When your customer is not your consumer: selling to the NHS
30th August 2019

Sitting around a table with a group of investors in healthcare innovations, nothing comes out more strongly than concern over a business model that primarily involves selling to the UK’s NHS. “It’s a difficult sell” one complains, “so it needs a lot of money to get to that first sale”. Someone else chimes in with “and difficult to scale – you start all over again the second time around.” But why is it so difficult?

One of the reasons is a syndrome found in many industries across the world: the fact that the person benefitting from the product (the consumer) is not the person buying the product (customer). This is even more evident when no money changes hands at the point of use, as in the NHS. Instead the purchasing decisions are strongly separated from the use: different people, different timescales, different locations, and different priorities.

This issue occurs in many other industries where successful sales are made. Here are some of the strategies used to tackle it:

  • 1.     Marketing which appeals to the user, so that they can put pressure on the buyer. The classic example of this is children’s toys, where adverts are targeted at children (the user) to excite them about the toy, which they then ask their parents to buy.
  • 2.     Point-of-sale messages which appeal to the buyer. Once the child has asked for the toy, the parent looks it up and decides whether to buy. At this point, on the packaging, there are often messages about the educational nature of the toy, designed to appeal to the parent (the buyer).
  • 3.     Pilots and trials: often the user, who might really want the product, cannot agree to a sale – but can agree to a free trial. Thus a piece of professional software, for example, might offer free or reduced rate trials with the expectation that the product will be able to prove its usefulness within the trial period.
  • 4.     A networking approach: in selling services to large corporates, building a large network within the target organisation means that several people can be encouraged to influence the budget-holder who might make the purchase. This is particularly relevant if there is a choice between several providers, as recommendation from trusted sources is influential.

These strategies will also work within the NHS. The users who need to be excited about the product are the clinicians but you will also need to tick all the boxes for buyers in terms of evidence of effectiveness and cost savings. Pilot studies and clinical trials will demonstrate the product’s efficacy and making more connections across the system always helps to create the enthusiasm and reputation needed to expand at scale.

To use these strategies effectively you need that first connection to someone who will help you sell. Here at TheHill we help our community by bringing together people from across the digital healthcare ecosystem and running a programme of activities where you can hear from people who make the decisions. Gary Welch, the Director of Procurement and Supply Chain for Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, is one of the speakers at our forthcoming Market Access Accelerator (applications close 29th August). To find out more about who we are and what we do, come and meet us at our social mixer at Venturefest and check out our other activities at www.thehilloxford.org

About the author

Megan Morys-Carter is Director of TheHill digital health innovation community. She also develops purpose-driven entrepreneurs through her social enterprise OxLaunch, volunteers with Oxford Startups and sits on the Board of The Oxford Trust. Meet Megan and the rest of TheHill’s team at the Venturefest Innovation Showcase and our lunchtime social mixer.

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