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We Are All in Sales

I’ve always been a bit anti-corporatism. One of the things I’ve always associated with that was sales, advertising and marketing.

As far as pharmacy is concerned, I suppose I used to think that sales was only relevant to community pharmacy. But even then, they might market their brand but they’ve never really been that strong at marketing their services. If you ask most people on the street what a pharmacist does chances are they’ll say something about putting labels on boxes. If there had ever been an effective marketing campaign this wouldn’t be the case. Because I don’t think the need to win over the customer has ever really mattered all that much. A regulated industry has pretty much guaranteed a baseline level of business. But that is not so guaranteed anymore, so marketing and consumer loyalty becomes more important.

It’s a different scenario again for pharmacists working in non-dispensing roles. If you are in a non-dispensing role in primary care you need to get the work (either contracts or referrals) or you don’t get paid. You might get the initial referral from being available, but you get the repeat referrals from engaged clinicians by demonstrating your value and building a relationship. I suppose if you’re a hospital pharmacist then you are guaranteed to get the busy work, but a lot of the meaningful work of clinical pharmacy comes from the referrals from other members of the team. You get those referrals through your relationships and you reputation. I.e. if you are effective at selling yourself.

Being in sales doesn’t have to be seen as a bad thing. It doesn’t have to be manipulative, cajoling someone into an action they wouldn’t have otherwise taken. It can be about telling a story that demonstrates you empathise with their position and you are there to help.

This is what we need to do better. We need to stop bashing people over the head with numbers about medication mishaps, and data on unplanned hospital admissions and start figuring out how to sell our service to those who will benefit from them. I’m not saying this is a straightforward exercise, but I am saying it’s an essential one.

One of the things that makes this particularly tricky is that for most of our consults we effectively have two customers – the patient and their care provider, often a GP. Yeah yeah, I know about patient centred care. I’m not suggesting you compromise clinical recommendations because you’re trying to please the GP over the patient. When it comes to clinical work the patient is king. But there are processes surrounding that clinical work that influence it’s effectiveness and these processes need to be tailored to the needs of the customer you are dealing with.

Let’s think about HMRs as an example. As it stands currently the messaging around HMRs is pretty much the same for patients and GPs. Reduce the risk of medication misadventure. But talking about risk doesn’t really do it for most people. If it did you wouldn’t have a whole lot of people without insurance living in flood prone areas. People generally can’t be bothered dealing with risk. They also generally think they are doing a decent job, which means they don’t usually think they need any help. Hence the other type of messaging is also unlikely effective – that an HMR can help support their medication management.

How do GPs really feel about the HMR process? What is the value for them? Do they really see any tangible improvements in patient care or do they just see extra paperwork for minimal gain? Have they had a bad experience in the past and are now distrusting of the process? How could we present the service to them in a way that would make their work easier? And not just in terms of patient care, is there a way we could help them do their work more effectively and get home on time? Is there a way we could present the report that would be more useful to them? Communicate better? What works for them?

And what about the patients? Patients are often hesitant about the HMR at the start and grateful at the end. What can we learn from this? What causes this shift? How can we use that understanding to communicate the value of that service to other people in similar positions?

If we really valued the service we provide we would care about asking these questions. We would take the time to deeply understand the perspective of the GPs and the patients and make an effort to communicate a story that resonates with them rather than broadcasts our values and beliefs.

This is marketing. And if we want to grow as a profession and remain relevant we have to get better at it.