Teach Your Customers How to Sell

Edition: October 2001 - Vol 9 Number 10
Article#: 1086
Author: Repertoire

Sales reps often complain that when their customers face difficult economic times, they respond by sticking it to their suppliers for a price cut. That may work up to a point, but a health care entity cannot succeed by cutting costs alone, says health care marketing consultant (and Repertoire contributor) John O'Malley. In fact, health care executives need to start paying attention to what he calls the ''holy triad'' of business growth: marketing, sales and service. He shows them how to do so in his most recent book, Healthcare Marketing, Sales and Service (ACHE Management Series, Health Administration Press, Chicago ©2001).

Why should resourceful reps consider picking up some copies of this easy-to-read and practical book as gifts for their executive-level customers? Three reasons: 1) It may stimulate these executives to pursue avenues to profitability other than price-cutting when times get rough; 2) It may instill in them a greater appreciation of the sales rep's job and responsibilities; and 3) It may reinforce the rep's value as a ''business consultant'' in his or her customers' businesses.

The book defines in no uncertain terms each element of the ''holy triad.'' Marketing is defined as ''a battle for a person's mind;'' selling as ''the business of helping people help themselves succeed;'' and service as the means of providing ''lasting customer satisfaction.''


Marketing requires ''a commitment to success not unlike the commitment necessary in warfare,'' says O'Malley. That's a sentiment not likely to be embraced by many providers, at least at this point in time. Marketing's two best strategies, he continues, are:

•Do not waste time or money.

•Create an influential presence that drives your competition to self-destruction while you succeed.

Without executive leadership, any attempt at meaningful marketing will fail, says O'Malley. ''Executives must have a vision for the organization, and marketing helps them see farther, broader, sooner and with more insight than the competition.''

O'Malley loves lists, and he uses one to describe the ''ten Ps'' of health care marketing: people (employees), products (including services), profitability (''no profit, no mission''), productivity (maximize time, labor and capital), points (that is, service access points, such as hospitals, clinics and offices), pricing (which should be attractive to payers, referral sources and patients), promotion (in the sense of educating payers, plans, physicians and others about the organization and its mission), patients (instill trust in them), perception (which, as we all know, is reality) and proactivity (''Today's status quo leaders become tomorrow's followers.'').

The book spells out the basics of such marketing goals as gaining patient share, marketing new products and services, and (most important, at least to O'Malley) differentiating one's products and services. Just as reps must struggle to differentiate themselves in their customers' eyes, so too must health care executives. The author's advice for providers makes sense for sales reps as well. For example, he urges providers to educate their customers (that could be payers or patients, to name a few) on how they save them time and money. Is it with accurate testing, an off-hours hotline, or something else?

Above all, O'Malley urges providers to think retail, not health care. ''Ask yourself, how would Neiman Marcus run a hospital? How would Nordstrom operate a skilled nursing facility? How would Tiffany & Company serve customers of a home care agency? These companies all share three things: top-line service, quality products and higher-than-average prices.'' Not bad company to keep.


O'Malley's advice about selling is basic. And if the book can get health care providers to see themselves as salespeople, out there hustling for business, there's a chance they'll better understand the supplier reps who call on them – and run more successful, profitable businesses at the same time.

These words from the author should be music to most sales reps' ears: ''Everyone sells. Some just do not know it. Everyday you sell yourself, your reputation, your trust, your ideas and your relationships to others. Many professionals (e.g., physicians) passively market and sell their products and services based primarily on their past reputation. However, within a given market, the more competition for a finite consumer or end-user group (e.g., patients), the more important are sales and selling skills. Healthcare professionals have a historic aversion toward sales and selling. In fact, a salesperson by any other name is still a salesperson.''

O'Malley reviews for provider executives the responsibilities of the salesperson (prospecting, questioning, following up, etc.), and breaks down the sales process in an easy-to-understand way: ''The core process that all selling concepts are based on is actually very simple. It involves getting the prospect's attention by identifying a need or problem, generating an interest in your product, creating a desire for the product (i.e., the enhancement or solution), developing conviction in the decision maker, and closing by asking the prospect for his or her business.''

In his chapter on ''Creating and Managing Great Salespeople,'' O'Malley shows the importance of supporting the sales staff through each of the following:

Planning. (''A concrete plan is necessary to turn vague marketing objectives into specific terms and actions.'')

Sales automation. (''Efficiently putting important data and key system wide information at the disposal of your salespeople is the optimal ending in sales automation.'')

Education and resources. (O'Malley identifies key characteristics of successful salespeople that providers should look for in prospects and then reinforce throughout their employment. They include resourcefulness, independence in thinking and leadership.)

Communication. (''Keeping open communications with salespeople is critical to an organization's success.'')

Compensation. (''With a little gray-matter activity and a little trial and error, you should be able to create a sales compensation program that enforces self-motivation in salespeople, supports sales objectives, and stresses your organization's goals.'')


To O'Malley, author of Ultimate Patient Satisfaction (McGraw-Hill 1997), perhaps the holiest of the holy triad is service, in the sense of providing a good experience for the patient and others who use the provider's services. He urges providers to get out of their own skin and analyze every customer encounter and relationship from the customer's point of view. ''Remember that operating procedures that are convenient for your organization might not be satisfying for your customers,'' he writes. For hardheaded, traditional-minded providers, this might be the hardest lesson of all to learn.

If you keep your customers satisfied, you will enjoy a steady flow of business from repeat customers and referrals, O'Malley tells his readers. ''Satisfied customers also minimize stress for staff, are less expensive to treat and are less likely to sue,'' he says. But if you disappoint and frustrate your customers, you will watch the staff's stress level go up. What's more, dissatisfied customers are more difficult to educate and less likely to follow their treatment regimen.

Everyone in the organization should know who his or her customers are, says O'Malley. And there are many of them, when one considers patients, family members, the general public, vendors, medical staff, etc. What's more, everyone in the organization should keep uppermost in his or her mind that customers' expectations and perceptions must become the provider organization's reality, says O'Malley. While the doctor or hospital might consider patient outcomes to be the ultimate in service yardsticks, patients might consider the quality of the food, the friendliness of the staff, or even the availability of convenient parking as being more important.

Good service and customer satisfaction begins and ends with the staff, says the author. ''An attitude of dedication, enthusiasm and consistency is paramount if you are going to provide superior customer service,'' he says. Health care executives can increase their odds of success by interviewing for attitude. O'Malley offers some pointed questions to ask during the interview process:

•''Tell me about the last time you broke the rules to serve a customer in need.''

•''Tell me about the most significant sacrifice you made to fulfill a customer's need.''

•''Tell me about the last time you had to create a policy on the spot to resolve a customer issue.''

•''Tell me about the last time you made a serious mistake dealing with a customer and how the situation was rectified.''

O'Malley believes that every employee's job description should include one or more expectations related to attitude and customer service. By doing so, the provider helps keep employees focused on customer service, teamwork and the importance of maintaining a positive attitude. One strongly worded example of such language: ''You are responsible for prioritizing your every thought, word and action in the following order of business: customer first, company second, coworkers third, and you last.''

O'Malley's book is a good primer for the health care executive who wishes to help transform his or her facility or practice into a compassionate but profitable business unit. It's simple, basic and it gets health care providers thinking in a new direction. Reps would be doing their customers a favor to pass on a copy to them.

To order a copy of Healthcare Marketing, Sales and Service: An Executive Companion (Softbound, 169 pp, Dec 2000, ISBN 1-56793-150-2, Order code 1119, $42 plus shipping), contact the HAP/ACHE Order Fulfillment Center at (301) 362-6905.