The Problem with Medical Sales Training
Medical device companies spend tens of millions of dollars every year on
sales training, often with no measurable improvement in sales. I know because
I sat through countless seminars, training sessions, and home-study
courses for 20 plus years.
I was also been brought in as a trainer, handed a company-designed training
manual and told to “use this.” My usual experience was that following the
company training manual often resulted in severe boredom, confusion, and
mentally disconnecting from the training – and that was just the effect it had on
me! I don’t know the long-term effect on the seminar participants, because
frequently they would be falling asleep, issuing blank stares, or looking at me
as if saying, “So what.”
So I started training the way I wanted to be trained and something interesting
happened. The room came alive. Information and ideas started to flow and an
energy was created that would carry us all through the rest of the training.
Most importantly, it made a difference when the sales people went back out into the
field to call on and service their physician and hospital customers.
They got results and they felt better prepared to do their jobs.
When It Does Not Work
Medical device companies employ sales training methods that often don’t
work. Yet these companies continue to take the same approach time after
time. Do you remember Einstein’s definition of insanity? It is “doing the same
thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Let’s look at a typical medical device training seminar. Companies hire a
trainer to talk about “Relationship Sales for the New Millennium” or “The Zen of
Selling,” etc. The trainer is sometimes an entertaining speaker who knows his
material well and can keep a room’s attention for some time. He or she will
provide hours of theory, metaphors, acronyms and stories. But here is what
happens almost every time – the sales people walk out of the room at the end
of the training and say, “that was interesting, but what the heck do I do with it?”
The one common observation and complaint that was always discussed
among my fellow sales associates was that the training was not specific
enough to selling in the medical marketplace. The trainers came from various
backgrounds including college professors, industrial psychologists, former V.
P. of sales at companies that had nothing to do with medical device or health
care, motivational speakers of all kinds and retired athletes and coaches who
had never sold a day in their lives (and all seem to craft their talks using the
same book of sports metaphors).
Are the talks and training sessions interesting? Sometimes they are, but
interesting is not the point. If a sales rep can’t take the information on Monday
morning and apply it in his territory, all the company did was waste the rep’s
time and the company’s money!
Selling in the Medical Arena is Different
Almost all of the training I ever attended in the Medical Device industry was
generalized training. It’s as if one can approach selling a widget in the
automobile manufacturing industry the same way one would sell a robotic
device for performing coronary artery bypass surgery. Are there similarities
that apply? Of course there are – many elements of selling are the same
across industry lines and certain philosophies and techniques will always be
applicable. But there is so much more at stake in the medical environment,
namely people’s lives. I’m talking life and death here folks, and that is what’s
on the minds of the people to whom we are selling. It affects the way they
think. It affects the way they buy. Combine those elements with the ever
changing, complicated challenges of the health care business and you better
have a seasoned, well-trained sales force carrying your flag that understands
Consider selling to doctors, for instance. At any moment, they have dozens of
concerns running though their heads. Sure, they have similar business
concerns such as the CEO or CFO of almost any company, as well as the
personal issues that affect all of us. But now let’s add some additional
concerns such as Mrs. Smith’s wound that is not healing well; or Mr. Thomas’s
bad reaction to the antibiotics; or the chemotherapy that failed for Ms.
Atkinson. Let’s not forget the attorney’s office that is calling to request Mr.
Allen’s medical records and will probably be filing suit because one leg is
shorter than the other after a joint replacement. Oh yes, don’t forget the
junior associate who is complaining about his unfair share of the practice
overhead. “And you want to sell me what?”
Then there are the directors of the clinical departments at the hospital. They
want to keep the Administrator happy. They want to keep the CFO happy.
They want to keep the Director of Materials happy. And of course, they want
to keep the doctors happy, and although they see this as an impossible task,
they usually are involved in this exercise constantly. One of the nurses just
gave a medication to the wrong patient; another patient fell out of bed and
broke her wrist; and the department is short-staffed by two nurses today.
“And you want to sell me what?”
Often in medical sales, if you make the doctor happy, you irritate someone at
the hospital. Or you help the hospital meet their goals with one of your
programs, and now the doctors are mad at you. It’s a constant juggling act,
and if you haven’t “been there and done that” you can’t relate to the sales
force as a trainer.” Sure you might have some good ideas or advice that will
work, but medical device sales people are going to listen with caution because
they know you have never really walked in their shoes.
When Not Much Changes After the Training
What is your experience with sales training? More than likely, it involves an
instructor who stands at the front of the room spewing forth data, theories, and
famous quotes at the attendees. Oh sure, the trainer probably asks some
good questions and includes some “role play.” Often, a product manager is
brought in to present product-specific details and give some “hands-on
The sales people who attend are all pumped-up and motivated. They are
ready to hit the streets with their newly learned skills and rake in the sales.
Only they usually don’t. And that’s the problem.
How do most sales people sell? They sell by habit. Good habit or bad habit,
once those habits are formed, they will continue indefinitely unless something
is done to interrupt and change them. That’s great for the good selling habits,
but too often there are some bad habits that keep otherwise good sales
people on the proverbial hamster wheel of mediocrity.
Let’s look at a training situation where the training must work – aviation.
Training a pilot is all about teaching skills and good habits that when combined
with good judgment yield a positive, predictable outcome. When you talk
about pilot training and state, “failure is not an option” it’s more than just a
cliche – it’s an absolute necessity! Hence, pilots train to that high level?
Why don’t sales people in medical device sales train to the same level? Is
failure an option? It’s not an option for the provider, the hospital, the patient,
or your company. Yet training programs in medical device sales are about as
effective as training a pilot to fly by telling him how to do it. You would not toss
the airplane keys to a student pilot after only 1 or 2 days in a classroom only,
yet companies do that with their medical device reps all the time. Think about
Medical Sales Training Works When…
Medical device sales training is effective when several goals are met. First,
the sales people being trained must be able to relate to the trainer, and the
trainer to them. Anything else is an adaptation that may or may not work.
Second, the teaching and training methods must be effective for the
immediate transfer of information. Anything else is a waste of time and can be
obtained from a book.
Third, the skills must be learned one at a time, practiced and perfected before
moving on to the next skill. Failure of the student to learn a skill requires
additional training before moving on. Neglecting to do so is an injustice to the
student and to the company.
The learned skills must be reinforced through a program of ongoing learning
and practice. Any skill will degrade over time if that skill is not used regularly.
Bad habits emerge and must be detected and eliminated. Once you invest in
the training, you need to invest in maintaining the training’s effectiveness.
Failure to do so will create results that will diminish with time.