Don’t Give Away Your Business! Get It and Keep It

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By Miki Fairley

The sales reps aren't taking business away--the orthotic shops are giving it to them. --Mark DeGroff, DeGroff Orthopedic Supplies, Commerce, Michigan

It is not about marketing--it is about forming relationships.--Joyce Perrone, consultant, Promise Consulting Inc., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

These two comments from observers close to the O&P industry scene reflect what many certified practitioners are failing to do to keep and increase their share of the business.

"People have complained on the OANDP-L listserve about sales reps going into medical facilities and taking business away from them," Perrone says. "My question is: 'How often are you in the medical practice office?'"

"Frankly, it's about time that orthotists stand up and sell that training--that professionalism--to the doctors," says DeGroff, who is a sales representative to O&P facilities. Orthotists need to go after the business--sell their services and their professional accreditation to referral sources, he added.

What emerges from talking with Perrone and DeGroff is simply that physicians often have a closer relationship with the sales rep than they do with the orthotist, and that the rep often gives better customer service. Perrone comments that all too often orthotists simply go to the hospital, see the patient, leave, perhaps drop off a brace, but do not see the doctor. They do not follow up with the doctor and leave him/her a copy of their notes. They do not tell the doctor, "When the patient comes in again I will come and work with the patient while you're in the room, so we can be sure that we get the outcome we want."

The practitioner simply does what he has to do to take care of the patient and leaves, Perrone continues. "Then the patient is magically supposed to show up at the O&P office just because the doctor sent them there, since 20 years ago he formed a relationship with the owner."

In contrast, the sales rep works with the doctor right in the office, fits a knee brace or other device, thus not inconveniencing the patient at all.

"If I were running a medical practice, and a CO from an O&P company comes in and says, 'Here is a bunch of brochures; send your patients to me; thanks, 'bye,' and a sales rep comes in and says, 'Tell me when you have a patient and I will be here to measure him and then we'll have the patient come back for fitting in your office,' I am going to go with the rep. Why should I have my patient go across town?" She stresses, "You have to get out there and make those relationships and form bonds!"

Commenting on commoditization, DeGroff says that off-the-shelf (OTS) products open the way for "everyone and his brother to become an orthotic fitter. My concern is for the patients--that's what it's supposed to be all about." Even with OTS products, patients can develop some sort of problem, "and if a sales rep or someone like that is putting the product on, where does the patient go when he needs help?"

Speaking as a sales rep, DeGroff says he does not want patients calling him, since the orthotist is the one who is the trained professional.

However, sometimes when DeGroff calls at some O&P facilities and offers products, the orthotist says, "Well, go out and get the scrip, and we'll put it on." DeGroff continues, "They've done that to [big-name orthopedic manufacturers/suppliers], so the reps go out and get the scrips--and guess what else? They now have the relationship with the physician!"

This leads to two concerns, DeGroff points out. 1) Since not all companies have the best products, the orthotist might be fitting the patient with a product-specific prescription that may not benefit the patient, or could even do harm. This type of situation reduces competition among manufacturers and suppliers, which in turn can raise product prices. The orthotist also likely will have to spend more time later providing service to a patient who isn't benefiting from the product.

Although of course the orthotist could, if he/she thought the product was not the best choice for the patient, simply call the physician and discuss this, DeGroff observed, "But more often than not, the orthotist will just do what's called for in the scrip. It seems to me that sometimes these orthotists just forget that they do have some control; that they are the professional."
He adds, "I believe the orthotist in conjunction with the physician should make the choice of product for the patients, not the sales rep."

DeGroff says he sees his job as giving the O&P facility the best value per dollar for good products: "My name is on the products, and I learned a long time ago that you don't keep customers by giving them bad products. If I find products that don't work, I find substitutions real fast." He also sees his job as "getting the products to them when they need them." DeGroff also will assist the orthotist with patients if desired, make products available for their presentations to referral sources, and even give presentations on behalf of his O&P company customers.

Says DeGroff, "I believe in the industry."

So the path is clear: O&P professionals must be willing to provide great customer service and go to physicians and others to sell the value of their professional qualifications and expertise. "Marketing" isn't a dirty word.