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All things Pharma

The straight deal

In the modern healthcare market, customers cannot be viewed in isolation from their organisations and the health system. Alan Connington of Innovations Factory looks at how NHS purchasing affects the process of closing a sale.

In a recent On Target the question was asked: Does healthcare sales require its own unique sales model? My answer to that question is: yes and no.

The crucial difference between selling a car and selling into the healthcare market is that in the second case, the people who make the decision to purchase are not spending their own money. They are accountable for what they spend, but ultimately it is not their money.

It is different when the buyer experiences the ‘pester power’ of the latest gadget or accessory, or has to choose between buying a new car and going on holiday. The healthcare customer feels no pressure to buy, and may even feel a pressure not to buy. Changing that pressure achieves a shift in the buyer/seller relationship, and will have an impact on how the sale is closed.

Why buy?

Much of the sales model required for selling into healthcare will look and feel similar to that for selling cars: the bottom line is still that to make a sale, the deal must be closed (done, concluded, finished) so that the customer signs on the bottom line and the goods are delivered. Selling is the act of influencing a customer to buy. But don’t let commercial voodoo guide you. There are no mysterious strategies, no manipulative tricks. Just do the deal.

Prior to engaging with any potential customer in healthcare, the questions you need to ask yourself and have answers for are:

Is my product really needed?

Will it make a difference to clinical practice?

Will it have an impact on the business of the Trust?

If you cannot answer these questions, you can be sure that the people you meet in the healthcare sales process will find you out.

Ask the family

You’re never alone with an NHS customer. Healthcare purchasing is very rarely the decision of one person, whatever the doctor, nurse or manager may think or indeed tell you.

It’s a similar scenario when you are selling a family car: the decision is a ‘family’ one, so you need to close the deal with the whole family. Close the deal with Dad and you may have the deal scuppered by Mum, and vice versa. It’s not just about who holds the purse: people who do not have the last word can still influence the final decision. To sell medical products, you need to close the deal with the whole ‘healthcare family’.

For convenience, I will break down this family into two main groups: Key Influencers (doctors, nurses, infection control committees) and Key Decision Makers (managers, procurement departments, Trust boards, Strategic Health Authorities). These two groups are not mutually exclusive, and they do not necessarily have the same structure from one Trust or hospital to another. It is crucial, therefore, to conduct a market intelligence exercise prior to engagement in order to find out who is who, who is the ‘big cheese’, who makes (or even thinks they make) the final decision on your product. Again, think of the car salesman who engages you in idle chit-chat as you walk around the showroom: he is gathering intelligence to help him close the deal.

What do the two groups want? In my experience, perhaps surprisingly, they want the same things. When you ask Key Influencers and Key Decision Makers how they would improve the interaction between sales professionals and themselves, they consistently answer that they need more specific information from the sales person that shows how the product is relevant to clinical practice and to the Trust’s overall business objectives.

Your interaction with the customer may well vary, depending on who you are talking to – but the message must remain the same. Do not let your own prejudices influence the content of the information you present to each ‘family member’. The emphasis you place on different factors may change – but this should be a result of your market intelligence, not your gut feeling.

As a whole, the sales message needs to be consistent from one presentation to another and from one person to another. Within that framework, you may need to shift from a purely clinical ‘features and benefits’ message to one that demonstrates a more thorough knowledge of a Key Influencer’s business challenges; and when you are talking to Key Decision Makers, it is equally necessary to demonstrate a detailed understanding of the business challenges and clinical challenges facing the Trust or hospital.

Give and take

What has all this got to do with ‘closing the sale’? It’s simple: in my view the sale is closed at the beginning, the middle and the end of a negotiation process. Closing the sale is a natural process that follows a logical progression, with no manipulation, no tricks of the trade, no killer closing techniques. Allow the buyer to feel that the relationship is a mature, trusting one and their time is valued. Your only responsibility as a sales person is to move the negotiation along to a conclusion.

The most vulnerable point for you as a sales person is just when you believe you have a result, the customer’s commitment to signing a purchase order: the devil may be in the detail, and further negotiations may be required to agree that detail. Remember not to get carried away by your apparent success and rush ahead: you may still have to back out if the deal doesn’t suit your profit margins or your ability to deliver.

It is tempting to leave discussion of price to the end of the process. But as the customer may well try to negotiate on price, it is important to raise the issue as early in the negotiating process as possible: this can save a lot of wasted time, effort and energy for everyone. It would be lovely if I could buy an Aston Martin for the price of a Mini, but I know it is not possible: market information and the market position of the Aston Martin tell me what its price is and what the company are likely to sell it for. Do not be afraid to discuss the price of your product. As long as that price has been positioned realistically, there should not be a problem. It is rarely advantageous to give ground on the issue of price.

Remain polite but assertive at all times. If the deal is there to be done, it will be done; if not, thank the customer politely and walk away. Negotiations should never ‘break down’ or leave either party with a bad taste in their mouth. Even when the deal cannot be closed, the ending should give both parties a sense of a positive and amicable outcome. Remember that word of mouth can destroy you, your products and your company’s reputation. You should never be left feeling apprehensive about contacting that customer again.

No jive

Many books have been written on the ‘Art and Science’ of ‘Closing the Deal’. For me, the issue is much simpler. Here are my golden rules:
No tricks: if people feel tricked or duped in any way, they will not buy from you now and may well never buy from you again. The healthcare market is a big market, but it is a small pond: a bad reputation can soon spread.

Preparation: plan, research, gather market intelligence, know who you are talking to, listen to them and understand what they want.
Establish credibility: know your marketplace, know your product and know how the product meets the needs of the market.
Presentation: present yourself and your product in a clear and professional manner.

Close the sale from the beginning: the sales process should be a natural and logical progression of ideas bringing about a decision. Be clear from the start that you are here to sell your product, and the purpose of this negotiation is to do just that.

Alan Connington is Commercial Director at Innovations Factory Ltd, an SME dedicated to helping individuals and companies develop their ideas from basic concept to full commercialisation within the healthcare sector. Innovations Factory Ltd has developed effective partnerships with NHS Trusts and other organisations in the region. Its Directors have over 60 years’ experience in the medtech sector. For more information, phone 07740 368035, e-mail alan@innovationsfactory.co.uk or visit www.innovationsfactory.co.uk.



You’re never alone with an NHS customer. Healthcare purchasing is very rarely the decision of one person, whatever the doctor, nurse or manager may think or indeed tell you.

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