Life as a Vendor: Why I Joined the Dark Side

March 15, 2017 | Sean O'Neill

During my career as a clinical pharmacist, I maintained certain preconceived notions about “vendors”. It might not be surprising to learn that these were almost entirely negative. I believed that a vendor’s ultimate motivation was driven by the need to close the sale or meet their numbers. In part, this perception may have been molded by my interactions with pharmaceutical reps in the early 2000s when there were no regulations or oversight of what a vendor could or could not do with potential customers. This led to vendor sponsored happy hours, dinners and golf outings for even an inexperienced pharmacist with little or no decision making responsibilities like myself. This framed sales and vendor reps in a poor light. There was often a feeling they were disingenuous which brought into question their true motives. This statement may seem harsh but my guess is that many clinicians reading this probably have a similar opinion. The reality is that this was an extremely unfair assessment.

Here is a quick exercise that I challenge my fellow clinicians to try:

Tomorrow morning walk into your hospital and imagine what your day would look like without any of the innovations that vendors provide. Imagine that there are no computer systems like electronic health records (Yes, I realize these are far from perfect, but go ask an elder statesman in the pharmacy if they are better than the typewriter they used to use); imagine there are no syringes or tubing delivery systems to administer medications; imagine there are no monitors to automate the vital sign acquisition; and lastly, imagine there are no smartphones. All of these innovations require invention, development and, ultimately, a sales process to get them into our hands. It is hard to imagine our life without these vital products.

As unnatural as it is for me to admit, I am now trading in my green light saber for a red one. In 2016 I co-founded Bainbridge Health, a clinical intelligence and data analytics company focused on improving the safety and efficiency of medication delivery. I now sit on the other side of the table of the vendor-hospital interaction. I am trying to demonstrate the value our product can provide, and do it in a way that is both assertive and flexible. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

This is really hard — The experience has really changed my perspective on vendors and the sales profession in a positive way. Let’s face it, selling to large healthcare organizations is a grind and filled with what can feel like endless barriers. I spend a large chunk of my day trying to balance not hassling extremely busy clinicians with trying to keep the ball moving to reach our mutual goal of implementing our technology, which will ultimately improve the safety of patients.

This is really different — Although I will always view myself as a clinician and am extremely proud of the 15 plus years of expertise I can bring to this endeavor, I now need to learn a completely different skill set. If you read any sales book or talk to any seasoned salesman, you will no doubt hear words and phrases like “be relentless”, “close the deal”, “never stop selling”. I will admit that these are not skills I was born with, but there is no doubt that these themes are integral parts of the process. However, they can also lead to the preconceived notions and falsehoods I mentioned above. How do I balance utilizing these approaches without falling into the misconceptions? This is my challenge.

This is really necessary — Probably the most enlightening experience I have encountered in my new role is the ability to see the opportunities for improvement in the healthcare setting across the country as opposed to one isolated organization. This wider lens has allowed me to see not only the challenges our industry faces, but also validates the need for our solution.

In my short time with Bainbridge Health, I have come to realize how vital the partnership between clinical experts and innovative organizations can be. We both have one mission: to improve the safety of medication delivery and ultimately prevent patient harm. I’ve come to learn that “sales” is actually part of the innovation process. In fact, it’s the most important part, for without it innovation never sees the light of day.

So to my clinician colleagues, next time Darth Vader comes calling or emailing, consider cutting him some slack and hearing him out.

“Always in motion is the future” — Yoda, Stars Wars Episode V