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Customer access: Can we ever have dialogue?


Pharmaceutical Representative

Physicians say they are now much more likely to limit their time and dialogue with sales representatives … except for a few individuals who take a different approach.

Has access to your target customers always been so challenging? In the not-too-distant past, access to physicians was not so difficult. As long as your company was reputable, your products were at least as good as the major competitors', and you had above-average communication skills and an ability to initiate and nurture relationships, you could be assured that your call average would be acceptable and sales would follow. Today's environment is different, and not only is access to physicians growing scarcer, but access to dialogue is even more difficult. And what makes the situation more critical is that most sales managers are pushing ever harder to increase the "share of voice" of their salespeople by increasing the number of calls. Have you ever had a physician say, "Don't ask me any questions and just tell me what you have"? Physicians tell us that they are now much more likely to limit their time and dialogue with sales representatives … except for a few individuals who take a different approach.

Docs' changing world

"As a physician, there isn't much that I haven't already seen in my 20 years of practice. If I look at my typical day, only about 15% to 20% of my time is spent on the clinical side of the practice. The other 80% to 85% is spent on the business side of this enterprise. And to be honest, physicians aren't so good at that!"

This comment was made during a recent interview with a doctor who would be considered a "high-prescribing" physician for most companies. The problem, at least from this physician's perspective, is that most salespeople don't seem to understand much about the business of healthcare, either. That means that this doctor expects only to hear about the clinical features and benefits of a particular product and doesn't hear very much about how products or value-added services can help him or her to address business issues.

As a well-targeted physician, this doctor is not alone. Salespeople - all intent on spending time with the physician or the clinical staff - bombard the office. They know of his or her potential impact on products, and almost every conceivable method of gaining access has been explored, from lunches to trips to closet organizers. Many of these doctor-rep encounters amount to what we refer to as the "bump-and-howdy" in the hallway. This is not much more than a brief greeting, a short, one-sided product pitch and a signature for samples. And really, there is not much value in this interaction for either the physician or the representative. But there is a signature and, thus, a call. Physicians have stated that they sometimes believe that reps are paid for getting the signatures as opposed to selling products!

For all physicians, time is at a premium. However, even the most difficult "no-see" physicians tell us that certain sales professionals do get quality time with them. What is the secret of these reps' success in gaining access to time and dialogue with physicians?

A more informed sales professional

It seems that those with access demonstrate a much more sophisticated and broad view of the business challenges their physicians, pharmacists and nurses are facing. They spend time on a regular basis studying what is going on in the healthcare provider side of the business. They are aware of the current key success factors for their customers. Ask yourself this question: Could I articulate the current major challenges being faced by doctors, nurses, pharmacists, lab techs or hospital administrators? If I dared to ask a question regarding key challenges faced by my customer, would I be conversant enough in the subject to back my probe with enough knowledge to participate credibly in the dialogue? Or would I just be taking a guess?

One physician stated that she was very impressed with the level of technical knowledge demonstrated by salespeople calling on her today. However, she also mentioned that not one of them had ever taken the initiative to speak with her or her staff about the business challenges she faced. Her perspective was that if they did know about those issues, they might be able to come up with ways that they could help improve both her clinical outcomes and business performance.

She continued to say that a salesperson with that understanding would certainly set him or herself apart from the vast number of people with whom she speaks. This salesperson would certainly be on her "short list" of salespeople gaining time and dialogue with her and her staff.

The business of healthcare

How would you respond if you walked into a physician's office and the doctor asked you about your product's potential financial impact on his "at-risk" patients? What if a pharmacist asked you to articulate the differences or similarities that you see between DRGs and APCs or the OPPS, especially regarding your product's value in each? Could you answer that? Could you easily articulate and position a value-added resource that could improve the efficiency of a physician's practice?

These are all real-life examples of the level of dialogue we have engaged your customers in during recent field trips with sales representatives. All it takes is a bit of additional preparation to take the dialogue to a higher level of pertinence. The result of this kind of dialogue is a higher level of credibility and stronger relationships. These are all issues that your customers are facing. Could your products and value-added services be aligned to meet these new buying criteria?

