Transforming Your Agency into a Professional Sales Organization
By Melynda Lee
If you could quickly implement one change inside your agency that would ensure a substantive increase in census, ALOS, and ultimately your overall profitability, what would it be? More clinical staff? A new program? An expansion in your service area’s footprint?
As the post-acute care industry’s leading sales and growth solution, we often see the answer eluding many providers due to years of industry culture passed from leadership down through the ranks of organizations. By downplaying the value of a strong sales department, home health and hospice agencies tend to rely on year-over-year growth to survive.
Deep and systematic rate cuts over the past few years have only exacerbated this issue and forced the industry to place greater focus on growing in a financially healthy manner. As reimbursements continue to decline while the demand for quality care skyrockets, meager margins can only be produced through reductions in force and expenses for predictably short periods. Agencies that keep cutting back may gravely sacrifice the quality standards and reputation they have built over years, if not decades.
No one intentionally sets their organization up for flat or negative financial results, but home health or hospice leaders often fall into the trap of doing what they have done before. Instead, they simply must position their agencies for the future by stepping away from legacy hiring practices where business development is concerned.
The key to avoiding this trap is to invest in resources that deliver quality lead generation, engender professional trust and confidence through use of reliable and current data, and consistently convert referrals to admissions. The practice of hiring “marketing” staff purely on built-in networks is now destined to fail. Succeeding in today’s highly competitive marketplace requires strategic thinking in your hiring decisions and a far more sophisticated approach to leveraging information. This means agencies must look outside traditional places for sales personnel from within the post-acute sector, and instead prioritize professional sales skills, even if that means recruiting from nontraditional verticals where these skills are typically more prominent.
“Having a lot of contacts doesn’t necessarily make you a great salesperson,” says Robin Finkelstein, founder and president of Market Insight, a national consulting firm specializing in home health and hospice marketing. “Somebody with a successful track record in sales in any referral-based environment makes a much better sales professional.”
Building Your Professional Sales Team
Smart home health and hospice leaders are starting to invest in talent across their organizations, especially when it comes to building exceptional sales teams that truly drive census growth. While you may think only for-profit conglomerates have the means to accomplish this, any health care provider can achieve success by recruiting professional sellers and providing them with the tools, data, and training necessary to grow the organization.
The first step is certainly the most difficult. Health care organizations must train their staff to think of referral sources as customers just as businesses in any other sector would. Building a sales culture in the health care environment often seems counterintuitive to people who commit their lives to caring for others. Expect to be met with some resistance within your agency and board of directors, especially if you run a nonprofit organization. The best course of action is to identify champions among both groups and arm them with undisputable facts. Be prepared to emphasize why it’s important to put greater focus on organic growth rather than cost containment or reduction. Be empathetic, but firm, in your commitment to this critical and necessary change.
Then take action! You may consider using a recruitment professional, sales consultant, or your business network to look for top sellers who already demonstrate the skills you need most to bolster an increase in the number of quality referrals made to your organization.
Focus on more than the relationships they bring to the table, and confirm they understand what it means to be a professional salesperson. Their qualities should include the ability to concisely articulate the company’s messaging and competitive differentiators, knowledge of how to interpret and leverage data to identify opportunities, and understanding of how to distinguish between referral sources that are worth a significant investment of time and those that are not. Don’t limit yourself to the post-acute care arena. Be open-minded and cast a wide net. Great salespeople are capable of crossing industries and cultures, and they are motivated by measurable results.
As a former EVP of business development with a large hospice organization, I looked for candidates from industries I knew were metric-driven, steeped in sales training, and committed to hold sellers accountable for producing financially compelling results. While most of my team came from related lines of business as was the expected practice at that time, those who had been successful selling pharmaceuticals, media, and even real estate knew how to identify leads and qualify prospects, sell with data, and close using a consultative approach that secured relationships with referral sources. While we all know managing our existing relationships is certainly important, recruiting new referral sources is the lifeblood of growth and the key to the financial health of any post-acute provider.
Many salespeople rely on food, pens, pads, and drop-in visits to maintain relationships or get in the door. Professional sales organizations in post-acute care are replacing these ineffective and cost-wasting techniques with hard facts that demonstrate the value of their agencies’ programs and services to their prospects. They seek out and use their resources wisely.
