I facilitate numerous conferences, network events and training sessions and have spoken to hundreds of suppliers, current and potential and both home and abroad on the subject of selling to the NHS and probably the most common misconception from those who are starting out on their journey, is that the NHS is a single unified body.
The NHS is not a corporate ‘whale’, whilst market segments vary it is very, very rare that there is one single point of contact that will ‘net’ you that life changing order. It is much more useful to think of the NHS as a ‘shoal of fish’ the same species yes, and broadly swimming in the same direction. The ‘shoal’ has similar characteristics because the individual ‘fish’ (organisations) have the same overall objectives and are grouped by the same policies and procedures which lead to similar ‘shoal’ behaviours. To achieve success a supplier needs to both pursue individual ‘fish’ and where appropriate to the specific market use the ‘shoal’ behaviour to its advantage by pursuing collaborative contracting opportunities which open the door to individual opportunities.
OK I am not sure I can maintain the fishing metaphor much further so let’s turn this advice into practical actions.
Understand the NHS and the public sector
It sounds obvious but to understand the environment your potential customers are working in, is a pre-requisite for meeting their needs. I hear suppliers say ‘The rules and regulations are just too much to deal with’ and yes dealing with the public sector can be bureaucratic, rules to ensure value for money from taxpayers money can inadvertently stifle innovation. The UK Government and EU are seeking to reduce the administrative burden on suppliers particularly SME’s. Contract opportunity sites and electronic tendering and catalogues are also making the market more accessible.
How well informed are you about, the current Health and Social Care act, EU procurement rules and recent changes, structural changes in the NHS, Procurement v Commissioning etc ? Get yourself up to date.
Understand how NHS procurement works in your market
Ultimately the customer for an NHS supplier will be local, they will be in the organisation who consumes the product or service and that is where purchase orders will emanate from. I hear suppliers say ‘we’re not the usual supplier, so procurement won’t use us’. What they mean in many cases is ‘we are not the contracted supplier’ so talk to the procurement staff and understand what is required to be the contracted supplier in that organisation. Is it a local contract, a collaborative contract managed elsewhere, an NHS Supplies catalogue item, a Crown Commercial Services contract, a Commercial Medicines Unit contract ? What are the differences in procurement in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ? Do you understand National Procurement strategy.
How well informed are you about NHS Procurement organisations, framework contracts, local contracting, financial contracting levels, etc ? Get yourself informed.
Value for Money and Evidence
Occasionally suppliers say to me ‘Our product/service is better and cheaper but they still won’t use us’. The challenge here is to ensure that you achieve the buying organisations definition of value for money and that you can clearly evidence your case. Objectives such as; reducing patient stay in hospital, improving patient safety, integration with other procedures, minimising waste are non-price criteria which can outweigh lowest price. Suppliers need to establish these decision making criteria and their relevant weightings. The ‘bureaucratic’ tender route has the advantage that these criteria will be specified, but whether it is a tender or not a supplier needs to establish these criteria and ensure they are meeting them. You need to be ‘better’ at meeting these criteria and able to evidence this better than your competitors to get the order.
Suppliers also need to consider procurements own requirements; is it easy to place an order, do you meet NHS coding requirements, have you or are you part of a 3rd party online catalogue, can your products be accessed via NHS Supply Chain, do you break bulk, what are your delivery times etc ?
Sometimes I come across suppliers who believe they have done all of the above and still don’t succeed (or not to their own expectation levels). What can you say ? other than; revisit the above, persist, get more evidence, challenge if you don’t think it’s fair, use those selling skills you have developed !
For the majority of suppliers though following the above provides a sound platform to approach the NHS without being either eaten by the ‘whale’ or nibbled away by the ‘fish’ !