The Method to Linda Phillips' Madness

Edition: October 2001 - Vol 9 Number 10
Article#: 1088
Author: Mark Thill

''There's a place for all that,'' she says. ''But I don't lead with that. I've never started a relationship by saying, 'Let's go for a drink,' or 'Let's play a round of golf.'''

Instead, Phillips starts somewhere else: The Key is respect. ''You have to earn your customers' respect,'' she says. You do that by learning about their situation and their needs. Only then can you gain their trust, and after trust, a relationship. ''I have fun with my customers,'' she adds. ''I know about their personal lives. But that came after.''

Marketing Major

Born and raised in Springfield, MA, Phillips never intended to get into sales. Her undergraduate degree – from Western New England College in Springfield – was in marketing. But when she graduated in 1983, jobs were tough to find. So, she settled on a job in outdoor-advertising sales for a small, family-owned company. It wasn't love at first sight. Six months after she joined the company, one of her customers – in the heating and plumbing industry – asked her to do sales and marketing for them.

As with many early-career jobs, the experience taught her a lot about what she didn't like.

''I realized I wasn't a desk-type person,'' she says. ''I wanted the freedom to be out and about, to run my own schedule. And I wanted to make more money.'' That's when she decided to try sales. But not just any sales.

''I still feel strongly about this,'' she says. ''I wanted to be involved in complex sales, long-term sales, new business development.'' The type of sales where once you sign up an account, you maintain and nurture the relationship.

With that in mind, she found what she wanted – selling contract furnishings for a Steelcase dealership. Her customers included large, complex organizations, such as United Technology and Pratt & Whitney, as well as banks, insurance companies and others. Some of the larger accounts involved multiple decision-makers, and the projects – often worth millions of dollars – could take from three months to a year to complete.

Phillips found herself working with designers and architects to help customers spec out exactly what they wanted in their office furnishings. ''There was a lot of designing and spec'ing, working off floor plans, and a lot of bidding,'' she recalls.

For five years she was a sales rep, and for three years after that, a sales manager. She enjoyed the challenges offered her, but after eight years, decided she wanted to grow in other directions. ''I did some soul-searching,'' she says. Her search brought her to the medical industry.

'A Lot of Hard Work'

In many ways, medical sales is a lot like the contract furnishings business, she said. ''Both are complex industries, both involve long-term selling, and both require a lot of knowledge to be truly successful.'' Phillips is a learner at heart.

But medical sales offered some things that attracted her more than other industries – autonomy, a high level of professionalism among the customers, and the ability to act as if she were running her own business.

''I knew I wanted to work with a leader in the industry, so I researched the industry intently.'' That's how she found Red Line (now McKesson Extended Care).

In 1991, Red Line was, indeed, a leader in long-term-care distribution. But in Connecticut and Massachusetts, it had a small presence. For Phillips, that was almost a plus. ''It made for an exciting challenge,'' she says. ''But my philosophy was, they had excelled in so many other areas of the country, I was sure it could happen here.''

So, in November 1991, she dug into a territory in Southwest Connecticut – Fairfield County-New Haven County – which had sales of about $400,000. ''There was a lot of cold calling, a lot of hard work,'' she says. ''Basically, I was not home the first 10 months. It was a huge commitment.'' She became active in the state nursing home association, making a point to attend all meetings.

''I tried very hard to learn the industry,'' she says. ''It's important to understand product, and I did that. But more importantly, I learned about the needs of the industry and the issues that nursing homes were facing.'' She became familiar with the key players. ''Who were the independent nursing homes? Which ones were chains? Were they national or regional chains? Who knew whom? Who was affiliated with whom?'' It was a lot to learn; Phillips loved it.

Sales in her territory grew 200 percent that first year.

Eventually, she took a new territory – central and northern Connecticut, and a small sliver in western Massachusetts.

True Consultant

The medical industry has not disappointed Linda Phillips. For one thing, she's been very successful. In fiscal year 2001, she grew her territory more than $1 million in sales, a feat that caused her to win the coveted First Place President's Award. And she has grown to relish the professionalism of her customers and the complexity of their business.

