Change or Die...How does a Surgical Sales Rep go from Hero to Zero?
Updated: Aug 10
If there was a dictionary where you could look up the term “surgical sales professional,” you would see Jack’s picture. Jack was one of the best surgical sales professionals I ever met.
Jack personified motivation in that he awoke at 4:00am every day to read journals, study product literature, and educate himself about the surgical specialty to which he sold. He would then hit the gym for an hour or so and arrive at his first hospital account before 7:00am.
When I walked through the hospital with Jack I felt like I was with the CEO. He greeted everyone by name and everyone knew his name as well. Even the elderly Candy Stripers (hospital volunteers) knew Jack and they would stop what they were doing to hug him or shake his hand. Jack had a relationship with everyone who worked in the cafeteria, the patient transporters, as well as housekeeping personnel and others. As I met Jack’s customers, they acted as if he was not only a sales rep, but also a de facto staff member.
Even the stodgy, smug, and generally unfriendly Director of Purchasing yelled from her office, “If that’s Jack’s voice I hear, he better come in here and say hello.” And when Jack did, the supposedly difficult and salesperson-hating purchasing director smiled and thanked Jack for helping her to understand a complex pricing agreement, which she explained, was not by her request, but by Jack’s insistence to make sure she understood the document.
When I walked through the surgeon’s lounge with Jack, not only did Jack know every surgeon passing through, but more importantly, each of them knew Jack. This was surprising because Jack sold implants and instruments for Ophthalmology, yet he knew all of the cardiovascular guys, all of the general surgeons, orthopedic surgeons, ob-gyns…everybody!
I asked, “Jack, how do you know every surgeon in the hospital when only the eye surgeons can use what you sell?” Jack said, “Every surgeon is an opportunity to learn more about medicine, more about the hospital, more about their challenges, and it’s an opportunity to get to know some influential people, even though they don’t buy or use what I sell. I want them to be as comfortable and welcoming of me as the rest of the hospital staff. Plus I like to hedge my bets. I can’t control my entire future. One day I might be selling ortho, or cardiovascular, or who knows what. Besides, most of them are really cool people and I like them.”
If you’re thinking that this was Jack’s only account, you’re wrong. I visited three accounts with him that day and it was déjà-vu in each. Jack worked every account to the max and had I visited his other 13 accounts, I have no doubt that the experience would have been the same. Talk about account penetration.
Jack was a surgical sales superstar. He earned so many President Club rings that he used some for paperweights in his office at home. At sales meetings, the junior sales reps would crowd around Jack to learn what they could from the master, hanging on his every word. And he earned an income that matched or exceeded what most of his physician-customers earned. Jack was truly at the top of his game.
Then the world changed.
Hospitals mandated a credentialing process that was required for surgical sales reps to do business. Jack disregarded the request for credentialing, believing that his relationships and tenure made him exempt. He convinced himself that the rules were different for him than for other surgical sales reps. Then one day, a security guard who knew Jack by name said, “Jack, I’m sorry but I’m not allowed to let you in because you’re not on the credentialed vendors list.” Jack said, “Fine. You call Dr. Edwards and tell him that you won’t let me in for his case.” The doctor already knew. He was using a different company’s products.
Another of Jack’s accounts requested a competitive bid for his products, which meant Jack’s company would have to discount its products significantly. Jack ignored it. He felt assured that his long term relationships with hospital staff and especially the surgeons would protect his business. He asked his surgeon-friends to go to bat for him. They said they wished that they could, but couldn’t. The surgeons no longer had complete authority to choose which products they used. A million dollars’ worth of business dropped off of Jack’s sales numbers at one of his biggest accounts.
Unfortunately, the same scenario repeated itself at several other accounts. Jack eventually lost over 70% of his business and resigned from his position to sell home mortgages, a decision that eventually left him unemployed.
What happened? How could one of the highest-earning, most successful surgical sales reps at the top of his game fall from grace?
Jack was doing all the things that were important then and are still important today. But Jack’s world changed and he didn’t change with it until it was too late. Jack clung to the belief that he needed to do nothing more than what had elevated and sustained him in the past. He was wrong.
You might think that the take-home message from this article is to “change as the business of surgical sales changes.” It’s not. That postulate used to suffice, but it no longer does. The changes in healthcare are accelerating. The penalty for falling behind the change curve is irrelevance, that is, customers will replace you with competitors who anticipated and integrated change sooner and faster than you did. The take-home message is that you must remain relevant and to do that you must stay ahead of the change curve.
If you think your only job is to help your customers to provide care to their patients one day at a time, think again. Today’s healthcare customers expect suppliers to be able to anticipate and deliver what they will need tomorrow. Yes, you still must do almost everything you did to succeed in the past, but you also must anticipate change.
Your biggest Surgical sales challenge is no longer your competition. Your biggest challenge is staying relevant. How? Certainly by taking care of business today but you must also have regular “tomorrow conversations” with everyone on the expanding and changing list of decision-makers in your accounts. Learn to ask the critical-thinking questions that prove you really are a “partner” and not just a vendor. Don’t be complacent and don’t allow your customers to be complacent either. These tomorrow conversations may make your customers uncomfortable, but if you’re willing to discuss the things that your competition and your surgical sales colleagues are not willing to discuss because they’re reactive instead of proactive, you’ll have something that your competitors won’t have—relevancy.
Change is inevitable and changes are occurring in healthcare faster than ever. Do you need a crystal ball to avoid having what happened to Jack happen to you? No, but you must be willing to ask the hard questions and be prepared to deliver the desired and necessary solutions to your customers before they ask for them. The alternative is to risk becoming irrelevant at any moment. It is vital to become and stay a surgical device sales expert.