How a clinical specialist grew her facility’s referral stream without previous sales experience. 

By Jennie Dugan, RRT-SDS

When my request was declined for the marketing department to promote referrals to our medical facility’s subacute ventilator services, I felt like Daniel in the Lion’s Den. I was supposed to bring in referrals, essentially taking on a sales role?!  

Though clinical specialists have a key component of sales—product knowledge—in spades, many of us don’t have expertise in the sales process.

Yet, I overcame this challenge, and within weeks, that subacute ventilator services department was full. That differentiator? Respect. 

“On the surface, respect seems too elementary and nebulous to forge competitive advantage. But it is a powerful influence,” says Leonard L. Berry, past president of the American Marketing Association, in his book Discovering the Soul of Service: The Nine Drivers of Sustainable Business Success.

Respect is a powerhouse that can differentiate you from competitors and build referrals into a steady stream.

Sound like common sense? One physician office manager (a gatekeeper) estimated that half of the salespeople she encountered were disrespectful.

As a sleep specialist, you are in an enviable position, beyond the legions of salespeople vying for a physician’s time. Here’s how to use that to increase referrals to your sleep business.

Five Steps to Increased Sleep Referrals

1. Know before you go: Differentiators, objectives, and qualifying.

Before you go, identify what makes your sleep business different. Why is your hospital service a better choice than the small upstart, or vice versa? What does that mean to the referring provider? 

For example, maybe a key difference is that your sleep business uses the latest software. For the referring provider, that could mean that your graphics help them discuss options with their patients.

Also, clarify your objective. Sure, your overall goal is a referral stream, but what’s the objective for that particular call? This might be, for example, to get that first referral, discuss a case, or build the relationship to become their primary sleep agency.

Finally, before you go, qualify prospects. Do they need you? Can they use you? For example, that cardiologist might prescribe CPAP, but if he is a competitor’s medical director, he is not a qualified prospect.

2: Gain access. 

The hot question is how to get past the gatekeeper. Sleep specialists have a credential that puts them in a body of people with group respect—a sales advantage.

Resist the urge to categorize gatekeepers as brick walls. Acknowledge their role. Remember that word: respect. Respect their time and your own. Call ahead. Ask how to get five minutes of Dr Smith’s time to discuss changes benefitting patient care. 

Also, ask who makes the referral decision: “I’m looking for the appropriate person to talk to about…” Asking for the appropriate person gives them the opportunity to say, “Actually, I do. Dr Smith approves the list; I make the referrals.”

3. Maximize your five minutes with the potential referring provider.

On every call, bring something of value. This might be technology, case studies, or your people. For example, “Our director created this algorithm, which improved COPD patient compliance by 20%.” 

Don’t bring an information dump. Bring something of value, something that’s changed, newsworthy, and relevant to the physician.

Also, the sales call isn’t actually about The Sale. It’s about the customer. Ask, “What’s important to you when referring patients for therapy?” You might add, “Is it compliance, insurance, or equipment options?” 

Then really listen to their response. Go off script. Make notes if need be, or not. Simply listening and responding authentically can be more powerful than a glossy presentation.

Here’s an example from my career: I entered the office of a physician group’s vice president who had a strong, somber bearing. I doubted anyone dared be disrespectful in his presence, but I also noticed a book on his shelf on respect. I asked if he ever encountered disrespect in salespeople. 

He launched into a story comparing marketing companies. One was a major player with a packaged presentation; the other, a solo entrepreneur along the lines of “an employee’s neighbor’s brother-in-law.” The major company’s two salespeople brandished a polished PowerPoint. The executive and physicians left the presentation feeling empty, sort of like eating Twinkies for lunch.

By contrast, the solo entrepreneur started with questions. What were they trying to achieve? Who typically referred to them? What had they tried in the past? Had they considered social media? By the end of a single phone call, the entrepreneur told the executive and physicians, based on their responses, what he could do for them. He won the business and their respect.

4. Ask for the business. 

Being respectful means being authentic. Authenticity builds trust. Use your own words, but ask: “Would you be willing to try us with two patients?” Or, “Will this benefit your patients who would use home sleep testing?”

5. Establish next steps. 

This is where you grow the business. Ask what works for them because it respects a valuable commodity: time. “Is two weeks OK to return to ensure everything went well with your next referral?”

A common bond that builds trust and referrals is that patient care always comes first. Your expertise opens the door. Your respect for physicians and patients builds referrals.

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