Two Ways to Set-Ups

Edition: November 2002 - Vol 10 Number 11
Article#: 1358
Author: Repertoire

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, if that cat is a physician office set-up. These days, either a high-touch or high-tech approach can get the job done – so long as it’s based on responsiveness, plenty of options and solid customer service.

Tarheel Physicians Supply in Wilmington, NC, prefers a high-touch approach. And it is paying off handsomely.

Sales of individual pieces of equipment – e.g., upgrades, trade-ins, etc. -- have been good for Tarheel for the past year or two, says President Jerry Shelton. But in the past several months, the number of set-ups (some of them very big set-ups) has climbed.

“We just did a 24-room OB clinic, and we’re delivering a 27-room clinic the week after next,” said Shelton when he spoke with Repertoire in late September. “And this week, we presented to six doctors some plans for a 22-room clinic.”

Old-Fashioned Hand Holding

The key, says Shelton, is old-fashioned hand-holding, even in these high-tech times. “Today, people are looking for somebody to give them advice, show them options,” he says. As an example, he points to a three-hour meeting he had recently with six doctors and their business manager to discuss their set-up plans.

Tarheel takes advantage of its status as a local, independent distributor in the set-up business. For example, Shelton points out that some of the national companies have moved their shipping facilities farther away from North Carolina, forcing them to tack on charges to their equipment. “What they charge for equipment isn’t near as competitive as it used to be,” he says.

In addition, Tarheel has what it believes is a better way to perform set-ups. “We take the equipment into the building, bring in our crews with our drills. We mount it, we install it, we train the people on it, and afterward, we service it,” he says. Shelton himself often helps during set-up. “That’s the one time in your life you can really bond with your customers,” he says.

Contrast that to what some of the national distributors do, he says. In many cases, they ship by common carrier, then hire someone to meet the truck and install the equipment, charging X amount for each wall unit, he says.

Tarheel’s high-touch approach extends even to the way the company answers its phones. “Today, in North Carolina, you’d better call here, because everybody else is going to be voice mail,” he says.

Shelton tells a story of how, some time ago, he got a 7 a.m. call from a nurse in a practice in Lumberton, more than 80 miles from Wilmington. The practice was going to perform a colposcopy at 9:30 that morning, but needed a bulb. Shelton himself went to the warehouse, retrieved a bulb, and delivered it to the office by 8:30.

The doctor himself was standing in the back door. “I knew you’d be here, Jerry,” he said to Shelton, explaining that 15 years before, Shelton had convinced the doctor that if he gave Tarheel his business, someone from the company would always be there when needed. “That’s one reason why, when we install equipment, I’m usually there,” he says.

All this talk about high-touch isn’t to imply that Tarheel is standing still while the market moves ahead. For example, the company is putting together a quick, convenient and affordable program for office rehabs. In just about 15 minutes, Tarheel can replace an exam tabletop and provide an office with new chairs and stools, all at a competitive price, says Shelton. “We could do four, five or six rooms while they’re at lunch,” he adds.

In addition, the company finds itself responding to some very high-tech customer demands. For example, customers are inquiring more and more about paperless devices and about equipment that will link to electronic databases. One piece of equipment -- the IQMark digital ECG PDA, which fits in the palm of your hand – fits the bill, he says.

Set-Ups by the Web

Claflin Equipment Sales & Service, Warwick, RI, is pursuing quite a different strategy for set-ups, namely, marketing and selling them through the Internet. The company still does a good deal of face-to-face work in its territory, but it hopes to open up a whole new market shortly.

Originally part of 185-year-old Claflin Co., Claflin Equipment was spun off some years ago so it could focus exclusively on the sales and service of equipment to hospitals and physicians offices. The two companies have separate sales forces, who share leads with one another frequently.

Last year, Claflin Equipment set up more than 250 exam suites, 95 percent of which were in New England, says President Normand Chevrette. But it wants to double that number soon, thanks in large part to its new Web tools.

Claflin Equipment is no newcomer to the Web, having had a website for three years. But the company found that selling via the Web was not as easy as it had originally thought. “I found out you can’t subcontract this kind of thing,” says Chevrette. “People think they will set up a site for a couple of thousand dollars, and the sales will come. But it doesn’t happen that way.”

