7 Critical Mistakes in Physician Relations Programs

An effective sales/physician relations program can have a powerful impact on the growth of any healthcare organization by increasing service referrals and/or surgical procedures. There are, however, several common errors in approach and understanding that can slow sales success and even derail it altogether. Some of these mistakes come from inexperience — for example, career healthcare executives and managers not being exposed to a sales department. Other industry leaders have long viewed the sales function as a vital component of their business models, and yet for a variety of reasons healthcare services organizations are not uniformly on-board. Past sales program failures, insufficient sales program knowledge, out-of-date selling concepts and/or inaccurate stereotypical beliefs about selling can take your physician relations program in the wrong direction. Granted, some of these mistakes are made in other industries as well. However, in our experience working in healthcare for the past 20-plus years, we have seen instances of healthcare organizations not only making these mistakes but holding them as common practice. Change, then, can be more difficult to bring about.

However, the very good news here is that there is tremendous potential for growth in those healthcare organizations that do gain true competency in professional selling. For that reason, you might like to consider how your organization is performing against the seven critical sales factors described below. Note: In the article we often use the term “clients” to refer to referral sources, such as physicians, medical office administrators, hospital discharge planners, case managers, local employers, etc., depending on the professionals who send patients to your facility or service.

Some healthcare leaders are not completely comfortable with the term, “sales”. We understand why — individuals who lack experience or good selling skills can resort to information download, manipulation, aggression and other negative behaviors. However, once sales people have learned and developed the proper selling skills, they know how to engage clients in collaborative, win/win conversations that lead to lasting professional relationships and increased referrals.

So, how does your program measure up against these seven issues that can derail your success?

1. Using a territory management system that has sales people operating according to a “milk route” or “crisis” style. This means that you set up either a standard cycle of “deliveries” without regard to the clients’ needs (albeit with a client A, B, C, priority designation) or by “crisis” — the problems/issues the physician office has with your facility. We recommend a more strategic (and more effective) approach where sales staff target specific physicians who meet a pre-established, “best-fit” criteria for referring to your specific service line.  

2. Considering sales as part of the marketing mix. The sales function has an enormous value to your organization. However, considering sales as part of the marketing mix can create misunderstanding around sales purpose and expectations, interfere with marketing’s mission and inevitably dilute the impact that both disciplines can have in growing service lines. Develop your sales program as a separate entity, one that relates to marketing but has its own strategic goals, implementation plan and budget.

3. Depending on feature/benefit driven sales calls that emphasize “information download.” Using a stream of feature benefit statements does not allow the sales person to fulfill the important task of uncovering, considering and addressing the client’s challenges and goals. If a sales person really wants to build relationships with clients, they want to work toward being viewed as the trusted advisor and not the pusher of services or facilities. This reframing of the sales process calls for a more sophisticated “Healthcare Consultative Selling™” model. (By the way, this selling model is useful for executives interacting with physicians as well.)

4. Focusing on too broad a swath of the market when planning the sales program. Some organizations see their referral development staff as responsible for calling on a large range and number of clients, both existing and prospective clients, as well as potential “end users” or consumers. And in some cases, we have seen outreach staff with responsibility for handling customer service and producing marketing materials, all of which takes them further away from selling. The sales discipline can have a direct and enormously positive impact on your organization in both retaining existing referral sources and in acquiring new ones. To have the fullest impact, you need a balanced sales plan that is targeted, that sets goals and strategies for both retention and new client acquisition, and that determines the differing tactics required for each of these two segments.

5. Sending sales people into the field with insufficient information and training. When a sales person goes into the field with little or no information about the referral source or prospect, they are not prepared to have a “consultative conversation.” Not only does this lack of preparation make it unlikely that the sales person will engage the client, it further alienates the client and makes it more difficult for the sales person to get back in the door for a subsequent meeting. So, it is crucial that your sales staff is trained to know: how to qualify clients and “prospects,” the type of information that will lead to an engaging conversation and the questions to ask to uncover the individual’s specific challenges and needs. All of this is necessary to begin building a solid, long-term relationship with a referral source.

6. Assigning sales representatives the responsibility to develop and manage the sales program. A common situation we encounter in struggling sales programs is management’s expectation that the sales people qualified to sell are also qualified to take responsibility for developing the sales program, determining sales strategy, and monitoring its activity and results. When you hire a sales person from another company, he/she will not have program development skills because sales program development is done at a higher level in the sales department. For the most part, newly hired sales people have had only direct selling experience. Even sales managers are often good sales people promoted to the first rung of management, and will have some management and coaching experience, if they had been with a good organization prior
to coming to you. If you require a sales person to develop the program, they will most likely replicate the sales model and procedures of their former employer. That model may fit your organization’s needs, but in many cases it will not. For instance, common pharmaceutical sales models are not ideal for healthcare services, and yet these models are often adopted by healthcare services organizations because pharma reps also call on physicians. Their sales model is very different from the ideal for healthcare services.

7. Assigning responsibility to your organization’s executives and managers for maintaining relationships with current referrers.
This tactic of assigning members of the management team a short list of physicians to relate to is most often used in hospitals, but we have seen homecare companies and specialty practices try to use it as well. In theory it may seem like a good way to “make physician relations a hospital-wide initiative” or to “utilize existing highly capable resources to help manage physician relations.” In practice, however, this ploy is rarely effective. There are several reasons why executives and managers are not the best means for dealing with this need:

  • They have fulltime positions that will always take precedent over their physician relations responsibilities.
  • They rarely enjoy or feel comfortable in this new role and will usually find good reasons why they didn’t get to it.
  • They aren’t trained to be effective in this role and may be unsuited for it.
  • The coordination and management of such a program usually falls to the physician relations office, which has little influence over the designated executives and no way of assuring that they will fulfill their responsibilities.

Even if an initiative of this sort gets off to a good start, more often than not it fades over time as the executives see less and less value to their efforts.

There is no question that executives can play an important role in your physician/referrer relations program. Instead of the assignment approach, we recommend using the executives to support the referrer relations program by accompanying the fulltime referral relations staff on an appointment with a client for a very specific purpose, related to the executive’s position within the hospital. This approach supports the previously mentioned strategies of 1) making physician relations a hospital-wide initiative, and 2) utilizing existing capable resources in the referrer relations program in the most effective way.

Where do you go from here?

You may have seen that one or two or even several of these issues are preventing your business development efforts from reaching full potential. Hopefully by bringing these issues to light, changes can be made in your organization. Possibly you see where mistakes may be taking place, but you’re not sure of what your next step should be.

Kathleen Harkins, principal of Harkins Associates, has over 20 years experience in healthcare sales, strategy, training and management. She has worked with hospitals, outpatient treatment facilities, rehab facilities, LTC, managed care, homecare, capital equipment, medical products and pharmaceutical companies.

Related Articles on Physician Relations Programs:
5 Best Practice Concepts to Improve Marketing to Physicians
Informal Study Reveals 28 Common Physician Grievances With Hospitals

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