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Breaking down barriers



Selling high-tech products in the UK medical devices sector can sometimes appear an uphill struggle. William D. Allan, Managing Director of Diomed Ltd, assesses the challenges faced by new medical technologies and how they can be overcome.

Most new products provide the ‘lifeblood’ for growing companies in all industries. Look at the incredible speed of development shown by consumer electronics. No sooner has Nintendo or Apple launched a new platform technology than another seems to come along close behind.

In the medical technology industry, the product lifecycles are longer but the focus on innovation will continue. Uptake of new technologies has been a discussion point within the NHS for some time. The territory manager introducing a product innovation to the clinical community faces more challenges now than at any time in the past.

Slow on the uptake

“The late and slow uptake of innovative technologies by the NHS has long been a weakness of our healthcare system, and was highlighted in the first influential Wanless Report,” commented John Wilkinson, Director General of the ABHI, at the end of 2007.

The Government appears supportive of the need for innovation in healthcare technology. The Health Industries Task Force and, more recently, the Ministerial Medical Technology Strategy Group/Health Innovation Council have recognised the scope for innovation in the medtech industry – which has been selected as one of six new technology areas central to the UK’s future prosperity in a report published recently by the Council for Science and Technology (the Government’s top advisory group on science and technology).

The UK medical devices market is the fourth largest in Europe (valued at around £7.2bn), behind Germany, France and Italy. According to the ABHI, healthcare markets are growing at 7–12% per year, and the estimated world market by 2015 is £240bn. Investment in research and development in the UK medtech sector is around 5.1% of sales, and reached around £257m in 2004–5. Employment within the UK medtech industry is estimated to have reached 55,000.

We have a clinical community that appears strongly interested in new technology, and a Government that is apparently supportive. Why then is the market so slow to embrace innovations that are more than incremental?

The answer probably lies in changing accountabilities within the NHS. Financial administration has shifted the balance of power to Business Managers and Finance Directors, while clinical governance and the introduction of HRGs, NICE guidance and the need for long-term outcome-based evidence have generated considerable resistance to short-term uptake of innovation.

Introducing new technologies

How does this affect the sales people who bring these technology innovations to life? Product innovations remain critical to business health, but they require careful pre-launch and introduction planning at corporate and territory level.

The selling strategy will need to change if you are selling a product that is:
• new for your company
• new for your entire industry, product category or region
• a new extension of an existing product line
• a new enhancement of an existing product
• a new combination of existing products and/or services
• a bespoke product created for a single target customer.

Each of these requires a different tactical approach. Much also depends on territory dynamics, but behind each successful new product introduction lie several common elements that are fundamentals of the sales process:

1. Training and product knowledge. Get comfortable with the technology and the challenges you are likely to encounter from your customers. Get some feedback from your colleagues and manager. Make sure your demonstrations are flawless and your command of the marketing materials equally strong. Clearly summarise for yourself the benefits of the new technology on three platforms:
• Clinical outcome – how does it perform compared to its predecessor and current benchmark technologies/products?
• User benefits – what are the benefits to the clinician in terms of utility, convenience and timesaving?
• Economic benefit – what level of savings or increased productivity is possible using the new technology? Be clear about how to justify your price premium in quantifiable terms.

2. Targeting. Who will you call on first? Do you identify the early adopters in your territory, or your key customers? There are no absolute answers, but a clear road map or call plan is vital.

3. Product introduction and demonstration. As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a good first impression. Careful preparation of your product introduction and demonstration is absolutely vital. Ensuring a positive first experience for the target clinician remains the goal.

Effective sales people increasingly have to be educators who can knit together the complex network of influencers and decision makers in the modern NHS environment. The launch and successful uptake of new medical technologies remains a critical part of this role.

Adding value

With high-tech equipment of high unit cost, such as capital surgical products, it is vital that the sales person is physically there to coach the customer through the product demonstration and the procedures of use:
• Be patient. Read your customer and the signs. Troubleshoot the other influencers in the decision-making process and bring them together. Bring in outside reference points, such as the key surgeon in the next territory who has just committed to the product.
• Be tenacious. Keep a rigorous follow-up programme in place after the sale. Learn from the feedback at all steps of the introduction, evaluation and trial process. Set reasonable but stretching expectations for uptake.
• Communicate. Use your network of colleagues, managers and customers both to publicise success and to understand objections in more depth. In particular, feedback to the marketing team the need for changes to promotional messages in the light of your own experience.

Take the high road

Effective sales people increasingly have to be educators who can knit together the complex network of influencers and decision makers in the modern NHS environment. The launch and successful uptake of new medical technologies remains a critical part of this role.

The successful uptake of new product technologies in surgical, diagnostic and medical practice will continue to determine not only commercial success in the UK, but also clinically effective outcomes for British patients.

William D. Allan is Managing Director of Diomed Ltd, a specialist supplier of vein care technologies that has pioneered the use of diode laser surgery in the UK. For more information, visit www.diomeduk.com.


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