Sales efficiency and effectiveness

Aug. 17, 2013

When a lab hires someone to market and service its customers, success springs from consistently putting in the time that is required to serve current clients and prospect for new ones. That’s certainly no great revelation—but it’s more complex than it may seem. Often, supervisors evaluate their field rep by the degree of efficiency with which they approach their work. But efficiency is not the same as effectiveness.

Conventional wisdom: measuring efficiency

A manager may tell his or her representatives, “I’d like to see you make a minimum of X visits each day.” The assumption behind this is that it is essentially a numbers game: The more visits, the better the chance of finding a prospective (or current) customer who is unhappy with some aspect of the lab service; the more visits, the better the opportunity to build customer relationships. The problem with assessing efficiency by the numbers is, what is being measured doesn’t always equate to meaningful achievement.

To put it differently, when new business becomes sluggish, managers tend to approach the problem by putting pressure on the salespersons to do more. They expect their reps to do more of what’s already not working! They assume selling harder will provide a different result. It rarely does.

An example? A basic tenet in sales is that a rep must target individuals strategically. In a hospital setting, key people include the lab director/manager, the pathologist, the VP that oversees the lab, one of the chief officers, and so on. In a doctor’s office, it typically decodes to the office/practice manager and/or the lead physician. But, when trying to gain a new customer, reps will often spend too much time with the support staff, who may have minimal influence. If a rep interacts with a lot of such people, the numbers might look good; the rep might appear to be efficient by having many brief discussions. That may not be effective, however. The astute manager aims to help field staff find the right balance between efficiency and effectiveness.

Redefining success: maximizing effectiveness

Sales effectiveness redefines the underlying objective, changing it from a matter of numbers to a matter of strategy—the strategy of maximizing the sales potential once the rep comes face-to-face with a key person. There could be opportunities for discussing the application of a new assay, insurance acceptance, clinical abstract, lab newsletter, transport supply, ICD-10 transition, announcement from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, medical guidelines update, mode of connectivity, update on compliance, etc. Decision makers will want to discuss anything that helps them do a better job by staying current, controlling costs, reducing risk, improving patient care, and increasing productivity, for instance.

A little of that kind of effectiveness is worth a lot of superficial efficiency. Examples include gaining a commitment to send work to the lab, having the client return a call, successfully dissuading the client from using a competitor, getting an appointment with a decision maker at the next level, obtaining a test mix, setting a date for a lab tour, etc. In  business development, effectiveness translates to advancing a sale. Reps must strive to get the customer to work with them toward the next logical sales milestone.

Having a reason: knowing why they’re there

It has become almost a cliché, but it is true: highly effective sales people work smarter, not necessarily harder. And this goes beyond meeting with valuable decision makers. Top field reps have a legitimate business reason to walk into the client’s domain. They know their lab’s services inside and out (billing, logistics, lab operations, test menu, methodologies, PSC information, report format, supplies, patient and client educational support, connectivity, etc.). In addition, they constantly seek to maintain parallel competitive knowledge. They do not say, “I’m not exactly sure what my competition is doing in that area.” They know that cold. They demonstrate genuine confidence in client conversations because they possess sound, in-depth competitive knowledge. It is a tall order to fully comprehend one’s own lab and the competition, but star performers meet the challenge.

Managers who understand the balancing act between efficiency and effectiveness announce to their field reps, “I’d like to see you make a minimum of X number of calls each day. But, let me be clear: do not make a call if you do not have a valid reason, and one that the client would appreciate. If you see fewer than X customers, and each interaction is effective, and you can document certain outcomes, that is what I prefer, over many calls in a day.” A statement like this makes it understood the manager appreciates an efficiency/effectiveness equilibrium—but values effectiveness more.

In order to appreciate the difference between efficiency and effectiveness, the rep must recognize customer behavior. When the client says, “Yes, we’re going to use your lab” or “Yes, I will do X for you,” it means the rep has done a good job. If the customer does not react to the rep’s questions or requests, the boss might ask—and the rep may wonder—“Was there any value attached to that call?” Managers who only count visits will have little insight into the rep’s effectiveness and the customer’s responsiveness.

The manager’s role

The most important function upper management can fulfill with respect to field marketing lies in the act of improving the effectiveness of its sales force. Supervisors may do an excellent job of creating spreadsheets, evaluating sales numbers, removing internal obstacles, and so forth. However, if the lab wants to see higher test volumes with concomitant profits, all of this work is secondary to fostering sales effectiveness. This translates to consistent training and effective coaching.

If you supervise field staff, be cognizant of the difference between their efficiency and effectiveness. Do not be tempted to spend a great deal of time calculating your staff’s activity just because that is easy to quantify. Ensure the reps document what has occurred with each visit. Look for client actions. Real, lasting improvement in your field people comes from abundant training and coaching that targets improving effectiveness.

Peter T. Francis is president of Clinical Laboratory Sales Training, LLC, a training and development company dedicated to helping laboratories increase their revenues and reputation. He has published more than 35 articles and regularly speaks at national industry conferences. Visit for more information.