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All things Pharma

The human touch

Managing your promotional budget presents difficult choices as the routes to market become more complex and varied. Charles Hughes, UK Field Sales Support Manager at Mediplus Ltd, argues that there is no substitute for developing an expert sales team and strong customer relationships.

In the medical devices sector, one of the most challenging business environments in the commercial world, directors and managers constantly ask: How can we make a difference: how can we set ourselves apart from the competition and become our customers’ first choice when they are looking for the type of products we sell?

Increasingly, marketers are questioning whether they should spend thousands of pounds of the marketing budget on exhibitions – which are usually dominated by the global corporations, and rarely (if ever) capitalised on fully by the SME. Alternatively, should we buck the occupational trend of modern-day business and invest in quality personnel, born of a measured and calculated recruitment, retention and training strategy?

I believe that the companies most likely to hold the ‘first choice’ status have a sales team who are well renowned and respected by their customers – and are regarded as a solution provider and an integral part of their team. There is no substitute for supporting a quality range of products with high levels of customer service. It is the territory manager who is ultimately going to make a difference, by providing both of these aspects more effectively than anyone else.

Harrogate is my home

I regard a marketing budget as a luxury: something to cherish and use wisely. It’s a carefully planned series of investments that identifies, through its implementation, a healthy return in the guise of increased sales. Or is it?

At the last national exhibition or conference you attended, you probably spent – what, £5,000… £7,000… £9,000 or so attending? What was your ROI? Might it be that the corporate giants have monopolised and captivated the intended audience of these events? Was your company right to think that the 300 NHS clinicians attending the free disco (including a complimentary bucketful of Pinot Grigio and a straw) would love them and buy their products for ever?

What the customers really want is very simple. They want to know how you can help them save time, save money and improve patient care. They don’t want pens and Post-It notes: they want to be supported and taught how to be a better provider of healthcare. So how are we going to do that?

Don’t call the doctor

Our healthcare market is fiercely competitive, with a multitude of companies fighting for small and varied amounts of business. Ever since it was discovered that a hospital could go ‘into the red’, there has been the inevitable excuse that this is a financially challenged system. The NHS has been in the red since Aneurin Bevan blessed us with it. Experts claim they can forecast illness, accidents, disease and death rates and their impending impact on the NHS for the next 25 years. I can only assume that these forecasters were trained to the very highest standard of forecasting during their apprenticeships in the Met Office.

The well rehearsed line “As you know, this hospital is seriously in the red” is always the first line of defence against the medical device representative – who just may be able to save them a thousand pounds per patient, rather than a penny per plaster! To be able to provide the NHS with the financial stability it craves, industry – now more than ever – has to work in partnership with it. We have to provide well-trained, appropriately qualified and respected territory managers who can assist the clinician in changing their practice for the better both clinically and economically. Clinicians, with the help of those controlling the budgets, must be provided with irrefutable clinical advantages and an evidence-based business case.

Once that has been achieved, it comes down to one thing: people.

Making the difference

Healthcare buyers are blessed with enormous choice. Catalogues full of ‘me-too’ products fall through their letter boxes every day. So what makes the difference? How do we set ourselves apart? It’s the people, and the quality of the partnerships and relationships that actually exist.

We won a tender to be a ‘preferred supplier’ to a large Strategic Health Authority about eight months ago. The business was worth about £80,000 per annum. However, we have not seen a penny of it. Why? Even though the prices we submitted were acceptable, they have been buying their goods (for the most part identical to ours) from a company that also won the tender and was 50p per unit more expensive than us.

Why did this happen? Simple: the SHA had a sound and mutually beneficial partnership with the firm. They knew the representative by name and described him as a wonderful ambassador for his company. He was a respected consultant on his product area and was regarded as an integral part of the clinical team. He was the difference. He showed them how their hospital could save time and money and make things a lot better for the patient and the clinician.

It could have been Johnson & Johnson up against Smith & Nephew, or GE Healthcare against Vital Signs, or McDonald’s against Burger King. All are large companies with many similar offerings. It was him: he made the difference.

Don’t blame me

…it’s not my fault we lost that tender. Who is to blame when we lose business? As an industry it’s up to us, through superior field-based territory management, to help the NHS understand that there can be serious financial benefits to a small change in clinical practice. Here are two classic excuses:

1. The competitor was less expensive, and the specification clearly suggested that there was one main contender.

So why was your sales representative not the one whose relationship with the clinical and administrative personnel influenced the decision-making process? Many sales people take initial rejection too easily and regard hurdles as insurmountable. As their sales manager, you have a responsibility to show them how to manage the account. Regardless of how impressive they appear, you can save yourself a week of sleepless nights by regularly showing them how it should be done.

2. We didn’t know the tender was coming out.

If your team maintained strong relationships with the decision-making committee, they would know when it was coming out and who the front runner was. Such is the size of the NHS procurement machine and the difficulties it faces, some tenders never come to any sort of conclusion. I know this: I’ve been there. But if you are secure in the quality of your key account knowledge, and you always ask your customers the key questions, you would have known this too. Right?

There are hubs and central procurement bodies and a myriad ‘buying departments’ that all get involved before the new forceps hit the Mayo tray. (Is it just me, or does everyone else send a quote to four different postcodes to sell kit to a hospital in a different county?) No matter what the size of your organisation, it is important to deal with the NHS decision-makers at the highest level.

But if your ground troops are not the best at what they do and are not already on the move, what is the point of an air strike? You have to be ground smart as well as air smart. You must be seen as a partner, not just a provider.

Lessons of history

I still firmly believe that even when we are dealing with e-tenders, central procurement, collaborative hubs, supply chains, etc, there is no substitute for the immortal and reliable, highly-regarded sales representative. To summarise:

• Take time and care when you recruit. Your sales team have to think the same way you do. You need to be able to mould them into technicians and masters of your craft.

• A well-trained, motivated, appropriately monitored territory manager providing affordable high-quality products with high levels of customer service is worth a thousand ‘MBA manual’ suggestions.

• The sales team must sell everything in their bag to everyone who matters, every single day. The best investment of time and money is getting to know your customers and their needs better than anyone else does.

One last thought: why don’t all companies include a contact number on their website? Well, my customers tell me there are two likely reasons. One is that the company is not geared up to deal with humans. The other is that it simply regards people phoning up to spend their money on its products as a costly inconvenience. Is that how you want to be perceived?

Charles Hughes is UK Field Sales Support Manager at Mediplus Ltd. Based in High Wycombe, Mediplus develops medical devices for the urology, gynaecology, gastroenterology, anaesthetics and general surgery markets.

 There is no substitute for supporting a quality range of products with high levels of customer service. It is the territory manager who is ultimately going to make a difference, by providing both of these aspects more effectively than anyone else.

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