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I'm Okay, You Need Some Work: The Drive For Quality
By Wayne Care

"Blue widgets are on backorder."
"We shipped sponges instead of syringes."
"We delivered Dr. Doe's order to Dr. Smith."
"I work my tail off all day and all you have to do is fill the orders and you mess it up!'
"How do you expect me to compete with such bad service?"

Sound familiar? If you haven't offered that complaint to operations you haven't been in medical supply sales. Mistakes are the bane of sales-"sales prevention" at its most virulent. It's the reason why we don't sell more, right? Our competitor never makes these kinds of errors, or at least not as often as we do. Who hasn't heard or spoken all of those refrains?

It's easy to spot errors. They are the "hassles" that lose customers, prevent prompt payment, and basically make a salesperson's life miserable. What causes these mistakes? Inattention, nonperformance of tasks, poor training, incompetence, lack of organization-each of these could be part of the reason.

Quality Starts Here
Most companies use initiatives such as TQM (Total Quality Management), CQI (Continuous Quality Improvement), or another one of the dozen or so programs designed to improve quality. These programs set standards or benchmarks and develop processes for training and "error cause removal." Companies set goals to measure progress against those benchmarks. They develop comparisons, internally or externally, to the "best of the best" practices.

Operations are easy to quantify and fit well into quality improvement initiatives, but the sales side of the business is a different story. How can you determine what business was not gained or what business was lost from the sales side? It is impossible to quantify missed opportunities. When we lose a customer from sales rep error, most times we never know it.

In a company, quality must be driven from the top down, but sales reps must drive it for themselves. How do we define quality in a sales representative?

Quality Is Consistency Of Performance
We can quantify and measure mistakes in picking or packing or shipping. We can measure how many customers receive busy signals, and measure their wait time to speak to customer service. But there is no measurement criteria for how many sales calls are not made, how many customer calls are not returned promptly by the sales representative, how many bids are lost due to errors in preparation or pricing.

Let's define quality as "doing the right thing, on time, every time." The concept of "quality" is not a moral issue, but it is the conformance to requirements. When you are critiquing your own or someone else's performance, the issue is whether requirements are met or exceeded-not whether the person is "good" or "bad" (it is not personal at all).

Customers Demand Quality Performance
It's no surprise that many customers now ask questions about response time as part of their request for proposals (RFPs). They want to know the time it will take for their sales representative to respond to their questions or needs. I've found two primary reasons for this: bad experience in getting response from sales representatives, and difficulty in quickly accessing customer service to get answers.

I recommend that sales reps take the initiative and proactively address whether the customer asks the question or not. An example might be "I usually answer all telephone messages within 24 hours." The customer will usually indicate whether that is adequate, or will tell you that they require response in X amount of time. Either way you've set an expectation that they can measure.

Being consistent and persistent are your primary responsibilities as a rep in the physician market. You can establish this pattern and expectation from your first visit when you announce, "I will be here every other Tuesday," or, "I am usually in this area every other Tuesday, but could be here on Wednesday mornings also. Which is more convenient for you?"

What you have just done is address two critical issues to the practice: when they can expect you, and how long it will take you to respond if they have a need at a time other than on your call schedule. Consistency builds trust.

Once you establish criteria, you must meet or exceed that standard every time. Just as you can't be "a little bit pregnant," you can't be "sometimes consistent." The goal of a sales rep boils down to developing trust. People buy for many reasons, but one of the most important is trust. They trust the brand name, they trust the store, they trust the sales rep. Consistency of performance develops trust. The cliche image of the used car salesman is the archetype of not trusting someone.

Are You A Typical Sales Person?
A hospital asked me to give a short seminar about sales to their marketing department. I asked how many of them considered themselves to be "typical" sales representative types and no one raised their hands. I then asked how many had an image of a guy in a bright, plaid suit with sleazy ethics and many raised their hands. Why didn't they consider themselves typical sales people? They felt that their customers could trust them.

"I had another customer emergency and couldn't make it to Dr. Doe's office. He'll understand." Sure he will, but he will also have established the first chink of weakness in your credibility. Call the office and explain that you won't be able to make your usual visit, or ask customer service to do so on your behalf. A commitment of time is an implied contract and when you start breaking your own rules you damage your own credibility.

"The practice is too busy and they don't want to see me every two weeks." That's fine. Determine when they do want to see you and keep that schedule. If they determine it is an "as needed" basis you should still make sure you visit on a routine basis. Never let a month pass without poking your head in the door and just saying hello. Every visit does not have to be lengthy, but it shows your interest and accessibility to that customer.

Low Maintenance Equals Goodbye
"They're a low maintenance account." Well my friends, I have seen more low maintenance accounts lost than high maintenance accounts. Why? They're easy to work with. We ignore them and assume they don't have the same basic needs as others. That 's simply not true. I think the phrase "low maintenance" and its implications should be banished forever from a sales rep's lexicon.

What may be a low maintenance account to you may be a high priority account to your competitor. Once your competitor breaches the gates, they can then use their own weapons to out-gun you. What starts as "John is responsive; I see John whenever I need him" becomes "Well, as long as you are here, I do need a widget or two and I am not sure exactly what I want."

Even worse, "I'm not sure if John's company carries that chemistry analyzer/stress system/pulse oximeter, [fill in the blank] and, now that you've mentioned it, here's the order"

Who hasn't gone into an account where they have "all of the business" to find that they have acquired something new from another source? Is there a worse feeling? One common reaction is "I didn't even know you were looking for that product, " to which the customer replies, "I didn't even know you carried it."

The bottom line: Consistency builds trust and trust builds loyalty. Ignore accounts at your own peril no matter how easily maintained they are.

Think About It
Okay, you say. Things can't always be perfect. But if the world operated at 99.9% efficiency the following would occur:

  • Two million documents would be lost by the IRS annually.
  • 22,000 checks would be deducted from the wrong bank accounts in the next hour.
  • 12 babies would be given the to the wrong parents each day.
  • 107 incorrect medical procedures would be performed by the end of today.
  • 18,322 pieces of mail would be delivered incorrectly in the next 60 minutes.
  • 114,500 pairs of mismatched shoes would be shipped this year.

Providing quality service to your customers means doing the right thing, every time, on time. It's your responsibility as a professional sales rep.



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