During your search, stay focused on these top traits of highly successful salespeople and be selective:
Naturally curious, intent listeners, great communicators
Intelligent and eager to learn
Able to grasp concepts and articulate value
Next, be prepared to implement an incentive plan that truly motivates your salespeople to not only work hard, but work smart. For a plan to be truly effective, it must motivate your sellers to do the things necessary to grow the business. Truly great salespeople expect to be recognized — both financially and emotionally — for their efforts. You won’t attract the level of sales talent you need to produce significant growth unless you make this commitment and structure it around your growth goals. If you expect them to recruit new referral sources, then recognize that this is harder work with much greater long-term value to the organization, and pay your sales staff accordingly.
Consult with your leadership team and legal counsel before rolling out an incentive plan if you have questions or concerns, and look for tools to help you track the return on your investment in sales personnel and programs, while simultaneously pushing them to the places where they can be most successful.
“When we developed the incentive compensation module for HomecareCRM, we had in mind agencies that needed a way to monitor the referral pipeline while measuring sales activities and performance,” said Keagen Brown, senior vice president of product and strategy with HomecareCRM. “Our clients have found that once they begin the shift to a sales-oriented culture, the need for accountability metrics and recognition of sales success housed in one system is quickly accelerated. The change in the behavior these plans drive in our clients’ sales teams ultimately redefines what levels of census growth are possible.”
Measuring Your Sales Team’s Results
What does sales success look like to your agency? Engage your leadership team in this conversation early in the recruiting process. Establish and communicate the key performance indicators (KPIs) most critical to your organization’s success. They will likely be related to census, ALOS, and ultimately ROI. While these KPIs represent the overall health of your agency and the type of referrals your sales team is delivering, it’s important to measure the results of the behavior, training, and satisfaction of your sales team to ensure your program’s continued success.
Consider what motivates your sellers and what a day in the life of a salesperson looks like. Then put metrics in place to answer these questions:
Have you provided the best tools? Do your salespeople have timely marketplace data to study the competitive landscape?
If your sellers have mobile devices (and we suggest they do), are the devices synced properly? Are they using the most current application? Are the salespeople using the devices effectively to prepare for sales calls and document activities? Are the appropriate devices being optimally leveraged for the relevant tasks?
When was the last time your sales team had credible and meaningful training with impact? Was it relevant? What evidence exists that it’s being applied in the field? Was it delivered by experts who truly understand the need for a professional sales culture?
What is the composition of your referral pipeline? What is the mix of your patient population, payor sources, and referral sources?
How many times is a salesperson calling on a referral source to generate a referral and what is the real potential of that prospect? How many of those referrals are converting to admissions? These should be measured by salesperson, territory, and referral source. Include NTUCS in this analysis and look for trends. Do you frequently see your referrals migrating to the same competitor over your agency?
Talk with your financial team in terms of measuring the ROI of your sales and marketing investment. You should consider cost per case, as well as margin generated by salesperson, service line, referral source, patient, diagnosis, and payor. They can also be a strong ally in determining the factors of your incentive compensation plans since they are in the best position to understand the financial challenges of the organization. This area of partnership is often neglected by providers in today’s market.
Measure and look for trends relative to the retention and turnover of your sellers, but don’t be afraid to hold your salespeople accountable for producing results. Just because they’ve built vast networks of contacts doesn’t mean they are focused on employing the best techniques to grow the business. Be committed to making adjustments as necessary. We tell our clients the cornerstone of CRM is managing the data associated with the activities and results of relationships with referral sources. Dashboards and reports help managers monitor what the sales staff is accomplishing in real time, but the history of the relationships is there for perpetuity.
Nurturing Your Sales Team for Continued Success
Coaching and training your sales staff should be a daily priority proctored by your leadership team. Salespeople crave feedback and assurance that their efforts are truly supporting your organization, as well as helping those your organization cares for in the community. Ensure that your sales team has a strong manager who will not only hold them accountable, but will promote opportunities for professional development and learning, recognition of accomplishment, and career path planning.
Include your salespeople in your agency’s strategic planning process. After all, they are face-to-face with your customers more than any other employees in your organization and know the critical details about your marketplace. Ask your sellers to present data supporting their ideas and be sure they know how to use it to make the case for additional change or investment.
Ensure your salespeople have the most sophisticated tools at their disposal like predictive modeling using market data, giving your stakeholders insight into referring practices, market share, demographics, diagnosis mix, patient mix, and ROI to help your agency develop a superior sales and marketing program that drives real, sustainable growth.
And in closing, to be successful, the confidence and loyalty of the referral source MUST be with the service provider rather than the individual salesperson. This is the topic of our next article in this series dedicated to helping you professionalize your sales force.
About the Author: Melynda Lee is the Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations with HomecareCRM and a former hospice executive. HomecareCRM is the leading premier growth partner of post-acute care providers. Melynda can be reached at email@example.com or 404-314-0431.