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All things Pharma

Getting close to the customer



Getting close to the customer

Medical technology is all about making connections – between the supplier, the customer and the end user. Erika Howman of Zeal Training Ltd explains why consultative selling is a vital strategy for medtech sales.

Over the past ten years, the evolution of the NHS into a business headed by non-clinical management has created a wave of change for its suppliers. As product differentiation has become less marked and the rate of new entrants hitting the market has increased, offering more than just the product has become essential for healthcare companies to succeed.

NHS trusts – does it?

Being ‘customer centric’ and providing ‘added value’ are common language in the healthcare industry. What is the real secret ingredient that changes the customer’s perception of us so that they regard us as consultants and advisors rather than suppliers?

Building strong business relationships is the key to success in a highly competitive and fast-moving healthcare market place, and the only way to achieve this is to build complete trust between customer and provider. If there is trust, there are real benefits to both sides.

Information flows more freely, decisions are more transparent, and understanding of each other’s position allows long-term, solution-based partnerships to develop.  Benjamin Franklin said, “Well done is better than well said.” Trust is created by what we do and how we act within a business relationship. Several elements contribute towards the establishment of trust or detract from it, as the following formula shows:

What impression do we make?

Professionalism is a precursor to establishing any sort of relationship with a customer. It could be defined as “behaving a little better than is absolutely necessary”. That might mean e-mailing a customer to thank them for their time and confirming important details of a meeting. Or letting them know that John from purchasing will be calling them to discuss their query – and then checking that John has called! It is all the little things that make the customer feel they are dealing with someone who has high standards.

Professionalism also means flexing our behavioural style to blend more with the customer’s. We should be more direct when the customer needs us to be, and more gentle when they prefer a more friendly approach. If during a call either of you is thinking “When are we going to get on with business?” there is a clash of behavioural styles. If you cut a person-orientated customer short, they may feel you are not interested in them and subconsciously see a conflict of values.

Whatever the style of customer, the general rule is that they will feel more comfortable with someone who is quite similar to them. Remember to treat all customers as they want to be treated, not as you want to treat them. Credibility with a customer can be gained through an understanding of their environment. That means knowing (and being honest about) not only your products, competitors and direct market, but also understanding what is going on in the wider world of the customer:

  • What is the latest news regarding Foundation Trusts and ISTCs?
  • How have recent management changes affected the customer’s role?

Contacts are also important in building credibility. Who do you know who can help the customer with their new project? It may be that your marketing department has been working with another customer on a similar project; or the sales director has a friend with experience in that area. How often do you reach out and ask internally for support? Building a multilevel support network can really drive positive customer relationships. A real understanding of the customer’s world lays the foundations for solution building.

The customer’s world

How we can help a customer depends largely on where they are positioned on the STOp triangle (see Figure 1).

Customers working at a strategic level within an organisation will be making ‘What’ decisions, e.g. What are the objectives for the next 5–10 years? Is this type of customer concerned with the ease of opening the device or the fact that it has colour-coded packaging? Not really. However, if these are the main benefits of the device, the focus for this customer could be structured around making the patient more able to self-care – thus decreasing nurse time and allowing that precious resource to be re-allocated.

Tactical customers are concerned with the ‘How and who’ questions and are focused on shorter timelines. They are driving through the strategy and making sure the systems work to support achievement of the overall objectives. Such a customer may need to know that supply is reliable, or that that the product works across many areas (which streamlines ordering and so reduces costs), or that a new piece of equipment is simpler to use (which reduces the number of errors).

Operational customers are focused on doing. This type of customer does want to know how easy the product is to use, because they will be using it or showing a patient how to use it. The call therefore has a different focus, as the customer is most concerned about daily practicalities and benefits to the patient.

Showing genuine interest in the customers’ world, and asking questions that help us to understand what challenges they are facing, enables us to build true solutions and sow the seeds for longer-term relationships. This is what makes the difference between being kept at arm’s length or being invited into the discussion, to advise on solutions and craft the tender document with the customer.

The feelgood factor

Reliability is demonstrated to the customer by our actions. Do we always keep our promises? Do we phone when we say we will and keep meeting dates? Are deadlines for information or tenders met without fail? If we can prove to the customer that we are reliable, they will be more inclined to call us when they need to be sure of a positive outcome or are up against a tight deadline.

Do we phone when we say we will and keep meeting dates? Are deadlines for information or tenders met without fail? If we can prove to the customer that we are reliable, they will be more inclined to call us when they need to be sure of a positive outcome or are up against a tight deadline.

Self-orientation is the greatest threat to the creation of trust. If we are talking to a customer and trying to deceive them, we are showing a high self-orientation and compromising the ability to build trust. We have all had the feeling that someone is saying one thing, but really means something else. We don’t always know why we feel this way, but we don’t trust the person – so we hold back and hide our cards to protect ourselves.

The healthcare industry works with objective data that provide the perfect backdrop for low levels of self-orientation. We don’t deceive our customers about product capability, and our tenders and pricing structures are clear. If you combine this with a true interest in your customers and a willingness to find the best solution for them, you have the springboard for a strong long-term relationship.

The establishment of trust is determined by the mindset of the people involved. If our customers trust us, they will invite us into their world – where we can help them to build solutions.

Make a difference

“Some people make things happen, some people watch things happen and some people wonder what happened.”

To be successful in a fast-moving market, we need to be involved in making things happen with our customers. 

Erika Howman is the Managing Director of Zeal Training Ltd. With 15 years’ experience in the pharmaceutical industry, Erika heads Research and Product Development at Zeal. Zeal specialises in bespoke training programmes to solve business issues that inhibit sales growth and market penetration. For more information, contact Phil Howman at philhowman@zealtraining.com or Keith Jordan at keithjordan@zealtraining.com


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