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2021 Healthcare Sales Challenges Research Study

Outbound sales

2022 selling trends in healthcare

January 15, 2021Article

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Challenges for Healthcare Sales Teams

At Richardson Sales Performance, we asked sales professionals and managers to tell us what challenges they considered most pressing in 2021. We received responses from more than 700 individuals.

We then segmented the 187 responses that came from professionals within the healthcare industry. With this portion of the data, we were able to isolate the differences and similarities between challenges anticipated by healthcare sales professionals and selling professionals in all other industries.

In this brief, we examine the responses form healthcare sales professionals, how they compare to the broader sales industry, and what specific actions sales professionals can take to address the looming challenges of a COVID and post-COVID environment.

It was not surprising to learn that many sales professionals saw their pipelines/revenue diminish in 2020 as a direct result of the global pandemic. Therefore, “finding new business...” was a key goal for selling organizations in 2021 and the most cited challenge across respondents. Meanwhile, sales professionals in organizations that grew in 2020 now face the challenge of meeting higher selling targets this year.

While many are adapting to this new set of circumstances, “selling in a virtual environment” remains the second most common challenge among our survey population. These findings suggest that existing processes and methodologies need to be updated or supplemented with virtual selling adaptations, skills, and techniques.

In the following six sections we examine the details behind these challenges.

1. The Virtual Setting Has Intensified Challenges in Prospecting and Access

When we asked our respondents to cite the primary challenges associated with finding new business to fill their pipeline, 22.9% indicated that prospecting in a virtual setting was the most significant hurdle. Healthcare sales professionals put a higher priority on this parameter at 25.6%. This is not surprising given that prospecting (also equated to stimulating interest to gain access) is a relatively new phenomenon in healthcare, especially for pharma sales organizations.

Given the rapid pivot from face to face to virtual engagements, breaking through to the customer across digital channels during the distractions of a pandemic was the second most cited response to the question across healthcare and all types of sellers. Sales professionals of all types often failed to connect with customers or prospects and, as a result, struggled to “gain access to the right stakeholder.” This challenge continues to grow as HCPs anticipate that virtual engagements will double as they replace much of the face-to-face interactions that took place previously. Additionally, as healthcare sales and marketing organizations hone their digital engagement effort, healthcare stakeholders will become saturated with requests for interactions and will be forced to be even more discriminating and select only those engagements that provide value.

However, challenges like prospect qualification and identifying triggers/sales signals that indicate issues that you can resolve were both more pressing for all respondents than they were among those in healthcare. Again, this is not surprising given the typical selling situation in which healthcare representatives find themselves. Managing gatekeepers was more of a hurdle to healthcare sales professionals than the total population of responders.

Healthcare sales professionals can improve their prospecting with three practices:

Revise and Personalize the Value Statement to Address New Challenges

Sales professional should demonstrate three things, their understanding of what is important to the customer, the ease of doing business together, and the specific outcomes the solution will deliver.

Build Incremental Value Creation

Sales professionals must repeatedly and reliably offer value to potential customers which includes all stakeholders in the communication chain, from gatekeeper, to HCP, and administrators. This method is akin to a narrow trickle of water that slowly gathers to an ocean. This gradual build is important because the dominant challenge for sales professionals today is helping their potential customers overcome the status quo.

Deliver Messaging with Pinpoint Focus

Recording a personalized video for prospects has been shown to increase engagement. However, regulations restrict many healthcare sales professionals from doing so. In lieu of personalized videos, sales teams should work with marketing to create short, approved videos that speak to the current needs of their customers to embed in their email with a strong message to grab their attention.

Learn more about effective virtual prospecting in healthcare by downloading the brief, Three Ways to Improve Virtual Selling Access in Healthcare with Better Prospecting

2. Winning Active Opportunities is About Better Virtual Engagement

The challenges associated with working in a virtual environment loom large - even among active pursuits. Nearly 19% of our total respondents and 21% of our healthcare respondents cited “engaging with customers in a virtual environment” as one of their top three challenges when pursuing in-play opportunities. The second and third most common challenges were “accessing decision-makers” and “driving consensus among various stakeholders,” respectively.

