Increasing Hospital Referrals: Mastering the Sales Dialogue with Physicians

Since a primary goal for sales is to build relationships with referring physicians in an effort to increase referrals, what precisely goes on in the meeting that will help you meet this goal? Is it enough to “stop-in,” spend time with the office manager, or see the physician for a few minutes? A persistent challenge for many physician liaisons is how to master the successful dialogue with the physician and continue over time to build a relationship.

In our "Healthcare Consultative Selling™" trainings, we initiate the training class by asking attendees to share their greatest challenges relative to physician selling. Below are a few of the common responses, along with suggestions for resolving:

• How can I continue to meet with the physician, and not be told by him/her to "see the office manager [or other staff person] next time"?
• A lot of my time is spent dealing with the medical office’s request to handle a complaint with the hospital. What can I do not to get bogged down with these issues?
• Sometimes we just "touch base" with the office and/or the physician, not getting into a discussion, just stopping in so they see our faces. I am not sure what impact this has and if I should have my staff continue this tactic?
• I do not want to seem like I am "selling". How do I not come off as a stereotypical “sales” person?

Here are some brief recommendations, based on our experience

Getting ongoing meetings with the physician
1. First, you want to be clear why it is so important to meet with the physician: in most cases the physician is the ultimate decision-maker in the office. The physician may delegate some aspects of his/her decision-making to others, e.g. the office manager, so that relationship is important as well. In the end, however, it is the physician's business and/or their responsibility for patient care, so they hold the ultimate decision on where to send the patient. Or, another way to put it, the physician holds the authority to override the office staff.

2. To keep getting back into meet with the physician remember a key rule of thumb in sales: Individuals (referral sources, clients, customers, etc.) meet with sales people who speak the same language as they do, i.e. sales people who talk and sound like the referral source and are perceived to have something the source wants or needs. Otherwise, you will get delegated to the person who does talk and sound like you.

For example, John is selling PET scanners and knows in this facility that the CEO makes final buying decisions on capital equipment. If in his meeting with the CEO John focuses on equipment technology features and how the technology works, he will likely get delegated to the radiology manager. However, if he is discussing issues such as the profitable revenue generated with PET and the percentage of scans that result in hospital admissions, the CEO in more likely to stay engaged in the buying process with John.

The same is true in your meetings with the physician. If you focus on your hospital's referral process, your hospital's customer service program, your hospital's new services, when much of the time the physician is thinking about issues like the results of Mrs. Jones latest test, malpractice insurance, retirement, the discontent among some of the office staff, another 12-hour day, among a myriad of other goals and/or challenges/problems she/he faces, you'll lessen your chance for a lasting win/win relationship.

The medical office’s request to resolve a complaint with the facility
What can sometimes compound this issue for the physician liaison is that the hospital executives may also feel that complaint resolution is your job. All businesses have situations where customers have a problem with the company or the service/product. Other industries deal with these issues in a number of ways applicable to healthcare services. One way is to designate a staff person within the physician relations/liaison department, as internal liaison to manage these issues. You can implement a system that floats tough issues up the chain of command and to the specific service line where the issues can be resolved. Another important factor is to be really clear about your role. At Harkins Associates, we often have the opportunity to go on sales calls with physician liaisons. On many occasions the sales person actually takes the conversation down the road of "problems with our hospital" and places herself/himself in the position of being the one to contact when issues surface.

If your role is not explicit from the beginning, the physicians may assume that your role is one of customer service, not business or referral development. That is not to say, you ignore problems. However, you want to understand that your greatest direct impact on building revenue and profitability for your facility and its ancillary services will not be realized through acting in a role of a customer service representative, but rather in the role of a focused business developer/advisor, i.e. physician liaison. And, yes, resolving customer service issues goes hand-in-hand with sales. The problem as we have seen it is that often times "customer services issues" become a distraction to generating referrals rather than a true reason why referrals are not forthcoming from the physician.

What is the impact of "just stopping in"?
The answer is it depends on what it is you are trying to accomplish; in other words, what is your objective? If you are in the area, and you go next door to an office of a physician you had not previously met and your purpose is gaining information and/or setting an appointment with the physician, then that is a worthwhile objective for "stopping in". If your objective is to take another step forward in developing a relationship that will lead to increased referrals, chances are you may fall short of that goal. That said, depending on what services you are representing and the level of the individual with authority to refer, there can be value in "stopping in". For example, if you are charged with increasing referrals to the home care business, there may be times when stopping in will result in a referral. Or, if you are in an early phase of gathering information, "stopping in" can result in meeting that goal.  

How do I not come off as a stereotypical "sales" person?
Our most immediate response is to make sure you receive good sales training. One of the greatest misnomers is that providing sales training will create staff who are too aggressive, manipulative, or intrusive. The reality is that individuals, who are not given good selling skills, take on negative behaviors, talk too much and have the wrong conversations. This typically happens because they do not know another way. Another culprit is the heavy reliance on out-dated selling tactics that are not ideal for the healthcare services arena. You want to be sure that your attitude and conversations are not overly focused on "selling hospital services" or "getting them to use your facilities and services". Professionals like physicians and executives are usually far too sophisticated today to be moved to action by that kind of approach; particularly physicians who are constantly bombarded with sales messages and sales people. You want to be sure that your own behavior does not undermine the very goal you are trying to achieve — building lasting referral relationships.

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.

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