What Your Customers Need

Even though sales representatives haven’t been able to meet face-to-face with their customers during the COVID-19 crisis, they can still provide significant value to physicians and healthcare leaders.

A panel of experts described some of the strategies that sales reps can use during a recent virtual roundtable on “Customer Relationships Unmasked: Keeping Your Distance… and Your Influence,” organized by CMR Institute for the Life Sciences Trainers & Educators Network (LTEN).

Here are seven key takeaways from the webinar, which had more than 340 registered participants.

View Webinar Recording

7 Key Webinar Takeaways

1. Demonstrate empathy to solidify customer relationships

Faced with unprecedented clinical and financial challenges, hospital customers have experienced a level of fear and anxiety that they haven’t had before, according to Anthony D. Slonim, MD, DrPH, FACHE, president and CEO of Renown Health, an integrated health system in Reno, NV.

Understanding that fear and anxiety is important for reps to empathize and connect with these customers, said Slonim, who is also chairman of CMR Institute’s Board of Directors.

Practice-based physicians have also faced significant challenges. Gifford Lorenz, MD, a practicing pulmonologist in Savannah, GA, told the audience that his practice’s patient volume is down by one-third. Lorenz and his colleagues have adjusted their daily operations by seeing more patients through telemedicine.

Understanding how daily life has changed for physicians and hospital leaders are critical for reps to offer value during uncertain times, panelists said.

2. Be specific about objectives when inviting customers to join a virtual sales call

Webinar attendees confirmed that setting up virtual sales calls has been challenging for reps in recent months: 60% of participants reported that their reps had set up virtual calls with less than one-quarter of their customers, while 24% said their reps had secured virtual calls with between one-quarter and one-half of their customers

Lorenz, who is also an assistant clinical professor at the Medical College of Georgia, prefers when reps set up virtual meetings through his office manager or by contacting him directly via email or text. Invitations to connect virtually should be clear and concise, he said. “It shouldn’t be mysterious. It needs to be straightforward. The header should be accurate and relevant to what I do to get my interest,” he said.

Régine Villain, senior vice president of the supply chain network and chief supply chain officer at Ochsner Health System in New Orleans, LA, agreed that clarity and purpose are a winning combination. “If someone wants to get my attention, they need to be clear about what they want to talk about and what their value proposition is…. I want somebody to come with very specific information—no fluffiness, generalities, or platitudes,” she said.

Over the past few months, Villain has met virtually with her key suppliers to address pandemic-related issues, but there has been little time for “sales,” she said. Value analysis has also been put on hold, although her team plans to restart this process for key service lines like orthopedics, neurology, and cardiology in the coming months.

Right now, Villain is most receptive to invitations from reps that include specifics on potential solutions. “This is not the time to call and fish to find out information,” she said. But offering a solution “will get my attention and at least open the dialogue and get other stakeholders involved as well.”

3. Be proactive with solutions to earn suppliers’ respect

Because COVID-19 cases in New Orleans peaked at about the same time as cases in New York City, Ochsner Health System was competing for many of the same supplies, including personal protective equipment (PPE). Villain described this time as “organized chaos.” However, several vendors demonstrated their value by offering their support—before she could contact them first.

“Many suppliers reached out to me proactively to ask how they could help,” Villain said. This included suppliers with whom she had worked previously at other health systems but who did not have an existing relationship with Ochsner.

“We engaged in some very meaningful and deep interactions with many in the vendor community,” she said.

4. Remember that not all customers are working 24/7 on COVID-19 issues

In contrast to supply chain leaders like Villain, Slonim has not been spending all of his time as a health system CEO focused on COVID-related issues. In recent weeks, Slonim has continued to escalate his organization’s value-based strategy, focusing on reductions in clinical variation and similar issues.

Slonim recommends that reps look for leaders in integrated delivery networks who might be open to hearing about value-based solutions during this time. “There’s an opportunity for folks who are working with health systems to look for new partners in that system,” he said. The same is true for account managers calling on health plans. 

At the time of the webinar, Renown Health’s facilities remained closed to sales teams, but that hasn’t shut down communication. “In the last week, I have spoken with three reps by phone because we have a relationship,” Slonim said.

Suppliers who understand that integrated health systems’ “long game” is to improve quality and reduce the total cost of care have an advantage, even in times of crisis. “Early adopter companies that have been very focused on relationship building and value-adds around population health—not just sales—are the winners here,” Slonim said.

He also suggested that sales reps engage with public health leaders to find ways their companies can make a difference during the pandemic.

5. Don’t worry about the platform—focus on the message

It doesn’t matter which platform reps use during a virtual sales call with customers. What does matter is what reps say.

Villain said reps should cut to the chase during in-person and virtual customer meetings. When introducing a product or program, “you want to start off strong,” she said.

Ideally, a rep’s message should focus on value-based solutions, panelists said. This might include medication adherence support as well as resources for uninsured/underinsured patients.

Reps might also propose how their products can be used in innovative ways to complement providers’ new care delivery approaches. For example, clinicians at Renown Health are now making house calls and providing at-home infusions so patients don’t need to visit the hospital or clinic. Reps should explore opportunities to support such innovation in care delivery, Slonim suggested.

6. Leverage this downtime for training

When we polled our webinar audience, 39% said they expect to have most reps back to selling in the field by the end of June. However, nearly one-third had not yet established a timeline to restart in-person selling. Another 19% predicted reps would be back in the field sometime in the third quarter.

That means right now is a good time to train reps on improving their virtual selling skills, as well as their soft skills and market knowledge.

Villain specifically recommended that sales teams get more training to understand their customers’ businesses. She also suggested that reps learn how to identify and engage the right decision-makers in an organization. In addition, she proposed giving reps more training on how their product and competitive products fit into the market.

“It’s really important to do your research and understand the marketplace,” she said.

7. Focus on the value of human relationships

The pandemic has caused many of us to examine what we value, including human relationships. Slonim urged sales reps to use this time to recognize their shared humanity. Because everyone has gone through the crisis together, reps have a unique opportunity to connect with customers on a human level, he suggested.

Now is also a good time to return to work with a renewed purpose. “Make sure you live true to what you do for a living, which is to make the lives of people better,” Slonim said.

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