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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No one was surprised to hear that the sales forces of all the pharmaceutical and manufacturing companies were placed on home office detail when news of the pandemic broke. The COVID-19 crisis had completely changed the business landscape to include veterinary hospitals. As essential businesses, however, we have a critical obligation to continue to provide services and products to clients and their beloved pets. The need for therapeutic diets, medications and parasiticides does not go away because of a global crisis.
The initial COVID-19 shock has come and gone for many people. I have clients that are catching up on life, and that includes their pets’ veterinary care. I have clients spending even more time with their pets and raising concerns about conditions they might not recognize during their normal and hectic lifestyles. This situation presents an incredible opportunity for us to improve the well-being of pets and increase the beautiful human-animal bond at the same time.
Everybody Delivers Value
Collectively, veterinary professionals will find new and better solutions during our “new normal.” One involves the sales teams hunkering at home. They have more time and resources to give you the attention and support you need to more effectively do your job.
Let’s state the obvious. The job of the sales staff is to sell and highlight specific products or services to veterinary hospitals. Much like we do, the company representatives set goals and strive for growth each quarter. Their mission also includes providing your hospital with training, educational materials and product guarantees, and assisting with inventory controls and employee and client relations. It’s a tall task to do virtually, but one that can be accomplished if they are given the chance.
Once you realize the value each salesperson brings, you can build a strategic alliance or, in other words, a mutually beneficial relationship that strengthens awareness and creates client demand. What a beautiful thing.
Jump-Start a Relationship
So, where do you start? First, schedule time with some of your key vendors. In this new normal, the communication might come through a phone call, Zoom meeting or email. Let the representatives know that you are making a conscious effort to spend more time with them and enhance each relationship. Trust me when I say they all know the immense pressure you are experiencing in managing your clinic.
Maybe you don’t have a relationship at all? Now is a great time to change it. Much like any relationship, set ground rules. Explain to the reps the best way they can communicate with your doctors and staff. I highly encourage you to identify a go-to person. This person could be the practice owner, administrator or lead technician, or an associate veterinarian looking to take on additional responsibilities. No matter who it is, the person should have the capability to make decisions. Don’t insult or waste anyone’s time by assigning a brand-new boarding assistant to the job. She is not a decision-maker, at least not yet.
Once you have selected the point person, work out how the two of them can best schedule meetings. Once a structure is established, gone will be the days of making up an excuse on the fly when a sales rep calls.
At the two practices I oversee in eastern Washington State, we have divided some of these sales duties. As the hospital administrator, I coordinate the meetings and stay updated on product and service offerings, rebates, bulk buys, pricing and staff training opportunities. I then have a dedicated associate veterinarian at each location meet with the reps remotely to understand the medical aspects of the products or equipment. It is their job to get all the details and report back to other team members. It does not make sense for me, as the hospital administrator, to learn about the biology and chemistry of products when I won’t be deciding whether to use it on a patient.
The reps love this system. Gone are the days of reps calling on us and hoping for the best. Gone, too, are the days of encyclopedia sales, but I’ll save that analogy for another time.
By taking time to enhance vendor relationships and learn about each company’s offerings, you will be shocked to hear about products or services you didn’t know existed and about rebates or loyalty programs that increase client value. You will discover training programs and educational offerings that encourage and develop your staff. Remember the adage “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
What about the reps you don’t buy services or products from? While I am not advocating spending hours on end with every rep who calls, I recommend common courtesy. Following the structure established, set aside 10 to 15 minutes or so to learn about the product line. While you might decide not to stock the products, chances are clients will ask about them from time to time. Pet owners might have seen the products advertised on television or heard about them on social media. Better yet, clients might tell you, “My neighbor told me to ask about it.” I promise that in a stay-at-home world, many conversations about pet care take place.
By doing due diligence, you inform yourself and hopefully the rest of your team. When a client asks about a specific service or product, you will be prepared for the discussion. By giving the reps a few minutes of your time, you allow them to do their job, and then who knows what will happen down the road.
I encountered a similar situation several years back. The rep would come by every three or four weeks to say hello and ask if he could do anything for me or the clinic. He visited regularly even though we never purchased anything from him. After about six months of developing a relationship, he was pleasantly surprised to find that we had decided to switch our entire vaccine line.
While I can’t guarantee an outcome like that to each visiting rep, I am cognizant of the small world we live in and the even smaller industry we work in. It is not uncommon to see reps move to another company or see companies merge and change their product lines. Respecting all sales staff now can pay off later.
Cultivate the Relationships
Now is the time to step up your relationship building and maximize the incredible resources who might be grounded and working from home. Now is the time to look at vendor contacts as a priority and realize that the reps bring far more than a catalog to the table.
Don’t be fooled and think that each company or representative spreads resources evenly across an entire territory. The resources — a combination of time, money, energy and extras — are generally spent at their discretion. It only makes sense for them to spend those resources where they will find the greatest return on investment, such as at clinics willing to partner on a mutually beneficial relationship.
During a crisis like COVID-19, we can easily lose focus when leading our hospitals. Keep in mind that virtual and in-person meetings with a salesperson can get your hospital back on track with providing much-needed services, products and education to clients.
The opportunity is now. Are you going to take advantage of it?