Established in 1948, the NHS has grown to become one of the largest organisations in the world, employing more than 1.5 million people across a range of disciplines placing it alongside the likes of the US department of defence, McDonalds, Walmart and the Chinese people’s liberation army, in terms of workforce size.
Clearly this vast organisation represents a big opportunity for businesses offering healthcare products and services. However, whilst the size of the prize can be significant, its scale represents its own challenges and selling in to the NHS can be complex. Furthermore, as a public organisation, the NHS is influenced by changes in political policy making it an ever changing, and evolving institution. So how do you sell into the NHS, and how has this changed?
It is critical that any business wishing to sell into the NHS understands what is involved. Gone are the days when sales teams could enter a hospital at ward level and sell their products to the ward manager, or matron, in charge of that ward, or to a single surgeon in isolation, with significant success. And yet, surprisingly, many organisations continue to operate in this way, with a focus on their field sales teams alone in order to try and generate their sales growth. Whilst this continues to work to some degree companies need to have a greater understanding of the bigger picture and develop a longer term vision, and strategy, to drive success.
Increasingly, the NHS are standardising their products, and suppliers, to make longer term savings whilst placing a greater emphasis on the total cost of ownership of devices/services rather than on the features and benefits alone. This means that the number of opportunities are decreasing so the competition is fiercer than ever. Suppliers must work harder, at a more strategic level, in order to document the evidence, and generate the insights, as well as the business cases, that will support the overall benefits of their products.
Field activity remains important, finding the right people within the NHS that are influencing a purchasing decision can make the difference between success and failure. This activity must be performed ahead of tender releases so that suppliers can help influence the specifications of those tenders rather than simply being involved in the process. Whilst the system is designed to be fair for all, with every potential supplier being entitled to the same information, experience demonstrates that those suppliers that are involved ahead of a tender release are more successful, as the majority of tenders are issued with a potential winner already identified.
The evidence, insights, and business cases outlined above, are important for the sales team if they are to successfully help the buyer identify an issue, define the solution, and understand the budget required, as well as to highlight the added value that their organisation can provide to put them well ahead of the competition.
An additional challenge facing suppliers is that customers are busier than ever with a greater workload and less staff to do the work. Customers are also feeling less empowered to make decisions, and more concerned about what their job could be, or indeed if they’ll even have a job as a result of the current economic environment. Suppliers must understand, and empathise with their customer base and look at ways in which they can support their own development. This approach makes them more customer centric, and more collaborative, than has been the case in the past.
The opportunities available to suppliers selling in to the NHS are significant but the purchasing process has become more structured, and more tightly controlled. In order to be successful suppliers must evolve, and develop collateral that supports the long term benefits of their products, with acknowledgement of the economic benefits, as well as the clinical benefits they provide. Companies must also have a greater focus on the early stages of the buying journey in order to exert a greater influence on the decision makers, helping to identify the need, and position the solution rather than reacting to opportunities when tenders are released.