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Reap rewards from sales reps
Use your relationship with sales reps to gain valuable information, favors, and freebies.
So what have you done for me lately?" If you're asking that question of the manufacturer and distributor sales representatives who e-mail, call, or show up on your doorstep, chances are you're dissatisfied with their service. You don't know them well, and you don't trust them to give you helpful information, professional respect, or the little extras that keep you coming back to buy from them. It's time to change that. You can build better relationships with sales representatives—and get more from them in return.
Cut down on your reps
Today's sales reps aren't what they used to be, says Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member Dr. Jim Kramer, CVPM, who owns Columbus Animal Hospital in Columbus, Neb. Or, rather, there just aren't as many. "We used to have 12 distributor and manufacturer reps stopping by regularly at our practice," he says. "They were hungry to educate us on any new product, because the first one in the door was usually the one we'd order from."
The bottom line
No more. The business landscape for veterinary suppliers has changed a lot in the past few years. Manufacturers and distributors have merged, representatives cover larger territories, and more intensive scheduling at clinics has squeezed out a lot of face-to-face sales calls. At Dr. Kramer's practice, he gets more e-mails and phone calls than visits.
But that's not necessarily bad, he says. "It was almost a problem before when they'd all show up at our practice," Dr. Kramer says. "You couldn't buy from everybody, and most of the sales reps were very likable people." Dr. Kramer misses that face time, though, so he's learned to buy from people who value it, too. It's how he's built good relationships with salespeople. "It's not all about the lowest price," he says. "Loyalty has value." Veterinarians enjoy loyalty from clients who don't value low price above all else, Dr. Kramer says. Veterinarians' sales reps expect a little loyalty, too.
Dr. Kramer now works mostly with just three distributors and buys almost everything from a handful of sales reps. They help keep him up to date on new products and sometimes even talk him into purchases that sounded like they wouldn't work for his practice—but did. These "detail guys" understand his practice and know what information he needs regarding medical advancements, price changes, and discounts. Dr. Kramer does his own research as well, but he often hears about new developments first from his reps.
They really know their stuff
Dr. Kramer attributes these strong relationships to mutual respect. "I know when they visit me they're taking time away from their family, and being on the road isn't easy," he says. "Anyone who comes to my practice deserves a moment of my time."
He says some doctors treat sales reps as adversaries, playing them against each other to squeeze discounts out of them. Dr. Kramer, though, says it's not all about how much he pays for a bottle of medicine. It's often about the sales rep letting him know about new developments so he can improve the quality of medical care for his patients.
Board the training train
Another way manufacturer and distributor reps can help your practice is by offering training. Reps can shake only so many hands, spend time at so many practices, and discount prices so much to differentiate themselves from competitors. They can also provide excellent in-person or Web-based seminars, CE sessions, and the ubiquitous "lunch-and-learns."
"You know manufacturers and distributors are thrilled to come in and talk," says Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member Dr. Fred Metzger, DABVP, owner of Metzger Animal Hospital in State College, Pa. "When their marketing plan falls in line with something you're interested in, everybody wins." Dr. Metzger emphasizes dental care more and more in his practice, so he calls on company reps to help him and his team learn new dental techniques like nerve blocks and digital dental radiography. Or if a veterinary manufacturer asks to come talk to his technicians about Lyme disease, he's more than happy to open his doors for free team training.
Things sales reps should not do
Of course, practices in highly populated areas have the most opportunities for free CE from manufacturers and distributors. Companies can attract more doctors and team members when they plan educational events in urban areas. Dr. Jeff Rothstein, MBA, a Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member and president of The Progressive Pet Animal Hospitals and Management Group in Michigan, says dinner CE sessions in the Detroit area regularly draw 30 to 40 people. But his colleagues in more sparsely populated areas receive their share of free CE, too—they just have to be more proactive.
If reps aren't offering training at your clinic, Dr. Rothstein suggests, offer to gather a few of your local colleagues and their teams for a bigger session. "The reps get more bang for their buck," he says. "They have only so many dollars for special programs like these."
Listen up to the reps' inside info
Information about new products and equipment isn't the only way sales reps help him out, Dr. Metzger says. They're also a great source for general facts about the local veterinary market. Sales reps spend time with veterinarians all over a given area, and they can let you know the details of the standard of care for your local area. Dr. Metzger's inventory manager, Caitlin Rivers, says her favorite sales reps also personalize their information for their hospital.
Ask for what you need
The trick—and it's not much of a trick—to getting more from your favorite sales reps is to ask, Dr. Rothstein says. He's requested lots of favors from manufacturer and distributor reps over the years. And he's gotten them, too: Focused training on new initiatives at his hospital. Sponsorships for his technicians and team members to attend veterinary conferences. Free shopping bags so he doesn't have to buy plastic bags. Temporary equipment replacement when his unit broke down. Anesthesia supplies when one of his hospitals ran dangerously low—the rep volunteered to swing by and drop off supplies while on his regular route. "I don't care if you're a big hospital or a small hospital. If you're interested in these extras, you have to ask," Dr. Rothstein says. "If you don't ask, you don't get."
Price check on aisle 7
Getting a little something extra from appreciative sales reps also promotes good team vibes. Dr. Rothstein figures everybody appreciates a nice dinner with an outside speaker more than "Dr. Jeff coming in—again—telling them to treat everybody nicely," he says with a laugh. "It's a morale boost when I can tell team members that these companies value us and our service," he says.
The underlying trust, however, between doctor and sales rep is grounded more in a shared mission than in pizza and freebies. Rivers says she looks for reps who value deeper issues more than merely making a deal. "I look for commitment to patient care and client care," she says. "When I find that commitment, it's a true partnership."
Those reps selling you medicine, supplies, and equipment are in the same business you're in: creating healthier lives for pets and their owners. So the next time you see your sales rep, smile, shake hands, and ask, "What have you done for me lately ... friend?"