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All things Pharma

Selling in the healthcare sector


In our February issue, Gary May’s article ‘Selling in a buyer’s market’ looked at applications of classic sales theory to the healthcare market. In this issue, we look at the other side of the coin: sector-specific approaches to medical technology sales.

Healthcare sales practice undoubtedly benefits from approaches driven by general sales theory. All sales processes involve certain basic features: customer interaction, relationship building, the establishment of successful communication based on mutual respect and trust. There may even be a place on the table for that Holy Grail of selling, the win-win outcome.

However, alongside that, healthcare sales professionals also need to be aware of strategies that have been developed in the context of the medical technologies industry and its market. The customers, whether end users or procurement specialists, are already experts in everything relating to the product or service: how it works, how it will be used, its clinical and cost-effectiveness. Building sustainable relationships with these customers requires the sales professional to take their knowledge, opinions, needs and preferences very seriously. In this field, concepts such as partnership and key account selling are crucial for success.

We asked three industry experts who have written for On Target in the past to tell us what, in their view, are the key principles of selling in the healthcare sector.

1. Partnership and passion

To sell effectively in the medical technology industry, product and service knowledge is paramount. You must be seen as an expert in your field, and you must have full up-to-date knowledge not only of your products and services, but also of the marketplace and the therapy area that you are working in. Anything less will have you found wanting, and your customer’s respect for you and trust in you will diminish.

The same goes for planning and preparation. It is essential that proper plans are put in place (with back-ups), and that time is taken to review progress and prepare effectively. Planning can be seen as a chore by action-orientated sales people, but it is a must if you are to be successful.

You have to operate in a ‘partnership’ fashion with your customers. In their eyes, you are not there just to ‘sell’ but to assist them in overcoming their challenges and finding solutions to help them deliver better patient care and outcomes. The traditional ‘staged’ selling model doesn’t work with these customers, and a partnership cannot be created if the conversations are one-way or ‘leading’ in nature. There has to be two-way open dialogue; and in many ways, the sales person must in effect act as a coach. In my opinion, all sales people should be trained in performance coaching skills if they are to be effective in creating productive partnerships with customers.

Also, in terms of the partnership concept, do you have a real partnership with your line manager – or is there a ‘direct report’ scenario whereby traditional authority rules the roost? There are still too many sales executives wary or even fearful of their managers and their managers’ approaches and intentions. This is unacceptable, and I firmly believe that the manager-sales executive ‘duet’ should be a strong partnership based on mutual goals and agreed working approaches and behaviours.

Finally – and perhaps this should be the first thing to consider – how do you view yourself: as an employee or as a self-employed business person? The vast majority of medical technology sales people are employees, but an ‘employee’ mentality can often lead to average performance: doing just enough to hit targets in order to stay employed and earn bonuses. This may lead to complacency, meaning that you never hit your full potential. If you take the approach that it is ‘your business’ and that you are fully responsible for delivering excellence for your customers, it will greatly improve your focus, drive and determination. A good question to ask is: “What would I do if this was my business and my livelihood depended on it?” When I put this question to sales managers and executives, it’s amazing how rapid and focused their answers are. It’s also interesting to see their reaction when I then ask: “So what is stopping you?”

Good planning and thorough knowledge of the marketplace and therapy area, coupled with a partnership approach to both customers and managers, are the basics of successful selling in healthcare. Becoming an effective coach and having a mindset that says “This is my business” make you stand out from the crowd.

Allan Mackintosh, performance coach, author, speaker and founder of Performance Management Coaching

2. Know your customer

a) Listen to your customer. Ask open-ended questions. Explore where the customer has problems with existing solutions, and define with him/her what a better solution would deliver. Find out who else in the buying organisation would be interested in a better solution.

b) Know your customer. Ensure that you have identified all those who may influence the purchase decision, and obtain the relevant information from them. You may be surprised at who actually has the decisive role in making the purchasing selection.

c) Now apply your knowledge of the features, advantages and benefits of your product to address the problems you have identified in order to achieve a better solution for your customer. Tailor your selling points to the problems identified by the customers, and direct them to the benefits that your product delivers.

d) Ensure that you can point to real customer experience of the successful use of your product. Research on customer experiences and usability trials are a good start, ahead of more detailed and expensive product test trials. Universities are an excellent resource to obtain this information, and frequently have funds to offset some of the costs.

e) Understand the economic benefits of your products. Will the improved healthcare outcomes be shown in better patient care, reduced costs, or both?

f) Be prepared to sell on the design features of your product. These days, customers and patients expect all products to be easy and obvious to use. Update the design of your products regularly to keep ahead of the competition!

Chris Fuller, Health Design & Technology Institute, Coventry University

3. Key Account Management

There is no doubt that sales of medical technologies – indeed almost any sales to the NHS – now involve a significantly greater degree of investment than before. This is represented by an increase in time and research, and an expanded customer base with perhaps many additional tiers of decision-makers. This new complexity of the marketplace calls for a new approach.

The Key Account Management (KAM) approach is much-discussed at present, and there is no doubt that it offers real advantages. However – and this is a major consideration – KAM requires a serious investment in training and development, and the adoption of wholly new skill sets. A company with a conventional ‘sales force’ will probably find that up to 50% cannot migrate into the new selling environment.

In addition, KAM offers a distinctly structured selling style, and this in itself carries inherent dangers. Often a key account manager will amass great rafts of customer intelligence that are collated within an impressive account plan. There is a danger of being bewitched by the sheer breadth of intelligence, rather than applying robust checking and testing procedures so as to include only what adds real insight into the account. For example, many NHS organisations will place strong emphasis on delivering quality, enriching the patient experience, offering equity and choice… but in practice, the real driver will be financial balance.

There is also a danger that, mesmerised by the quality of the account plan, the key account manager may forget that this plan still revolves around people and still requires strong selling skills.

Finally, to build high-quality and sustainable business relationships with customer organisations, it is important to look for the ‘triple win’: a win for your organisation, for the customer, and for the end user (often a patient). Only by developing such a mindset will account managers and sales organisations be able to enter into truly collaborative partnerships that deliver meaningful value.

There’s one final point. Often, sales organisations will bear the investment, pain and risk involved in shifting their organisation to a KAM-based approach. They can spend considerable time developing quality insights, and ultimately offer a great ‘triple win’ outcome to their customer – who then abandons them for a competitor offering a slightly reduced price. The message here is that you must educate your customer organisations to recognise that KAM offers real benefits to all partners in the long term, and requires ‘buy-in’ and ownership by all concerned.

Gerry Duffy, Managing Director, WhiteWater Rapid Solutions Ltd


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