''Everybody has needs,'' she says. ''Sometimes [customers] know them, sometimes they have to be defined for them. But before you can identify their needs, you have to understand their situation.''

When Phillips talks about needs, she's talking about more than products. ''Most nursing homes need gauze, but they have other issues that are far more complicated,'' such as financial issues, Medicare B, etc. ''I get into these things pretty deeply with [my customers],'' she says. ''I know what they're spending, what they're buying. We look at cost per patient per day.''

Some of the questions she gets are easy to answer, like, ''Which wheelchair do you recommend?'' But some are harder, like, ''What is contract billing?'' She gets the answers from a number of sources. ''First, McKesson does a wonderful job of giving us the resources we need,'' she says. ''Second, I ask my customers a lot of questions. Third, I learn through my work with the associations; if you're active at the trade shows, you're listening to the issues. And fourth, I ask the manufacturers a lot of questions.''

All of that adds up to knowledge, which means respect, then trust.

''Linda is an integral part of her customers' businesses,'' says Carol Muratore, vice president of sales for McKesson Extended Care's Northern Region. It was Muratore who hired Phillips in November 1991. In fact, Phillips was Muratore's very first hire.

''When you travel with her to an account, it's impressive,'' she continues. ''People really want to talk to Linda.

''Long-term-care is very complex,'' she continues. ''You have to understand Medicare, Medicaid, reimbursement and regulatory issues. Many of her customers, including CFOs and administrators, trust her. A lot of times, they bounce ideas off her.''

Adds McKesson Extended Care President Gary Keeler, ''A lot of Linda's customers rely on her to look out for them.

''As a general rule, we sell to a lot of nurses,'' he says. ''They have so many patient care and survey issues to deal with, they're looking for a supplier to take some of those problems off their hands.'' Linda fits the bill, he says.

Says Phillips, ''If you know what you're talking about, and your customers trust and respect you, you can be successful.''

What Makes Her Tick

Although Phillips has had opportunities to enter management for McKesson, she has chosen not to do so, largely because of the travel it would involve. ''As hard as I work, my family is extremely important to me,'' she says. ''I have to draw boundaries somewhere.''

With a growing territory and three growing kids, she works long days, seldom stopping for lunch. She starts early, before the kids – 7 1/2-year-old Callie, 5 1/2-year-old Reed and 3 1/2-year-old Lindsey – wake up. She's often at it after they go to bed, picking up e-mails or plotting her next day. She calls her husband, Peter, a manager in manufacturing, a ''wonderful guy. We're a team,'' she says.

She credits her acute sense of organization with helping her keep ahead of the demands. ''I'm very, very organized,'' she says. ''I have to be. I don't have a choice.'' And she considers herself adept at seeing the forest through the trees. ''I'm very good at seeing the overall picture, constantly redefining and reorganizing my tasks to get to the end goal. I don't let minutiae bog me down.

''If something doesn't directly benefit the company or the customer, it falls to the bottom of the stack.''

And her customers take notice.

''Linda is special in actually caring personally about her accounts,'' says Stuart Fisher, vice president, purchasing and facilities management for Apple Health Care, a regional nursing home chain with 21 facilities. ''I see a lot of sales reps. She's definitely different. When she says she's going to do something, she does it, and she does it really well. She really takes it personally. Her professionalism, her loyalty to the company, are unique.

''To get a small-company feel from a major player in the market is important to us,'' he adds.

If there is one guiding principle for Phillips, it is this: ''No matter what I do, I try to do it with integrity.'' It's a habit she picked up from her parents.

''[My customers] do look at me as a business consultant,'' she adds. ''I tell them, 'I'm part of the team; I'm not here to sell you my special of the day.' And I never will do that.''

To her, integrity means ''knowing that at the end of the day, you've done the best you can for all parties involved.''


