Selling Points columnist Brian Conrad is practice manager at Meadow Hills Veterinary Center in Kennewick, Washington, and a past president of the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association.
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We live in a time when competition is increasing and when creating a differentiating factor among your competitors is more difficult. The goal for each of us should be to use every resource at our disposal to satisfy our clients and staff.
Most of us overlook or forget about an excellent and underutilized resource staring us in the face and wanting to help. Unfortunately, some of us view this opportunity as more of a nuisance.
I am talking about the relationship we have with our various vendor reps. Whether you call them territory managers, sales representatives, account executives or pharmaceutical salespeople, they are diamonds in the rough who want to help you grow and find additional success. After all, if you are successful, they will be, too.
No More Excuses
Let me come clean. Yes, over the years I have made up stories, declined phone calls or created urgent matters in the name of avoiding a sales call. Hey, hey, hey! Before you become too judgmental, reflect back over the years. Chances are that you have done the same thing. Why? Well, for one, we are very busy. Operating and working in a veterinary hospital is stressful and time consuming. We are constantly evaluating priorities. Unfortunately, we see sales calls as a low priority. I certainly used to. That has changed, and I want it to change for you, too. Besides, aren’t you tired of making up excuses for why you can’t meet with a vendor rep? The emergency hit-by-car case is getting old.
Let’s state the obvious: Salespeople have a job to do. Their job is to sell and highlight specific products or services to veterinary hospitals. Much like we do, they set goals, evaluate progress and want to seek growth each quarter. This is a given and shouldn’t come as a surprise.
But their goals and missions far exceed the obvious. They also want the opportunity to support your hospital through training, educational materials, product guarantees, client relations, client incentives, inventory controls and employee relations. The opportunity to build a mutually beneficial relationship that strengthens awareness and creates client demand is a beautiful thing.
A New Approach
So, where do we start? First, take the time to meet with some key vendors. Let them know you are making a conscious effort to spend more time with them and enhance the relationship. If you don’t have a relationship, now is a great time to change it. Set some ground rules and explain to the various reps the best way to communicate with the doctors and team members.
I encourage you to name a go-to person or contact person. This person could be the practice owner, hospital administrator, lead technician or perhaps an associate veterinarian looking to take on additional responsibilities. No matter who it is, this person should have the capability to make decisions. Don’t waste time assigning your brand-new boarding assistant to the job. No offense to this person, but she is not a decision maker in your hospital. Not yet anyway.
Once you have selected a point person, work out how to best schedule meetings. This might involve a phone call, email or text message. Once a relationship structure has been established, you will see an immediate difference. Gone will be the days of trying to create a new excuse on the fly.
At the two practices I oversee in eastern Washington State, we have divided some of these duties. As the hospital administrator, I coordinate the various meetings and stay up to date on the product and service offerings, rebates, bulk buys, pricing and staff training. I have a dedicated associate veterinarian at each location meet with the reps to learn the medical aspects of the products or equipment. It is the doctor’s job to get all the details and report back to the other veterinarians on staff.
Our reps love this system. They easily know how, when and with whom to communicate. Gone are the days of reps just showing up and hoping for the best. Gone, too, are the days of encyclopedia sales, but I’ll save that analogy for another time.
Expand Your Knowledge
By taking the time to enhance your vendor relationships and learn about their company’s offerings, you will be shocked to hear about products or services you didn’t know they offered. You will be shocked to find out about rebates or loyalty programs that will add additional client value. You will be shocked to find training programs and educational offerings that will encourage and develop your staff. It’s very simple. These are basic and foundational principles in establishing a relationship. Remember the adage “You don’t know what you don’t know”?
But, you ask, what about the reps from whom you do not buy any services or products? While I am not advocating spending hours on end with every rep who enters your hospital, I am recommending some common courtesy. Acknowledge the structure you have set in place above. Set up 10 to 15 minutes or so and learn about the product line. While you may not ever carry the products, chances are your clients will ask about them from time to time.
By doing due diligence, you informed yourself and hopefully the rest of your team. When a client asks about the service or product, you will be much more educated and prepared for the discussion.
You Can’t Predict the Future
I had a similar situation several years back. The rep would come in every three to four weeks to say hello and ask if he could do anything for me or the clinic. He did this even though we never purchased anything from him. After about six months of slowly developing a relationship, we and he were pleasantly surprised to find that we had decided to switch over our entire vaccine line.
While I can’t guarantee an outcome such as this to each rep who enters our hospitals, I am cognizant of what a small world we live in and what an even smaller industry we work in. It is not uncommon to see reps move to other companies or have companies merge and their product lines change. Being respectful and decent to sales reps can pay dividends down the road.
Now is the time to step up your relationship building. Now is the time to look at your vendor visits as a high priority and realize that the reps have far more than a catalog to bring to the table. In doing so, you will partner with someone and find mutual success.
Keep in mind that we are all human. Mutual respect, time and attention can go a long way. Don’t be fooled to think that all companies or representatives spread their resources evenly across an entire territory. These resources are generally spent at their discretion. Spending those resources where they will find the greatest return on investment only makes sense. More importantly, being willing to partner with a sales rep for the opportunity to build a mutually beneficial relationship that strengthens awareness and creates client demand is a beautiful thing.