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It worked at head office

Selling medical devices gives you real opportunities to demonstrate the merits of a product – or your own haplessness. Ian Sandison offers some essential dos and don’ts of demonstration.


Marketing and R+D have specified the product, it seems to be working well during development, the product is launched – and then you, the salesman, are in front of the customer with the next best big thing. Management have told you how to sell it, and have promised you a big bonus once you do.


However, somebody forgot to mention the product quirks they do not wish you to show the customer – and now you are about to discover them for yourself, in the middle of a call.


Selling medical devices is for the most part very satisfying. You have a lot of autonomy, you are at the forefront of technology, you are helping to improve the care of patients. But if you do not demonstrate the product to its best advantage, you can be at the mercy of costly and embarrassing product failures.


During many years of selling medical devices, I can recall a number of personal experiences and tales from colleagues where things have not quite gone to plan in front of the customer.


Another fine mess


I remember when we considered taking on the launch of a new portable infusion device that would allow multiple drugs to be given in a particular order by rolling the infusion bag. The concept was groundbreaking and the product really worked – the only snag was that the device was the size of a briefcase and weighed about 20lb. So you would demonstrate the fluid bag, the rolling principle, giving the drugs in a particular order, and the customer was hooked… until you opened your huge holdall and got out the infusion device, trying not to break their desk or your own knee. Then you had to convince them this was portable and patients could wear it around the waist. We did not take on the distribution of this product.


Fluid and TPN (total parenteral nutrition) bags can also be very tricky. A former colleague of mine recalls having a bag of TPN burst in their car. No matter how much valeting the car had, they could not get rid of the smell. Nobody ever wished to share their car when going to meetings, and God help whoever eventually bought the car.


Another infusion device I had experience with was tricky to demonstrate since, despite fantastic performance and a great feature set, it took a long time to power up. The trick was to arrive at the call, sit outside, get the product out and switch it on before you went in, following the prompts so that when you got to see the customer, the device was all fired up and ready to go. Customers who asked about the power-up process were told how smooth it was…


I have also witnessed a TPN bag, while on a drip stand, bursting and spilling over a laptop – with the result that the keyboard functions were stuck in the slow lane forever. It was all the representative could do to recover their hard drive and their data. Care must always be taken with fluids.


Cut and run


Another common issue with disposables is the risk of accidental needlestick injuries during the demonstration process. On many occasions I would have my demonstration board with me and the customer would carelessly jump in and start to pick up needles etc without much care, and end up sticking themselves and dripping blood everywhere. I would then talk about how sharp the needles were and how care should be taken when handling them!


I also remember when nurses were taking on the role of IV cannulation. This was many years ago, before companies had clinical training teams. I was a young salesman running a IV cannulation course. I would arrive with my box of tricks, including a new IV cannulation arm: a plastic arm filled with a red food colouring to aid customers in knowing when they had pierced the vein. You did not want to get that stuff over your clothes. I ruined a couple of white shirts, and you always knew which nurses had been on the course from the red stains on their uniforms. I soon learned to raid the hospital loos before every session and to cover the table and my arm-box with paper towels.


It’s also worth remembering that medical equipment can raise security issues in transit outside the clinical context. It is essential to have appropriate documentation with you. A former colleague of mine described to me how one day in Belfast, before the Good Friday Agreement, he was stopped by the Army at a routine roadblock. His product was a Blood Culture System, which consisted of glass bottles with electrodes sticking out – so he took these out of his car boot and rapidly explained their purpose. It was the best bit of negotiation he ever did.


The details that count


Before you start your product detail, take a little time to think about why you are doing what you are doing, and how you can improve the way you do it. It is the little things that make all the difference.


Here are some essential guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Prepare yourself – know your product, your customer and your literature; have the right samples and materials.
  • Prepare the product – check that the battery is charged, the samples are in date, the sizes are correct and you have the correct tubing and accessories.
  • Prepare the customer – check that they are expecting you, they have arranged for their colleagues to be present, they have booked a room for your meeting or training session, and they have a need and a budget for your product.
  • Try to choose the room yourself and make sure it is suitable. If possible, give your presentation after tea so as to prepare during the break – believe me, your laptop will not work first time with their projector.
  • Select the first customer you show a new product to with care – always take untried products to a friendly customer. Despite the wise words from head office, things may go badly wrong the first time you go live.
  • If you deal with liquids, then watch out for spills.
  • If you deal with sharps, watch you don’t stick anybody.
  • If you deal with electricals, make sure that medical physics/EBME have tested your product.

Demonstrating a medical device in a way that makes the customer want to buy it is easier the better-prepared you are. Make sure the product is ‘set up’ properly so as to give the best impression. Make sure your demonstration is heavy on the benefits and leaves the challenges to the end. Avoiding embarrassing mishaps is only part of what it takes to ensure that your product is seen as the most user-friendly, reliable and cost-effective option.