Healthcare sales professionals and the overall responder population were in complete agreement about the top challenges to winning active opportunities, although it was clear that the top 3 were rated as higher challenges than in general B2B selling.

COVID-19 has forced many customers to redefine their business model. This abrupt change has left many uncertain of their needs, and now sales professionals must gain clarity on issues that are opaque, even to the stakeholders. Redesigning the sales conversation to address these challenges and deliver value means focusing on the following:

Leverage Internal Resources to Deliver Proprietary Insights

This approach works because all healthcare sales teams have access to data that is unique to their organization. Therefore, sales professionals should think about how they can use this information in their outreach efforts. Doing so serves the HCPs who are constantly trying to maintain pace with medical knowledge that has a doubling time that decreases every year.

Reverse Engineer the Buyer’s Journey

Healthcare sales professionals need to isolate the various points during which a sale made definitive movements toward a close. This investigation should focus more on those wins that occurred in the more recent months. These are the scenarios that are likely to be more representative of future outcomes. Recent data is of greater value than more data.

Bolster Internal Communication as a Force Multiplier

Boosting internal communication will reveal previously unseen selling opportunities. A faltering opportunity in one corner of the selling organization might be rescued by insights from another corner in the organization.

3. Price and Profitability Continue to Threaten Negotiations

While not all segments of the healthcare industry have the opportunity to negotiate, when those that do were asked about challenges in negotiations, 20.2% of our total respondents and 21.5% of our healthcare respondents cited “protecting price and maintaining profitability,” making it the single most common difficulty among our participants.

The challenge of “managing procurement” was cited as larger for healthcare sales professionals than for the total sales professional population. These challenges indicate that sales professionals are developing an understanding of what they need to do to protect pricing. What remains elusive for many is how to do it. 

The answer to this question means committing to three practices:

Anchor Value When Making the Offer

The offer should not be presented as an invitation to bargain. Therefore, sales professionals should use resolute language. This means avoiding phrases like, “We’re aiming to be around a price of ...” The offer should be made with language that puts all the terms on the table. Breaking up the information into a piecemeal approach frustrates the customer and undermines trust.

Convert Demands to Needs

Investigate the customer’s demands. Demands are an expression of an underlying need. By drilling deeper, the sales professional can uncover these needs. This approach is important because needs (e.g., “I need more flexibility in the payment schedule.”) are much easier to discuss and resolve than demands (e.g., “I can’t pay that much.”).

Shape Perceptions of Value

Sales professionals shape perceptions of value when they focus the customer on what they will gain by reaching an agreement and what they will lose by falling short. Creating this influence and getting customer agreement on the value throughout the sales process is key. This enables the sales professional to negotiate from a position of agreed-upon value in the face of requested discounting.

4. Competition has Escalated in Response to New Challenges

The global pandemic has invigorated competition. Dramatic cost-cutting, and continually changing payment models coupled with the burden of having to pivot or completely change a business model, have forced competing sales organizations to get aggressive in their approach to the market.

Therefore, it is no surprise that the most frequently identified challenge in managing and expanding existing accounts is “defending against competitors” at 19.2% overall and 20.5% among healthcare sales professionals. Though the economic recovery is underway, the share of available business is considerably smaller than it has been in recent years. Additionally, as virtual selling quickly normalizes, more competitors are beginning to access a wider circle of customers and stakeholders once thought to be out of reach. 

Adjusting the account management process to these new circumstances means adopting three practices:

Make Enablement a Precision Instrument

The need for this precision comes from a growing consensus that enablement must facilitate the healthcare professional’s risk mitigation through evidence-based selling. That is, as HCPs become more risk-averse, evidence becomes more important. As budgets attenuate, the success of the solution becomes critical. There is no room for error.

Account Plans Must Become Customized

Most customers have reduced or frozen spending in recent months. This downshift in spending means that sales professionals will need to reassess account strategies. A reassessment means understanding how the expanding group of decision-makers has changed, where the most intense pain points reside, and how the customer’s timeline has evolved.

