Lab Vendors Adjusting to Changing Sales Practices

Clinical laboratories and pathology practices shifted buying patterns since onset of the pandemic

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Debra-HarrschDeborah-Hewitt-SmithCEO SUMMARY: Important changes are happening in how lab managers research and buy new lab analyzers, automation, test kits, and consumables. Today, a large proportion of a lab buyer’s research and interaction involving new products is done digitally. This includes virtual sales calls, say two IVD lab marketing experts. 

WHEN IT COMES TO MARKETING AND SELLING clinical laboratory automation, analyzers, and test kits, it’s a brave new world for the leading in vitro diagnostics (IVD) companies. Because of the pandemic and related factors, traditional sales channels no longer work as they did before. At the same time, new paths to lab customers have emerged. 

One consequence of these developments is that IVD manufacturers are scrambling to adjust to the new realities of marketing and selling in the clinical laboratory marketplace. They recognize that their lab customers now research and shop for new lab instruments, automation, tests, and consumables in significantly different ways than before the pandemic. 

Front and center in these developments was the lockdown in the early months of the pandemic. Businesses closed. Employees stayed home. If any business was done during this time, it was primarily by telephone, email, Zoom conferences, and similar. 

Simultaneous with the government-ordered lockdown, hospitals, physician clinics, and clinical labs restricted access to their facilities. These restrictions on visitors (including the sales and service reps of IVD suppliers) continued throughout 2020 and even into 2022 because of the surge of Omicron cases at that time. 

Given lemons, IVD companies set about making lemonade. “The pandemic gave IVD marketers the opportunity to try something different because they could not go to trade shows and they could not walk into hospitals for sales meetings,” Debra Harrsch, President and CEO at Brandwidth Solutions in Lansdale, Pa., told The Dark Report. 

Digital Sales Visits 

“Marketers really had to get their digital houses in order during the pandemic because they could not rely on things they normally did to reach their lab buyers,” she added. 

As the pandemic forced closures for nonessential visits, business-to-business (B2B) marketers within IVD firms learned that lab customers and prospects liked being contacted remotely. With most labs short-staffed, lab buyers had little time for on-site visits with IVD sales reps. 

“This is a dynamic shift that we see continuing. It is something to embrace. The real question is: How will marketers harness this new normal in marketing and sales in the B2B space?” said Deborah Hewett-Smith, Principal at Talking Laboratories in Tucson, Ariz., during the presentation she made with Harrsch at the Executive War College Conference on Laboratory and Pathology Management in April. 

The session was titled, “How the Pandemic Permanently Changed the Way Lab Buyers Respond to Marketing Messages and Make Buying Decisions.” 

Hewett-Smith’s observations are consistent with a 2020 analysis by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. It found that the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak propelled buyers and sellers into digital “in a massive way.” 

Most B2B interactions have moved to remote or digital from in-person, the analysis showed. In its survey, 70% to 80% of decision-makers indicated preference for “remote interactions or digital self-service,” McKinsey said. Respondents cited reasons such as ease of scheduling, savings on travel, and safety. 

“This same internal transition also occurred at clinical laboratories because of the sudden shift to remote marketing and selling—whether for IVD equipment and tests or other lab services,” Hewett- Smith noted. “For today’s lab buyers, personal, curated content is in high demand from IVD companies—such as digital messages from credible leaders.” 

Benefit to Digital Sales Mode 

Hewett-Smith, who served in marketing for several IVD manufacturers, pointed out that there is a unique benefit when working in a digital sales mode. “Digital sales interaction enables organizations to involve more of their internal experts in the selling process,” she stated. 

“‘Team selling’ is starting to take off as compared to a one-on-one sales call,” Hewett-Smith explained. “This changes the dynamic of sales to more of a hybrid model. IVD companies will not eliminate in-person interactions. They just won’t be the primary way—and maybe not the best way—to further an opportunity to develop a lab prospect into a buyer. 

“Lab buyers want it. They like it because it demonstrates to them that the IVD company understands their lab’s unique needs,” she added. “The walls have come down. With digital engagement tools, an IVD company can deliver better access to its experts. In turn, it creates the opportunity for IVD marketing teams to create curated content and develop useful engagement with lab thought leaders.” 

Detailed Customer Persona 

With more sales development now based on digital engagement, it is important that IVD companies and lab vendors develop a detailed customer persona—i.e., a firm understanding of the individual or people the seller is attempting to reach. 

The COVID-19 pandemic created new challenges and responsibilities in the clinical laboratory. Among the top challenges are maintaining adequate lab staff and managing the supply chain. That is why pathologists and lab manager are tapping new sources of information about IVD products and using this information to make informed decisions. 

