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All I Needed to Know to Disrupt Healthcare I Learned from “Seinfeld”: Part II – And YOU Want To Be My Latex Salesman
By Bruce Brandes
Upon being granted an interview with IBM while in business school for a chance at my first real job, my initial enthusiasm was slightly curbed by the fact that the position was to become a sales rep. With an undergraduate degree in finance and an MBA, I had imagined a career on Wall Street.
A sales rep? The vivid composite in my head was of some guy in a shiny suit, with a pinky ring and remarkable hair, trying to sell me something that I really did not need. Just like George Costanza’s dream of pretending to be an architect or a marine biologist before compromising to a desperate hope of an imaginary job as Jerry’s latex salesman, I would have to reconcile the dream with reality.
My IBM sales school training quickly helped reorient my mindset with my new responsibilities as a marketing representative (I was relieved to hear that the dirty word “sales” was not in the official title). One of my first and most enduring lessons came at a meeting of the executive leadership team of a large hospital in New Orleans, my IBM regional executives, and me. As the conversation turned to a mention of a product I had just learned about in training, I enthusiastically interjected with the sales pitch I had recently memorized. The hospital COO interrupted me with the rebuke, “You don’t know what you don’t know. Please be quiet.” Ouch.
After the meeting, I expected my manager to explain IBM’s termination process. Instead, he suggested if the instinct popped into my head to blurt out a verbal sales catalog, to bite the tip of my tongue behind my lips as a reminder to keep listening and ask another question or two before speaking.
I soon appreciated that if I first focused on understanding the opportunity or challenge my prospective customer sought to address and then honestly assessed the likelihood that the solutions I represented could help, “selling” did not have to command the same disdain as Newman entering Jerry’s apartment. In fact, it is quite satisfying to help address a customer or market need better than anyone else. That has to be your goal, not earning a commission. A commission check should be the result of your achieving that goal, not the goal itself.
I have also grown to appreciate that “sales” does not have to be a four-letter word. Few businesses can afford to make payroll without having paying customers who are sold on what they do. Each person in the company — from the receptionist to accounts payable to the housekeeping staff — play a role in what ultimately contributes to an organization’s market success. In fact, in some way, everyone is selling something. Doctors are selling their medical care. The server in a restaurant is selling a dining experience. J. Peterman is selling the urban sombrero.
From a sales perspective, today’s healthcare landscape (as discussed in part 1 of this series) is the opposite of what it was 25, 10 or even five years ago. Historically in the US, our 5,000+ hospitals enjoyed individual freedom in their buying processes. Within each hospital were many managers with decision-making and budget authority for certain products and services. In parallel, independent physicians had broad flexibility in how vendors could earn their influence.
The role of the sales rep for a vendor was important to lead the navigation of an over-extended procurement processes which included cold calls, demonstrations, requests for information, dinners and dancing, requests for proposal, reference calls, golf, site visits, etc. A handful of dominant vendors led with a sales strategy of FUD –fear, uncertainty, and doubt. No one ever got fired for buying IBM … until they did.
Given rapid consolidation, many hospitals are now are under more centralized control of larger regional and national health systems. Financial challenges have restricted purchasing authority to a limited number of actual decision-makers. A new regulatory environment and group purchasing contracts limit sales reps influence over doctors’ buying decisions. Industry pressures demand that procurement processes and implementations accelerate for solutions with meaningful promise.
At the same time the market has many fewer buyers with greater urgency, there has been an exponential explosion of the number of vendors trying to sell to these poor, overextended, confused people. Most new vendors are hiring the same salespeople who were historically successful (programmed and rewarded) under the old model that is less likely to be effective now. Hiring sales reps without healthcare experience creates a different set of issues. The net of the story is that traditional sales strategies and tactics (and the simple math) of how buyers and sellers engage no longer work for healthcare.
Healthcare executives are overwhelmed with a universe of shiny things, trying to differentiate the sales messages from companies that seem as fictitious as Vandelay and Kramerica Industries. We need innovative companies with collaborative sales approaches that are "real and spectacular”, enabling healthcare organizations to address current challenges and seize new opportunities. How many of you Seinfeld fans think you could win that sales “contest?”
Bruce Brandes is managing director at Martin Ventures, serves on the board of advisors at AirStrip and Valence Health, and is entrepreneur in residence at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business.