The HIStalk Advisory Panel is a group of hospital CIOs, hospital CMIOs, practicing physicians, and a few vendor executives who have volunteered to provide their thoughts on topical industry issues. I’ll seek their input every month or so on an important news developments and also ask the non-vendor members about their recent experience with vendors. E-mail me to suggest an issue for their consideration.
If you work for a hospital or practice, you are welcome to join the panel. I am grateful to the HIStalk Advisory Panel members for their help in making HIStalk better.
This question this time: When you are approached by a rep at a vendor’s booth at the HIMSS conference, what factors (their mannerisms, appearance, actions, handouts, etc.) make you most likely to pay attention?
He or she needs to be very outgoing and engage me. I’m generally exhausted and numb from all the activity on that floor. I have trouble sorting the wheat from the chaff.
It’s important that the booth signage and setup communicate something about the products or services the company offers. Weird, techy names and generic descriptions like, "Biodynametric. We enhance interoperability and efficiency across the continuum," and I pass on by. Second, the guy who lunges at me from the booth is another non-starter. Professional dress and demeanor combined with a pleasant introductory line usually works. "Are you having a good show?" Or, "Good afternoon. Are you interested in learning about our new line mobile device integration software?" Something like that.
A drug rep once told me, when I asked her to not waste my time and to tell me something that I did not know already, that in sales training they are told that it takes a doctor eight times to hear a message before they start registering and remembering to write their drug. Needless to say she never set foot in my office again, but later I learned that Big Pharma calls this "the rule of seven touches.” It is indeed believed that it takes that long to build a relationship based on trust. Having said that, I like to see a vendor who does not ask for my email after we just got introduced, only to bombard me with their white papers. Who does not act as if they would rather be somewhere else, but who also makes me want to see or speak to again. Who understands that I will not sign a contract at their booth and that I will not be impressed by the size of their booth or the amount of useless goodies but by their humility and knowledge. Also, since the number of doctors walking the hallways at HIMSS is dwindling and the decision and buying power is being stripped away from them, if the vendor sees an MD who is still practicing and took the time to be there, maybe he or she should listen to him before throwing a sales pitch as it may teach a thing or two about how doctors think and operate. It is ultimately the doctor who is the end user of IT and unless we talk about patients treating themselves( there seems to be no shortage of solutions for "do it yourself" under the disguise of "patient engagement") we cannot take our eyes off that ball or soon the HIT vendors will sell to …each other. And in my exam room it is getting pretty crowded.
A non-salesy and personally engaging approach works well for me, particularly ones that don’t make me feel like I’m trying to be picked up in a bar. Don’t glance at my badge before you look me in the eyes. And I particularly dislike the sales pickup lines like, “Do you have any concerns or issues about or around [fill in your self-serving topic]…” They are quite the turn-off and I will say no even if I do. Engage me and let the conversation go where it may. If there is an opportunity for a fit, things will take care of themselves.
To be honest, I generally avoid the stalkers. I put on my “don’t talk to me” face and it’s been pretty successful to date. Also, I don’t generally use HIMSS to research new products. I use it as an opportunity for face time with my current vendors.
If it actually starts with a conversation rather than a sales pitch. (How are you enjoying the show? What have you found interesting so far?)
Personally, I rarely react well to being approached by a vendor rep. My preference is to walk through their booth to get a feel for what I’m seeing on their screens or promotional details, and if I find something I find interesting, I’ll ask a rep to explain it to me then. And when they do, my preference is that they skip all the BS and just hit me with the major points, key facts, concepts etc. of their solutions. I don’t need to spend time hearing how we all understand XYZ (e.g, reimbursement, big data, ACOs, HIEs, whatever). I don’t want to spend any time chatting or building a relationship with them. Suggestion to vendor reps: think "speed dating," but focusing on your solution, not each other. You don’t really need to know what issues and challenges we’re facing — we’re all facing the same ones. I have 1,000 vendors to see today — make your few minutes count and maybe I’ll come back for more.
I know it sounds superficial, but the first impression is very important. If the person looks dirty or sloppy, I will not take time to talk to them. I feel that if they cannot put their best foot forward when representing the company, then they will not put their best foot forward with me as a customer. I also want someone who is friendly and makes eye contact. My biggest complaint at HIMSS or any show is that a lot of booth reps act like they don’t want to be there or want to be bothered talking to anyone. Friendly, energetic, and knowledgeable wins every time in my book.
Unfortunately, appearance matters. The best sales pitch is lost if you don’t look like you represent a vendor with its stuff together. I seldom visit booths at which I have not made an appointment, but taking that walk around and getting inundated with pitch after pitch can be fun sometimes. When I do, I first look to someone who appears like a professional (neat in whatever booth attire they have chosen – but I prefer business attire to the casual polo shirt.) Second, they have to be able to give me the “what we sell” pitch in two minutes or less. If they can accomplish this, the chance of me stepping into the booth to look at the product is greatly increased.
I tend to be uninterested in or entirely put off by being approached at all. The most annoying vendor hall experience I had was a vendor rep that caught sight of my badge and followed me for a while and then approached me by name as if he were another attendee. Very off-putting. I go to the vendors that I want to talk to on my own — don’t approach me. I do my homework ahead of time to determine who will have something I want to learn more about or a possible solution to a problem we have, but I will also skip them and mark them off the list of potential partners if I cannot quickly get a friendly and informed representative to pay attention.
I avoid anyone in stilettos or sexy outfits. I’m not there for sex – I’m there to learn. Someone who looks genuine and actually has a pedigree is someone I walk towards. Sex does not sell in HIT, only when trying to sell Viagra or something. Get rid of the sexy pots at HIMSS booths.