“Most lab buyers are scientists. They like data, and they will look for information to solve patient challenges,” Harrsch observed. “They will do their homework. They will go through a consideration phase and look at all the data available. 

“It is important that IVD marketers be prepared to take a targeted lab customer on a journey that could lead to an initial purchase and future upsells,” she continued. “It is not just saying, ‘Here is the instrument and it is great, or here is a new assay.’ Customers want more information to take them on their journey to buy what their lab needs.”

As before the pandemic, a customer lifecycle loop revolves around various phases of awareness, research, consideration, selection, buying, satisfaction, retention, and advocacy. 

“The big four steps continue to be awareness, consideration, buying, and retention,” Harrsch said. “A lot of lab vendors do the awareness, consideration, and buying phases, but then they drop the other lifecycle steps. 

“A current lab customer may not remain a future customer if the IVD company fails to continue marketing to them through the product lifecycle.” 

Engage Customers after Sale 

Looked at another way, IVD companies need to continue to engage with their customers after a sale occurs, Hewett-Smith added. 

“How is your company going to keep your lab customers satisfied? You want the sales team to get back in the organization and hunt for new opportunities,” she noted. “But what are the sales and marketing teams doing to make that lab customer the company’s advocate?” 

Because of the shift away from personal sales calls as a primary method to a digital-based sales process, it is important for IVD companies to send a clear marketing and sales message, Harrsch suggested. 

“It’s noisy out there. Get the sales message in order, because if it is not in order, the lab customer does not know who you are and how your company’s product or service can help them,” she noted. 

One key is content that addresses customer challenges. “What’s the value to the customer? Lab buyers want to know the value proposition at the beginning of the sales cycle,” Harrsch said. “It is really about the customer experience, and digital over the last few years has reinforced that.” 

IVD marketers have many digital tools available to them: podcasts, videos, webinars, and social media. They can also turn to traditional means, such as news releases, blogs, white papers, and case studies. Regardless of the method, all messaging needs to be integrated. 

“Don’t create advertising or content in isolation,” Harrsch said. “Don’t create public relations in isolation. If a message is well integrated, it will cost the company less to market.” 

She encouraged IVD firms to develop blog content that drives more traffic to the organization’s website. The process for doing so is known as search engine optimization (SEO), a web buzzword that refers to using content keywords and related tactics that play into a browser’s algorithms for search results. 

Using Social Media Channels 

“The blog is a place to branch out to all social media channels and develop thought leadership. People respond to thought leadership in articles, news releases, and white papers,” Harrsch added. 

Potential buyers are curious about what is out there, Hewett-Smith added. “Now is a good time. Buyers are receptive to digital interactions. How can an IVD marketing team ramp that up?” 

Increased marketing comes at a cost, and results need to be tracked. “Marketers are being held accountable for return on investment. ROI cannot be shown on everything, but a lot of this is measurable,” Harrsch noted. 

“For example, if I do a webinar, I know how many people were on the call and how many followed up. And now marketing automation tools show how customers or prospects are engaging with the company. 

“So, an IVD sales team can have information about what topics are of interest to lab customers before it initiates the sales call, because these marketing automation platforms now tell them what areas of interest were engaged by the customer,” Harrsch explained. “It remains true that nothing is more important to a sales person than knowing what is of greatest interest to a customer.” 

Marketing Effectiveness 

Another benefit to remote sales interactions is that this channel allows IVD companies to monitor the receptiveness of marketing messages by lab customers and the effectiveness of the marketing and sales teams, according to Hewett- Smith. 

“Real-time feedback from a recorded, remote sales interaction is a way to help ensure that messages are understood and meet their mark,” Hewett-Smith emphasized. “Digital platforms give marketing and sales teams direct access to the voice of the customer to see how messages resonate. It’s a gold mine of marketing data that would not be available from an in-person interaction.” 

Modern sales call software can transcribe and annotate conversations with prospects, allowing for post-call reviews that can better pinpoint topics or wording that promoted follow-up discussions. The software can also aggregate call data to pull out keywords that are mentioned most often during calls, offering another opportunity to tailor future marketing and sales messages to customers. 

Competitive Advantage 

IVD companies that are keen on maintaining a competitive advantage should evaluate these new marketing and sales tactics as more clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology practices resume normal operations.

Contact Debra Harrsch at 215-997-8575, dharrsch@brandwidthsolutions.com; Deborah Hewett-Smith at 520-546-1966, dhewettsmith@pmi-team.com.

 

McKinsey survey on B2B sales

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