The Pandemic is Ending and a New Way Dawns in Med Tech Sales
Like any cataclysmic event, the pandemic has had a profound impact on business practice, and and the commercial world will look different when the pandemic finally fades. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and many businesses will emerge stronger from the lessons learned and new skills acquired.
Restaurants, even fancy ones, have added takeout and on-line ordering. Retail has doubled down on e-commerce and social media advertising. Most B2B businesses have learned that it is not necessary to spend thousands of dollars, and hours of travel time, for a two-hour business meeting. Work from home has become an accepted practice, and while office commutes will resume, it will likely not be everybody every day. Capabilities and practices developed during the pandemic are not going away next year.
There is no industry that will emerge from the pandemic more transformed than the medical device business. Mostly this is because the med tech customer base was most profoundly impacted by this long ordeal. The greatest pressure causes the greatest and most lasting change. Some things like the cancellation of all elective surgeries are not permanent changes. Surgery volumes are already going back up. However, there will be many long-term effects on clinical practice. For example the more acute surgeries that moved to outpatient facilities due to COVID are unlikely to return to the hospital.
The pandemic crisis will end, but hospitals will emerge permanently changed. Lessons learned and new approaches taken by hospitals and clinicians will become the new status quo. In order to thrive, med tech companies also need to evolve and adapt and permanently integrate new capabilities and approaches.
During the pandemic hospitals closed to everyone except patients and staff. Suddenly sales reps, and even clinical specialists had no in-person access to their customer. At the same time clinicians rapidly adopted new approaches to communicating with each other and with outsiders. They compared approaches and results on Zoom calls and in Twitter posts. Technology shy physicians and nurses were forced to learn fast and are now quite comfortable with digital communication.
During the pandemic company reps discovered that the only way to get in front of many customers was through the computer screen. Hospitals and clinicians discovered what life is like without reps in clinical areas. Hospitals, who for years have been trying to limit access to clinicians through vendor registration systems and other administrative hurdles, now have a clear roadmap on how to keep commercial reps out. As a result, it is likely that Zoom meetings are now a permanent way of life.
This shift to digital communication has large repercussions in the traditional med tech sales process. There is no way to do a cold call by Zoom. Sending a rep in to a hospital will continue to be difficult long after the pandemic ends. As hospitals begin to open up again it is the clinical specialists that are getting in first. Customers still want the hands on in-person training that clinical specialists provide. Sales reps that do procedures and support surgeries will still be welcome, but only on the request of a clinician for a specific procedure, and only after negotiating increasingly restrictive vendor management processes. Many hospitals will ban calls not requested by a clinician and tightly restrict access to clinical care areas.
Newly tech adept clinicians will turn to the internet for education and new product information rather than sales calls, trade shows and symposiums. However, they will still reach out to reps and clinical specialists when they want to put hands on the product. This brings the med tech market into the digital age that most consumer and B2B business spaces entered a decade or more in the past, where marketing campaigns own the top of the sales funnel and pass highly educated leads to field teams once the customer wants a hands-on product demo. Companies will get back to business faster and stronger if there is a rethinking of the commercial approach to match this major shift in the customers' buying process.
Med tech companies need a more sophisticated approach to creating the digital world that assures clinicians find the information that promotes their product and application. This means more than web sites, digital banner ads and company sponsored webinars. These are the basic ante to the game. There needs to be a deeper digital engagement through KOL influencers, social media participation and on-line education resources. There will also need to be real investment in the marketing automation and analytics to turn this market education investment into real sales leads.
So where does that leave the traditional med tech sales rep who spent time cold calling and carrying the bag in a tight geographic territory. Even before the pandemic the role and profile of the medical device sales rep was changing. Increasingly companies hire reps with clinical backgrounds able to provide customers clinical support, and train them to sell. Most companies are increasing the number of reps focused on the business side and calling on the IDN systems and GPOs that increasingly control the product options. Reps spend more time untangling the hospital buying process than they do detailing product features and benefits. The time is now to rethink how and where sales resources are deployed. Replace the company sales process with the customer buying process and identify where a rep best delivers clinical or business value to the customer.
So the big post-pandemic takeaway? One, don’t believe things will “go back to normal” after the pandemic. Rethink the sales process and infrastructure to match the new reality and the new buyer’s journey of the post-pandemic world. Two, invest in the digital world to educate and engage with customers and prospects. Learn from the consumer and SaaS markets and adopt their digital approach and tight messaging to the highly specialized and regulated world of medical devices. Three, rebuild the sales channel. Start with a blank piece of paper and a deep dive into the customer’s perspective. Build an infrastructure that helps solve the clinical, logistical and business problems of acquiring your technology.
The pandemic has changed the world, and no business more than the medical device business. Companies that change in response have a first mover advantage. See it not as a the sunset of the past way of life, but as a sunrise, an opportunity to reimagine. They say the early bird gets the worm, and the first companies to embrace the new dawn of the med tech industry will have the most success.