Medical Sales: A Customer’s Crisis is Your Opportunity

Convert Business by Stepping-in When Customers Need Immediate Help

Almost every medical sales rep has one or more high-volume accounts who seem married to one of your competitors. No matter what you do, the customer won’t even consider the options you offer. You even lie awake at night, thinking of ways to steal business from the competition, especially if you have calculated the boost in income that comes with success.

Converting big accounts usually takes time…or it can happen in an instant. It’s about creating an awareness for sudden opportunities and having a plan.

Capitalizing on these sudden opportunities hinges on learning about them and being able to respond. And one of the most profound ways to steal business under these conditions is when you’re able to rescue a customer from an undesirable or unpleasant situation. You won’t know in advance when it’s going to happen, but you can be prepared with a plan of action.

The Golden Opportunity

Here’s a case study from my orthopedic implant days.

I enjoyed total hip business with a high-volume orthopedic surgeon for about a year. We worked well together and I did everything possible to make his surgeries go as smoothly as possible.

Dr. Williams performed about 160 total hip replacements each year. That was a nice block of income for me. However, it was very painful that Dr. Williams performed over 200 total knee replacements annually with the business going to a competitor. Dr. Williams trained with the designer of the knee system he used during his residency. In his mind, it was superior to everything else on the market. Whenever I discussed my total knee system with him, he said, “Mace, you’ve earned my hip business, but I’ll never switch knees.”

One morning, I received a 6:30 a.m. call from Debbie, the orthopedic nurse coordinator where Dr. Williams did most of his surgeries. I had an 8:00 total hip scheduled with Dr. Williams so I thought the call would be about that surgery.

Debbie said, “Mace, I might have an opportunity for you. Dr. Williams has a total knee to follow the total hip he’s doing with you at 8 o’clock. The problem is that we don’t have any instruments or implants for the knee. They were supposed to have been delivered last night but it’s not here. I have a call in to Greg (the competitive rep who provides the knee), but he hasn’t called back yet. If you can get a knee set here so we can have it ready for Dr. William’s 10 o’clock case, maybe between the two of us, we can get him to use your system.”

I thought it was a long shot. Dr. Williams loved his knee system and I expected he would just reschedule or delay the case. But I just happened to have a complete set of total knee instruments in my car and had nothing to lose. I told Debbie, “I’ll have the instruments there in 15 minutes and I can have the implants sent in time for the case if Dr. Williams is willing to give it a try.”

I alerted the implant coordinator in my distributor’s office that I might need a set of knee implants pronto. She told me she would head to work early and get it ready for me.

At 7:30, Dr. Williams stopped by the O.R. after finishing  rounds in the hospital. I knew that Debbie apprised him of the situation when he started yelling several expletives about the orthopedic company and rep that failed to deliver his knee system. That was my cue!

I walked out of the O.R. lounge and approached Dr. Williams. He said, “Thanks for brining in your knee system for me. I don’t know if I’m going to use it. If my knee gets here in time, I’ll go with that, but it’s good to know I have back-up.”

I asked if he had a few minutes for me to run through the surgical protocol with him. He invited me to accompany him to breakfast where I went through the entire procedure. When we finished, he said, “That’s straight-forward. You know what? You made an effort today to bail me out. I’m going to use your knee.”

I said, “Great. Thank you.” Inside, I was dancing and high-fiving. This was the opportunity I had been waiting for. I called the implant coordinator in the office and asked if she could personally drive the implants to the hospital, as I didn’t want to risk a delay with a courier. She did.

When Dr. Williams and I exited O.R. #8 after finishing his total hip, we walked out to the O.R. desk where Greg, the competitive rep who provided Dr. William’s total knee was waiting. Greg immediately started apologizing and offered a litany of excuses. “Dr. Williams, my office made a mistake and sent the knee set to the wrong hospital. I didn’t find out until this morning and I was tied up on another surgery, but I have everything here for you and they’re sterilizing the instruments.”

Dr. Williams read Greg the riot act. “I don’t care whose fault it was. I expect you to have what I need, where I need it, when I need it. I’m not going to delay my day for you or inconvenience my patients. I’m using Mace’s knee today.”

Greg started to do that dance that medical sales reps often do when they screw up. “But Dr. Williams, the instruments will be ready to go in about a half-hour. Everything’s here. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again….”

At that moment, Debbie walked up and said, “Dr. Williams we’re ready for your total knee. Can we prep the patient?”

It was a done deal. Dr. Williams used my knee system that day. He was impressed with some of the instruments my system had that made certain parts of the procedure easier. He said, “Mace, I like your system, but I’m not going to abandon the system I’ve used for years. Maybe I’ll use it from time to time.”

Figuring I had nothing to lose (and as I write this, thinking about Paul Romer’s famous quote: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste”), I sought to capitalize on Dr. William’s pain before it went away. “Dr. Williams, you said you performed the knee replacement today in less time than it takes with your regular knee system.  I’ll bring you some data to show improved range of motion and long term survivorship, but let me ask you this…if I consign a set of implants and instruments to each of your hospitals, you’ll know it’s always there. What happened to you today will never happen again. Will you consider that?” He said he would.

The next day I received a call from Dr. William’s office. He wanted me to stop by and go through his surgery schedule. He was switching all of his total knees to my system. I just picked up over $700,000 in annual sales volume, all because I was able to come to the rescue and offered a way to prevent future calamities

Lessons Learned

  1. It only takes one opportunity to land a big customer in your territory.
  2. Have a plan to learn about and capitalize on any opportunities if and when they occur.
  3. Act in the moment of pain! Eliminate the customer’s pain at that moment, but assure him / her in a tangible way that you can prevent it from ever happening again.
  4. Let your customers, and the staff that support them know that you’re always available to be Plan B. And make sure you develop great relationships with these people. If they like you, they’ll think of you when opportunities arise, just as Debbie did with me.
  5. Business is neither secure nor unobtainable. Dr. Williams said he would never abandon his total knee system. And Greg probably thought his total knee business with Dr. Williams was bulletproof. Yet, all it took was one careless oversight and a competitive rep coming to the rescue to move $700,00o worth of business. Don’t be complacent about the business you have or the opportunities that await you.

In medical sales, what ultimately wins is the combination of skills, work ethic, reputation, relationships, and opportunity. Opportunities are often sudden and short-lived. Now is the time to sell your competitive customers on allowing you to be their back-up plan or Plan B. It’s not so much a question of if an opportunity will arise; it’s more a question of whether or not you’ll be prepared to act when it does. Have a plan, and never waste a crisis.





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