Learn how customers work

January 1, 1999
Dustin Grainger

,
Tom Stovall

Pharmaceutical Representative

Understand three key issues.

There is a major difference between top performing sales professionals and those who fall short. That key difference is in knowledge of the customer and his or her business.

When speaking with health care professionals across the United States and Canada, we hear the same issue often: "Why don't sales people try to understand us better?"

In some situations, the problem is that our understanding is simply not communicated very well. But the customer's perception is his or her reality. And that reality is that we don't seem interested: either we don't reference issues that are of importance to them, or we don't open dialogue about such issues.

This need stands out when we look at survey data we have gathered over the past seven years. In these surveys, the compiled data show that customers perceive the primary weakness of sales people as being their lack of understanding of heath care issues from a broader perspective. When interviewed, these customers say that they expect sales people to be experts in the area of their clinical focus, but they are looking for something at a higher level.

To test this, ask yourself this question: What are the three key issues facing hospitals or managed care organizations today? If you don't know the answer, then you have some homework to do.

Strategic business call strategies deal with this issue of understanding customer business needs. Are you using these questions today?

"Doctor, with the advent of managed care and the impact of capitation, what do you see as the most significant influence of these changes on you practice?"

"With the advent of physician practice management, Doctor, what is the most important impact of their influence on physician practices such as yours?"

"Vice president of marketing, in order to be a leading provider of health care, how will you differentiate your health care system from the other providers in the community?"

Sometimes the question alone is enough to gain you credibility. And the discussion you will have after asking such questions will differentiate you from 97% of all other sales people.

Health care professionals today are concerned about the future. They are concerned that the careers they laid out so carefully are now being dramatically changed. If you want to gain acceptance from these customers, you must understand how they are working within this change.

Recently we had the opportunity to meet with a physician who was making the transition from fee-for-service to capitation. He said that the most important change he saw in his practice was a move from treating "episodes of illness" to "wellness."

This doctor continued to say that the way sales reps could provide him with service is by discussing products and services from this perspective. His complaint was that sales people were continuing to take the approach they had taken when he first started practicing 15 years ago. Their focus was on treating episodes of illness.

The most obvious evidence of what happens when you don't change your approach to the business of health care is a decline in access to important customers.

When customers perceive that sales people are less knowledgeable, it becomes very difficult to gain access to the physician's time. He or she will start to require new products or indications as prerequisites for access to his/her time and attention.

Health care is rapidly changing. It is incumbent upon sales professionals to stay current on this change and to be willing to alter their approach to selling. Ask your customers what they recommend you do to keep up-to-date on issues of importance to them. Read the journals they suggest. Get online and use the various Internet resources to gather information. All of this will help you to gain a greater understanding of your customers.

And most importantly, spend part of your time engaging customers in discussions about their issues, concerns and challenges. Once you take that approach, you will discover many creative, previously overlooked ways to position your products and services. You will also develop better relationships and access, and gain a competitive advantage. PR