Outreach strategy: differentiate or die

Sept. 1, 2009

This is an era of “killer” competition in the
laboratory business. Specialty pathology labs clamor for their piece of
lab territory. Genomic labs stake their claim by offering esoteric
testing for applications related to hematology/oncology, GI, OB/Gyn,
endocrinology, and infectious diseases, among others. Hospital
lab-outreach programs, as well, attempt to pull a territorial coup. All
these lab types spend much of their time trying to “outdifferentiate”
the others. No wonder the marketing function of a lab-outreach program
remains so important. Nevertheless, just how can hospital outreach labs
distinguish and brand themselves?

Some try to imitate their giant competitors, appearing as
just another “all-things-to-all-people” lab. Their sales reps may be lured
into a reactive strategy: “Yes, we can do that test. And, yes, we can do
that test, too,” when they are grilled by an office manager or doctor about
matching the current services of one of their competitors. Instead, the
outreach sales reps should reposition the competition.

The astute marketer talks about not only the services
that her lab provides but also how her lab performs those services: “Mr.
Office Manager, allow me to explain how my laboratory performs in ways
that my competitors do not or cannot.” The more the outreach sales rep
understands how her lab positions itself in the minds of decision
makers, the more likely she can develop an effective strategy.

First impressions

One person (with possible input from other
influencers) makes the final decision to use a primary lab. This
individual considers a variety of benefits that may affect him, his
practice, and/or the patients. Benefits can range from emotional,
political, contractual, or strategic, to operational and/or financial.
The challenge for competing lab-outreach reps is to try to alter the
incumbent lab's position within the mind of the decision maker.

Does your marketer make an aggressive bull rush,
telling anyone and everyone who will listen about her terrific lab
service? A successful marketing person becomes so by initially lowering
the sales barrier. In a first-encounter situation, the master-class
sales rep succeeds by saying something like: “To see if my laboratory
can potentially meet your needs, I want to find out about your practice
and what lab services you require. I want to know how you perceive your
primary lab. What attributes do you believe that lab has, and how do
those qualities dovetail with your practice? What kind of issues do you
currently confront? Possibly, I can uncover any unrecognized problems —
and then offer some unanticipated solutions. This is the value I bring
to my clients — value that sets me apart from my competition. From our
initial discussion, we can develop a starting point for future

Develop a strategy

Just how does an outreach marketer set out on this
campaign? Your lab's outreach survival means creating a marketing
crusade against your main competitor(s) in mind. To survive in the lab
marketplace means understanding your competitors as if you worked for
them. To survive means not only recognizing the competitor perception
within your prospect's head but also within your geographic market.
Exploit the decision-maker's impressions, because marketers battle over
someone's perceptions.

Exploit the decision-maker's impressions,
because marketers battle over someone's perceptions.

Creating a competitive strategy translates into being
different; however, the essence of a strategy equates to activities —
either choosing to perform the same activities differently than the
competitors or to perform different activities than the competition. A
good example of the former may involve answering incoming calls. Many
labs have an auto-attendant through which the caller has to select from
a menu (e.g., client services, courier, supplies). But how novel it
would be to have a live person answer the phone! If this seems like a
trivial point, positive comments abound from clients when they describe
the calling experience — especially in an era when auto-attendants rule.

An example of performing different activities might
be the way the lab addresses client problems. Some labs congregate their
managers and supervisors for a daily or weekly meeting to discuss
documented client issues. The leader of the meeting ensures that proper
resolution has occurred or will take place. Other labs may leave it up
to the field rep and/or internal person to resolve any problems — a
tactic that sometimes gives way to the “falling through the cracks”
scenario. The optimal “service recovery” activity gives laser-like focus
to the problem and attempts to ameliorate similar situations in the

Rely on your lab's strengths

As David Packard (of Hewlett-Packard) once said,
“Marketing is too important to leave to the marketing people.” Marketing
the distinct strengths of a lab-outreach program should become the
central selling activity. Upper-management personnel (both lab and
hospital administration) frequently assume their lab-outreach marketer
has this differentiation strategy worked out, so they throw her into the
arena, saying, “Increase our lab revenues. Convince the doctors to use

When asked what makes their lab different, sales reps
may say things such as: “We have better service,” or “We have fast
turnaround time.” Employing generic, low-wattage feature statements
constitutes an anemic differentiating approach. Most prospects state
emphatically they are satisfied with their current lab service — and,
most of the time, they are. Nothing your sales rep describes seems
different enough to make the client even the least bit interested in
switching labs.

In actuality, top lab management should be in charge
of generating, communicating, and maintaining a differentiating story.
If management personnel do not believe they are qualified or do not have
time to devise a differentiating strategy, then the hospital should
enlist an industry expert for help. Creating a brand, a unique selling
proposition, and a list of basic differences remains the primary concern
of this expert. Prospective clients may intuit they are content with
their lab service; however, one (or more) basic differences may mean a
great deal to the decision maker. The marketer not only needs training
in proper strategy and tactics but also in the art of differentiating —
the art of looking behind the doors, under the rugs, and in the nooks
and crannies of her laboratory. She may find some areas of
differentiation in:

  • connectivity;
  • courier logistics;
  • data entry;
  • educational support;
  • heritage;
  • normal values;
  • patient service-center locations/ hours of
  • professional staffing;
  • report format;
  • specimen tracking/storage;
  • supplies; and
  • test methods.

Clearly, the marketer plays a vital role in
distinguishing and positioning her lab. Not only should she live by the
mantra “differentiate or die,” she also needs to be artful in uncovering
her prospect's perception of both the incumbent lab, as well as her own.

Peter Francis is president of Clinical Laboratory
Sales Training, LLC, a training and development company dedicated to
helping laboratories increase their revenues and reputations through
prepared, professional, and productive representatives. Francis is a
member of the Washington G2 Advisory Board and has contributed several
articles to G2 Reports, as well as other industry-related
publications. Visit www.clinlabsales.com  for a complete listing
of services.