2001First Place, President's Award
2000Long-Term-Care Profitability
1999Second Place, Top Ten Sales Ranking
1998Sixth Place, Top Ten Sales Ranking
1997Long-Term-Care Profibility
1996$5 Million Sales Club
1995First Place, Top Ten Sales Ranking
1994Third Place, Top Ten Sales Ranking
1993$1 Million Sales Club

'An Integral Part of People's Businesses'

''Linda has a different approach to sales. She is very organized. Very meticulous. She pays a lot of attention to detail. And that's how she started to build her business. People trust her. She always says to her customers, 'Let's put together an action plan.' She believes in best practices. People feel that when they put their business in her hands, she will follow a recipe for success and take them down that path.''

''More than 82 percent of her customers' orders come through in an automated fashion. Remember, we're talking about nursing homes, not hospitals. To do that is a phenomenal thing.''

''Her customers can worry about spending a nickel or dime more on a product, but the true cost is in the labor and supply chain. Linda has helped them figure out how to drive those costs out. She convinces them to automate and do things more efficiently. She lets them know: 'I've done this in this particular facility, let's try it here.'''

''She has quite a reputation in Connecticut among her customers, peers, manufacturers reps – everybody who interacts with her. They say, 'Linda is the ultimate professional.' A lot of the newer people who come into the organization figure that if they can work with her, they can learn some of the things she's nailed down.'

''The most incredible thing is, she has three kids. Three kids in 10 years. She juggles career and personal life. And you'd never know by watching her that she has all these demands.''

''It's almost to the point where Linda has become an integral part of people's businesses. And long-term care is very complex.''

''When she's at an account, it's impressive. People really want to talk to her. In all of her facilities, she has almost all the business. All the service and technology offerings we have – she has in place.''

''She works well with manufacturers' reps. She leaves nothing to chance. She gives them details on everything they need to know, the angle they need to go in with. Afterward, she follows up to see what went on, and then makes sure they follow up on what they said they would do.''

''Over the years, I've offered her promotions, but they haven't been right for her, being in the middle of a family. She wouldn't cheat her family or her company. There will come a day when her children are old enough and she may choose to move up the corporate ladder.''

''We were pioneering Red Line [now McKesson Extended Care] out here. People hadn't heard of Red Line in New England. We were nobodies. A few years into it, we walked into the convention hall; people were saying, ''There they are, the women from Red Line.'' They didn't know that before we walked in, we had scrubbed baby throw-up off our shoulders.''

Carol Muratore, vice president of sales, Northern Region, McKesson Extended Care

'Proactive with Her Customers'

''One of the strengths of good sales reps is that they don't have customer churn. Linda does a business review with her customers on a regular basis. She reviews the products they're ordering. Are they using the right products? She helps them find the technology solution [e.g., electronic procurement] that fits them.''

''She always has a list of things to follow up with a customer, and an agenda of what she wants to accomplish on every call. Frequently, that agenda calls for finding ways for the customer to save money. She reviews the options, and the customer decides.''

''Linda is proactive with her customers. She doesn't wait for a competitor to come in before bringing in ways to save money.''

Gary Keeler, president, McKesson Medical Surgical Extended Care

Repertoire/HIDA Award

Linda Phillips is the second recipient of the annual Repertoire/HIDA Excellence in Sales Award. Last year's winner was Brad Jacob, a physician office sales rep for McKesson Medical Surgical.

Designed to promote and recognize sales excellence among health care distributors, the winner was chosen by representatives from Repertoire, HIDA and the manufacturing and distribution community based on the following criteria:

High-volume achievement.

Product knowledge.

Innovation in selling.

Strategic selling.

Team orientation.

Customer references.

Exceeding customer expectations.

Contributions to the industry.

Nominations were solicited.

Phillips was to be recognized at the Chairman's Industry Brunch during the HIDA2001 trade show in San Diego. In addition, she won an all-expense-paid, one-week trip for two to Jamaica, and a HIDA2001 Passport to the trade show, including trade show, education and airfare.