In 2018, Huthwaite International released a white paper on the medical device sector’s sales skills shortage, based on a Europe-wide study of more than 300 senior medical device sales leaders.

Unpicking the pressures, challenges, and strategic imperatives facing the industry led Huthwaite to four separate conclusions: existing selling techniques are not as effective as they once were; sales leaders are embracing new commercial models in order to make a profit; many manufacturers believe future growth will come from new product development; and the industry exhibits a clear correlation between profit, and having a systematic approach to selling and negotiating.

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One year on, we caught up with Huthwaite regional director Marco Weijers to unpick what exactly is behind the skills shortage, and how the industry can improve.

Chloe Kent: Why are sales skills in the medical device sector so lacking?

Marco Weijers: In the medical sector things have been changing quite a lot in the last few years. Sellers need to adapt to that – and some do and some struggle. But it also has to do with the background of a typical salesperson in medical technology, or medical devices.

Perhaps 20 or 30 years ago, many of the sales people in medical devices had a medical background, former nurses or people that work in an operating theatre. They had a deep knowledge of the product, device, disposable, whatever they were selling, but not necessarily of the impact it has on the top line for a hospital or consumer.

CK: What is the impact of this skills shortage on the sales floor?

MW: Let’s say you have a new idea or a new device, and you try to sell it in a way that you’ve been selling it in the past, going to surgeons and explaining how wonderful your device is. It may be that the people who decide whether or not they’re going to buy it aren’t just the people that you’re talking to. You may be missing out on stakeholders in the decision making unit.

What has changed in the last few years is that procurement has a much bigger say in decisions around what is, or is not, going to be used in a hospital. If I try to persuade somebody in procurement to buy a device with exactly the same reasons that I use for persuading a surgeon, this might not resonate with them at all.

The effect of that is, although your device might be brilliant, you’re not talking to the right people about the right issues. In the end, they don’t buy it because they don’t see any value in it. You’ve failed to create value for different stakeholders who weren’t there ten years ago when you only had to sell to surgeons.

CK: What can medical device salespeople do to improve?

MW: What you’re looking for is people and organisations that are able to demonstrate clinical and economic outcomes to the various stakeholders. It goes beyond a product specialist who can very enthusiastically explain why device B is better than device A. What does it mean at an economical level for the hospital? What does it mean in terms of saving time for the operating theatre? Does that have an impact on the image of the hospital? Does it have an impact on the amount of days that people have to spend in hospital after surgery, and is that a good thing or a bad thing?

It also depends on who you’re talking to. You have to be able to deliver effective clinical and economic information to the right stakeholders at the right time.

The next question then is how do I do that? What are the behavioural skills that help me to do that? It starts with understanding needs at all those stakeholder levels, and this is where sales technique comes into play.

CK: What practical changes are Huthwaite helping the industry make?

MW: We have two international clients, one we’re working with already and one we’re talking to, who have innovative, high-value solutions which could make a real difference in fields like cancer therapy and robotic surgery. If you talk to these people, everybody is convinced that they have a solution for the problems that are out there, but if you look at how they are trying to persuade stakeholders in hospitals to actually buy their product you can see that there’s an immense desire to become better at that.

Say I have invented something wonderful for the world – if I talk to anyone about it, they say, ‘well, you work for company XYZ, tell me what’s new in your company?’ If I’m just giving them information about my product, how useful is that? How persuasive is that?

Before I start sending anything about my product, I should establish what the potential value for this particular stakeholder could be. That is where the majority of sales people can still improve. We’re not re-inventing the wheel, but we teach our clients to practice what in today’s world is a timeless principle – finding out what it is people actually want before you offer them a solution.