Marketing and selling medical devices is complicated. They are highly regulated, competition is intense, and the stakes are high. There are a number of stakeholders and constituents who must say yes – or at least not say no – before you can sell your device.
If you are a startup CEO, medical device sales representative, product manager, or marketing manager, use this general list and description as a place to start to develop a plan. As you get more granular, i.e., at the hospital level, the buyer types and the purchasing process will become very specific. You need a plan to address the needs and overcome the objections of every one of the buyer types and often, more than one buyer in a given category. What I’ve learned in marketing medical devices is that only a few people can say yes to a medical device purchase but many can say no.
I’ve identified four categories of buyers. There are often multiple buyers within each category.
- User buyer
- Economic buyer
- Technical buyer
- Paying buyer
Let’s examine each category in more detail:
The user buyer is typically the physician or surgeon. A user buyer can also be a physician’s assistant, nurse, surgical technician or other healthcare professional – literally, anyone who might touch the product. The caveat here is to make sure you address all of the user buyers and satisfy their needs or at least neutralize their objections. I have seen large sales get derailed because a circulating nurse in the O.R. did not like a product’s packaging and was influential enough to use her veto power.
Physician user buyers may have less power than you think to influence a purchase. While they usually have some clout to request specific items for their likes/dislikes, economics and standardization are often invoked to deny requests from less influential doctors. And doctors, just like the rest of us, like to keep some influence in reserve for a time when they might really need it. Just another way of separating “must have” from “nice to have.”
The real challenge is in trying to convert an entire department or practice to a new product. Not only do you have to “sell” all of the user buyers but you have to convince a key decision-maker like a department head to use his/her authority to finalize the decision. This is an area where your marketing staff needs to craft highly specific comparison materials detailing the beneficial features, benefits, and advantages of your product/service. Your sales representative will need to use his/her relationships with all of these people and invest considerable time within the facility to keep the sale/conversion going.
You also need to carefully consider all user requirements before finalizing your product’s features and functions. The old cliche is that you sell the benefits, not the features, but this is an exception. If you omit or include the wrong feature, someone you will never meet may kill your product’s deployment at one or more sites. Market research is extremely important at this phase – well before product design commences.
The key is to identify a need among the user buyers, then establish a value for your product by emphasizing and quantifying your product’s unique benefits, and thus justify a premium price. Easier said than done.
The economic buyer can be a purchasing agent or executive, a department head with budgetary authority such as the O.R. Director (often a nurse) or head of the Emergency Department or ICU, an accountant or even the hospital’s CFO or CEO.
For capital items and capital leases and for purchases that affect a number of people, e.g., physicians, nurses, techs, a purchasing committee (may have a number of different names) often makes purchase decisions. It will be important to know who is on the committee and how to access the committee in order to supply information. At a tactical level, the sales representative or account manager for a given hospital or other site must map out the economic buyers. This requires real diplomacy and smooth interactions, as often the information is not given freely.
The trick with economic buyers is to spend as little time and effort with them as possible. The investment should be in creating demand from the user buyers and in giving the user buyers a business case to justify the purchase. You must avoid inadvertently having your product categorized as a commodity. In that case, your product will be viewed as interchangeable with other products and the (premature) negotiations over pricing will begin.
The technical buyer can be someone in the Biomedical Engineering Department if the facility is large enough to have that resource or it could be another technical person in a completely different area who performs biomedical engineering functions in his/her spare time. In rare cases, the technical buyer could be a healthcare professional such as a physician.
In any event, get your compliance engineer in touch with this person ASAP to determine if there are unusual or extraordinary requirements. Also make sure the biomedical engineer understands all of the features and functions of your device, including IEC 60601, UL, etc. If you have a software product or a physical product with software functions, you may need to get the blessing of the CIO, CTO, or other technology executive or one of their reports. Obviously, HIPAA compliance is a hot topic with everyone so it will be helpful to demonstrate compliance in advance.
The paying buyer is usually an insurance company or Medicare. For procedures that aren’t reimbursed such as elective plastic surgery, the paying buyer can be the patient or it can be the physician for minor products that are consumed or implanted as part of a procedure.
Making sure your device has the proper reimbursement codes is beyond the scope of this article but I strongly recommend engaging a reimbursement consultant and following their recommendations before completing your plan and long before planning your market launch. That step is critical for maximizing your revenue and proving to investors that you have a sound business model and know how you are going to make money.
Whether conducting primary market research to plan a launch and understand the purchasing process for your device or moving through the sales process at a target healthcare facility, always ask two questions to whomever you are selling: First, can you make the decision to purchase this product/service on your own? If the answer is no, ask who does have that authority and then target that person. If the answer is yes, then ask if the person has a budget with which to purchase the product/service. If the answer is no, they are no longer a serious prospect.
Takeaways: Use market research, competitive analysis, and field representative input to develop a plan to address all four of the medical device buyer types: user buyers, economic buyers, technical buyers, and payer buyers. Keep in mind that anyone could have veto power over your sale. Avoid commoditization of your product by emphasizing benefits over features and by relating benefits to value.