If I don’t know anything about the vendor, I need to hear a compelling elevator speech about what they do. During that speech, if they are articulate and passionate, I may stay longer. If I do, then appearance and mannerisms help keep my attention. If all they know is the elevator speech, I move on.
This falls into two categories. (1) I already know I want to see the vendor, in which case I will look for someone who is experience and can give me the real details. Or said another way, I avoid the young kids who look like it’s their first conference as well as the high-level VPs who can only give me high-level answers. (2) An unexpected surprise… maybe it’s a vendor I had heard about somewhere, or maybe they have a slogan that is intriguing or better some stats that stand out (e.g. "We save our practice 10 percent of costs a year!") Usually these are the smaller booths and there are only 2-3 people there, and they are always very helpful and grateful and give a good talk.
I’ve never been to HIMSS but I’ve been to plenty of other professional conferences where pharmaceutical reps were trying to lure me into their booths and I’ve been to the user conference of my hospital’s EHR software vendor which has their own reps and those for affiliated products lying in wait. Thus, I’m fairly confident that HIMSS would be similar. In general, I walk up the middle of the aisle slowly, feigning disinterest to get a sense of whether I have any interest at all in the products being offered. Part of my reconnaissance involves watching the interactions of the booth reps with unsuspecting passersby. Then I go back up the aisle and stop at key booths of interest. If the reps do not look professional or are cloying or annoyingly pushy, their product is crossed off my list of stops unless it’s REALLY amazing. When I stop at a booth of interest, I’ll glance at their materials if they’re with someone else (and sometimes move on if it’s not of interest). If they’re available, I’ll ask them to tell me a bit about their product. If they are straightforward, answer questions reasonably, and let their product sell itself, that’s a big plus. If they come on too strong with buzzwords and marketing hype or start asking too many "friendly" personal details (e.g., "Oh, I see from your badge you’re from Badger Falls — my Aunt Bessie’s ex-husband grew up there") I’ll say that I just wanted to get their materials and that I’m not in the market right now. Then I hightail it off to the next booth. This dramatically improves my efficiency and lets me spend quality time at the booths that are of greatest help. Even if I’m really interested in a product, it’s not efficient to deal with a rep who’s not knowledgeable or just trying to sell me a bill of goods (sometimes I’ll go back to such a booth later when a different rep is there.) When I do get a handout, if it’s pure marketing pablum, it goes straight to the circular file. I want to see details that will help me make a decision. With software-related products, a key to try to product for 10 days or a sample CD to get an actual feel for the program gives multiple bonus points in my eyes. Again, the booth is confident enough in its product that it knows it can sell itself.
I try to ignore all sales people as much as possible while waking the halls.
I am rarely approached by vendors, and when I am, I feel I am being treated like the the last girl in the bar at closing time. When I seek out a vendor (I do my homework) or I am attracted by a display, I want the elevator pitch, some literature, and contact information. I pick the person that seems most likely to give me what I am looking for without being clingy. Mannerisms? Professional. OMG, no flirting. Appearance? Sorry, but the middle-aged white guys or the person that the other boothies defer to is the person with the most efficient pitch. If it helps, it is harder to pick out who is in charge than it used to be.
When I’m asked a question. “Are you interested in learning more about _____ ?” Not a brand name, but rather a function or feature –I can see the brand name since I’m right at the booth. Pitch your product with a question, and I don’t mean of the form, “What are you currently using for _____?” In short, don’t sell—teach.
Mannerisms, appearance, first sentence.
I have found that the art of navigating the HIMSS hall is to have a plan. Know what you are looking for, perhaps even the vendors you are interested in, and so forth. I have found the hall to be more beneficial if you add intentionality to your visits. I do not like gimmicks, but a free beer, water, snack, or other food item helps. I also like vendors that provide trash bags (oh, I mean, brochure bags,) I do not like vendors that “attack” a passerby.
If I’m in their booth because I haven’t heard of their product or don’t know much about it, then I’m focused on how quickly and clearly they can explain their product’s practical application and how it can provide value to my organization. If I’m there because I have decent knowledge of their product, then my goal is most likely to get specific questions about how their product works answered. In this case, the last thing I want to hear is them talk about the practical application and value proposition of their product. I’m focused on the knowledge of the person I’m speaking to. If they quickly say that they cannot answer my question, kudos. I’ll give you a second chance. If they blow smoke, then I may blackball them when I get home. In either case, if the sales person talks about a partnership or attempts to get to know my personal interests, then they immediately lose points in my book. Their job is to take as much of my health system’s money as they can while ensuring that they provide good enough service for us to perpetually pay upgrade and maintenance fees, not buy me tickets to the World Cup (which would be the right way to bribe me). My advice to the sales folks — open our conversation by asking me why I’m there, what I know about their product, and if I have any specific questions for them. As I answer those questions, ask clarifying questions about my business situation (facility size, location, etc.), and then tackle the problem at hand. It will work way better than the gibberish your marketing person wrote.
A mild manner is preferable (Jimmy Stewart over John Wayne). A working demo of their product and the knowledge to use it – amazing how often this is not available (Alfred Turing over Don Knotts). I am a fan of understanding the challenges of a community hospital and not quoting how they solved a problem at Johns Hopkins or UCLA (i.e. Fred MacMurray over Roseanne Barr).
Appearance and mannerisms. Down to earth “real” people versus salesy used car salesman type folks make me want to stop and talk. The booth babe costumes really turn me off. Because there are so many booths at HIMSS, the signage is also one of the things that gets me to stop for a look.