Virtual Selling Must be Differentiated

Remaining competitive means constantly innovating the way the platform is used. Sales professionals need more guidance on new challenges like engaging with CFOs who now have a larger presence in the purchasing process. Additionally, leaders need to focus on long-tenured healthcare sales professionals who might be hesitant to change or who may require more time to transition to a new skill set.

5. The COVID Crisis Has Renewed Uncertainty Among Customers

Across all questions, our respondents were never more clear than when they were asked about the biggest challenge buyers face when making a purchasing decision. Overwhelmingly, sales professionals and sales leaders believe that “dealing with uncertainty brought on by the pandemic” is the single greatest challenge stakeholders face when considering a purchase. Just over 41% of our total participants, and 52.9% of our healthcare sales professionals, cited this as the buyer’s largest burden.

At 16%, the second most cited challenge sales professionals believe buyers face is “managing constantly shifting priorities.” These top two challenges are connected because heightened uncertainty often leads to inconsistent priorities. Simply, as the road becomes more winding, the wheel must turn more dramatically. 

Sales professionals can address this setting in three ways:

Deliver an Evidence-Based Selling Solution

Sales professionals must develop clinical selling skills to establish their credibility and deliver patient-oriented solutions based on the needs and goals of the healthcare provider. Doing so means leveraging the principles of evidence-based medicine to interpret and communicate the clinical studies and statistical terms underpinning the value of the solution.

Investigate the Customer’s Decision Process

The more a sales professional knows about how the customer’s decision process works, the better prepared they are to be alert to discrepancies and cues revealing who the influencers are in the process. With this information, the sales professional is equipped to redirect the process when necessary.

Become a Better Listener

Good listeners regularly make an effort to do three things well. First, they encourage the speaker to provide more detail. Second, they engage in mirroring by mimicking the speech, cadence, gestures, and even attitude of the person speaking. Third, they use questions to confirm the speaker’s key points.

6. The Virtual Setting Has Reduced Customer Engagement

Since the earliest months of the pandemic, most people have made great strides in adapting to the virtual medium. Despite this, challenges remain. Overwhelmingly, our total respondents and our healthcare respondents indicated that the predominant challenge of selling virtually is that it is “more difficult to connect personally.” Of note is the difference in intensity of the second-highest challenge when selling virtually. 27% of healthcare respondents said that the second greatest challenge was that “people behave differently virtually-not as engaged” - eight points higher than the overall respondent pool.

Customers can more easily hide the fact that they are distracted. Email notifications and the on-screen environment are invisible to the sales professional. Therefore, it is difficult for them to know when they have the customer’s attention and when they do not.

The good news is that flexible sales professionals can adjust to this new setting by making a few changes:

Think Beyond the Solution

Sparking the HCP’s interest requires exploring the customer’s core needs and challenges. It is easy to see why this more effective approach is ignored; the sales professional has a deep knowledge of the solution and therefore can easily represent themselves as a wealth of information by leveraging readily available detail. Rather than assign the solution’s capabilities to the customer’s challenges, sales professionals should start with the nuance of the customer’s challenges and determine what aspects of the solution are salient.

Seek Out What the HCP Seeks Out

Sales professionals must explore the data and research that is most likely to be of interest to the HCP. To find relevant information, sales professionals must seek the journals, websites, information, and research with which the customer engages. With this current, salient, and granular information, the sales professional can more effectively create a hinge that prompts further conversation.

Build a Rapport with Professionals in the HCP’s Orbit

Much of the sales professional’s success resides in the activities that unfold before their first call with the customer. This is the phase of the pursuit in which the sales professional can begin to build a rapport with the people in the HCP’s orbit. This approach is not only helpful, but also imperative. In nearly all cases, the sales professional will need to convince others of their value before they are granted access to the HCP.

2020 introduced a new era in the healthcare sales industry. The responses in our survey demonstrate the depth and breadth of these changes. Succeeding in this new setting means developing a sharper prospecting strategy and fully adapting to the virtual environment. There is no aspect of selling that is free of influence from the virtual arena. Everything from negotiations to competitive threats tie to virtual engagement. Sales professionals who redefine their approach accordingly will succeed.

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Research: 2021 Healthcare Selling Challenges Study


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