Just maintaining a site can cost a couple of thousand dollars a week, he says. “And you have to [bear that cost] upfront, six months before you start making sales.” The reason is that the business changes so fast. “Let’s say you have 3 or 4,000 items online,” says Chevrette. “Three or four get discontinued every day. If you rely on a subcontractor to make the changes, you’d have to call him every day, and it would never get done.”

So Chevrette hired a programmer and website sales manager to provide the necessary support.

Today, the site ( “is clean, crisp and navigable,” says Chevrette. Already, Claflin’s designer is coming up with new front-page designs, include seasonal motifs. “When you to go Macy’s or Target or Wal-Mart, there’s always the basic culture you want to see, and you feel comfortable,” says Chevrette. “But at the same time, the storefront never stays the same. And they’re always changing the products at the counter when you walk in. It’s the same thing with the web. You want to keep it crisp, and you want to keep making changes and offering promotions, so that people will keep coming back. I think this will be a huge thing for us.”

Granted, it’s in the future. But maybe not as far ahead as one might think, says Chevrette. Probably fewer than 10 percent of doctors today do set-ups online, he says. “But I look at it as being similar to the fax.” Years back, people asked why they would pay a thousand dollars for a fax machine when a postage stamp cost 12 cents. Then, within a year or two, it became an essential piece of office equipment. “I feel online shopping will be the same way,” he says. “Next year, a new group of Web-savvy physicians will be coming on. And within five years, I think physicians’ offices will push 40 percent of their products online.”

"We meet monthly to review and share ideas regarding our website,” says Mike Abbott vice president sales and marketing. “Communication and timely information is key to our customers, and our site helps us accomplish those expectations anywhere, anytime.”

The Proposition

Physicians and office managers will always need help planning set-ups and buying equipment, says Chevrette. But it won’t necessarily be face-to-face help they need.

“The market isn’t one solid shade of gray,” he says. “Forty percent of physicians in five years will be willing to speak to a brick-and-mortar company online, talk with an inside sales rep, and buy products that way. But you’ll still have that segment of the market who will want the guy walking in the door. The percentage of people buying online will increase, and those who want people in their office will decrease.

“Doctors will know that at 7 tonight, they can call someone or go online, find out exactly what they need for their offices, compare pricing, and talk to an inside sales rep – about new equipment, repairs, service, whatever’s required.”

Claflin Equipment is prepared for that day. For relatively simple pieces of equipment, it has a program with a national freight company to deliver the unit, put it in place, take away the skidding, etc.

In its Quick Ship program, Claflin stocks what it has identified as hot physician office products. The company can completely set up a physician’s office in New England within 24 hours, says Chevrette. If the office is outside Claflin’s territory, Claflin has contracted with a national freight company to pick up the products from the distributor and deliver them anywhere in the Lower 48 states within four days. “Anywhere in the country, in five days they’ll have an exam suite set up,” promises Chevrette.

Inside Sales Force

But the bigger question is, what about equipment for which the doctor really needs in-servicing? “We have two ways to go,” says Chevrette. “They can do a phone inservice with our certified biomed technicians, or they can have the manufacturer come in. We try to always promote items that have national coverage.”

Even before the actual sale is made, many practices need some consulting help about how to do a set-up. “If a doctor is brand new, he may not understand that you shouldn’t put an exam table with stirrups facing the door, or that when you set up a table, you have to know whether the drawers should open left- or right-handed, depending on where the wall is,” says Chevrette. “He might not understand patient flow, or where blood should be drawn.”

But even problems like these can be worked out over the phone, he believes. “It’s just a question of whether you believe that physicians will continue to want to see a salesperson face-to-face during the day, between 8 and 5. Or do you believe physicians will want to talk to professional people who know what they’re doing, at a convenient time, and they want to do it online or on the phone?”

Of course, that represents a challenge to the distributor. “Twenty-four-hour service can be a kick in the pants,” says Chevrette. “So how do we do it?”

Chevrette set up a rotating on-call system, involving himself and five others in the office – all of whom can answer technical questions. Every four days, each person is on call. That means that after hours, customers can touch “1” on their touch-tone phones for 24-hour customer service. They are told that an immediate page will be sent to the person on-call, and that they can expect a call back within five minutes. Because the Claflin people are on-line at home, they can answer these calls from there.

Claflin’s on-line gambit just may be working. “Just this morning, we had an order from a military base in Germany,” said Chevrette when he spoke with Repertoire. “We’ve also made military shipments to Japan and Hawaii. That’s how they buy.” He’s betting that others will follow suit.