

The reason for the crunch will be very familiar to pharma planners: The drug needed to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration before the team could finalize any plans for the launch, and once the approval came through, the drug needed to be launched immediately.

Woychik knew the team would have to abandon any preconceived notions they had about how a product launch should go. They began sourcing hotels in advance, so when they got the go-ahead, they could sign the contract immediately. Partnering with vendors and internal stakeholders, the group also got on a conference call to brainstorm “innovative ideas for accelerating the planning process,” says Woychik.

Working with hotel and logistics vendors, the meeting solutions team took some big risks. “We worked with our travel vendor to do an air analysis and book 3,200 attendees on flights based on their location,” says Woychik. “Attendees are conditioned to making their own travel arrangements, so we developed a communication plan to let them know their airfare was being booked for them. We also booked hotel rooms for attendees based on the roster and managed an RSVP process within 24 hours.”

The meeting went off smoothly and is still viewed within the company as one of the most successful product launches ever — an achievement Woychik says would have been impossible without the efforts of her suppliers and their willingness to jump onboard to make the meeting happen.

“Everyone — including our suppliers — developed a can-do attitude after that initial meeting,” recalls Woychik. “They basically told us, ‘We are going to make this happen with you.’ I think by engaging the suppliers in that initial brainstorming session, we got their buy-in and everyone had a stake in making the meeting happen. I know if we didn't have those great relationships in place, it would not have been nearly as successful.”