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​I can’t win NHS business because it is a closed shop?

Part one.

Many an SME business has considered this question and is deterred from even thinking about health care institutions as potential customers.

I’ve been involved with the health care sector over many years. It can be a lucrative market for many businesses and not just for those providing therapeutic products or services. Hospitals and GP practices need many non-medical products and services such as building maintenance, food, printing, stationery, and even marketing services (yes, someone is needed to design the local hospital information leaflets and website).

In the UK the main health provider is the National Health Service (NHS). The “national” bit is somewhat misleading for any business thinking about breaking into the sector. Hospital Trusts make individual purchasing decisions and are not necessarily tied to decisions made at a national level. In fact, there have been political initiatives over the last decade to create an “internal market”, not just with regard to services provided by each hospital or GP practice, but also what and how they purchase from external suppliers.

The business imperative of understanding your target markets applies as much to any part of the NHS as it does in any other industry. Let’s consider an individual hospital. Like the rest of the NHS, as a buyer, it is not a single homogenous mass, but a grouping of individual decision makers and influencers. The challenge is to become familiar with how buying decisions are made for any particular product or product category.

For many product or service categories there is available published market research and you can start here depending upon your own business needs. However, there is no real substitute to some hands-on interaction and there are two points of contact for initial fact finding. First, the person likely to use the product or service and second, the person likely to carry out the buying process. They maybe one and the same person, but most likely not.

To succeed any potential supplier needs to have a clear picture of who (in terms of job title) is involved in the flow leading to the purchase decision. Some will be decision makers while others may well have an influence and then develop a strategy of how to communicate effectively to each.

The way to understand who is important in the purchasing decision is to invest time in contacting the hospital or more precisely the apparent relevant departments.

First stop the procurement department to find who is responsible for purchasing the category the product falls into. Most buyer’s performance is measured on reducing costs (prices) in their category, so it is in their interest to find new suppliers. Second the department most likely to use the product and for medical products establish who is the senior or specialist nurse. Even if the nurse is not the decision maker they will be able signpost who is or even the correct department if theirs is not right one.

Now this all takes time and therefore a financial cost.

However, shortcuts do exist and these will be revealed in part two!