Buying criteria are evolving

With the evolution of healthcare comes a new business paradigm for providers – one based upon clinical and financial outcomes. So the basis for a customer's product recommendations is going to be heavily weighted on the financial side, with quality of care, improved efficacies and improved outcomes all part of the equation.

With this in mind, the sales consultant with the greatest access to time and dialogue will be the one with a balanced understanding of clinical and financial drivers. She will spend just as much time studying the key business issues affecting her customers (perhaps by reading Modern Healthcare or American Medical News in hard copy or at their respective Web sites) as the customers do reading the clinical papers trumpeting her products.

This new higher-level sales strategist will look for innovative, creative ways to impact his customers' clinical and business performance. He will ask questions that lead to a more thorough understanding of the customers' challenges both clinically and financially.

"Doctor, I recently read a book about the evolution of what were called 'organized delivery systems.' I know that this area of the country has experimented with many different ways of managing the at-risk patient. From your perspective as a physician in the middle of all of this, how do you see your practice evolving to meet these changes and challenges?"

Many will question the need to have this kind of dialogue. Those who are going to compete in the new healthcare arena will realize that they cannot do it without this level of understanding.

Providing clinical and business value

With this new level of understanding, strategic sales consultants will not only position themselves and their products at a higher level, but they will close the door to those who still insist on quantity over quality in their interactions with customers. Customers will see the value of spending time with individuals who have this level of knowledge and expertise. And as the customers' available time to meet with salespeople gets tighter and tighter, with whom do you think they will prefer to spend it? With whom would you spend your time if you were a physician?

So how can you begin to increase your ability to succeed in this dynamic marketplace? Get out of your comfort zone! We asked one chief financial officer of a very large integrated delivery system what he thought salespeople could do to gain a long-term business relationship with him and his system. His reply was to "come around to our side of the table in the very early stages of the relationship. Learn about our budgeting process and our strategic plans. If salespeople knew this from the beginning, they might be able to help us to improve our clinical and our business performance in ways that we haven't considered before. They could visit the Web site of the Healthcare Financial Management Association and learn of our efforts to address both quality and costs. If they could do these kinds of things, I think that would provide real value to both of us and our organizations."

Consider these ideas for gaining more meaningful dialogue with key customers:

•Â Realize that moving from the "bump and howdy" to a level of sincere dialogue will take time.

•Â Understand that your customers will need to feel comfortable that you are sincere in your desire to gain additional insights into their clinical and economic issues. Dialogue is an earned right!

•Â Make a commitment of time, perhaps thirty minutes per week, devoted to understanding key issues that transcend the seven to fifteen pennies of the healthcare dollar that are devoted to pharmaceuticals. You can be certain that it is not these pennies that keep your customers awake at night!

Recognize that in dialogue, you will not always know what answer you will get from your customer. This is counter-intuitive to our "needs selling" paradigm that dictates questioning grounded only in issues and challenges that we already have solutions to.

Unlike the outcome of the "bump-and-howdy" quick hit at the sample closet, dialogue is a continuing process that builds over time. Solutions and quick remedies offered in a rapid-sequence features-and-benefits blurb are not part-and-parcel dialogue. Do not be quick to offer solutions. Seek more thorough understanding before prescribing a solution.

Do not confine this effort to your physician customers. Administrative professionals as well as nurse practitioners and physician assistants should be part of your constituency.

Last but not least, consider this: After work, when you are with family and friends, do you talk to them the same way that you do your customers? Do you use the same canned techniques to persuade family and friends to see your point of view? If the answer is no, then why do you choose to do this with your customers?

Without a doubt, we are in the midst of a strategic inflection point in the age of healthcare for both providers and sales representatives. It is a time of crisis for many of our customers. The Chinese symbol for "crisis" is made up of two separate symbols. One means "danger" and the other means "opportunity." Not one or the other, but both. For those who are looking for a higher level of relationship with their customers and for greater success, this is a time of opportunity and a time of danger. Those who stick with the old selling paradigm will find great danger ahead. Those who take a more strategic and consultative approach with their customers will find great opportunity both professionally and personally. PR

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