Custom, sport & lightweight chairs: Success requires devotion

Friday, April 30, 2004

Sales and marketing opportunities abound for enterprising providers in the custom, sport and lightweight wheelchair market - it just takes perception, determination and devotion, mobility manufacturers say. Gaining referrals for products aimed at highly active end-users requires making connections not only at the professional level, but at the personal level as well.

Manufacturers are responding to this market in a variety of ways. Some are producing specialty chairs designed for the nuances of different sports while others are concentrating on chair versatility. A common thread, however, is a focus on top-quality materials and specialized performance. This market’s demographics demand it, they say.

Invacare has four market classifications: lightweight adult, active pediatric, sports and recreation, and handcycles, which represent the fastest-growing category, said Mary Carol Peterson, product manager for Invacare’s sports and recreation lines.

In seeking quality referral sources, PT/OTs are logical starting points. But one key contact providers may not have considered is a therapeutic recreation specialist.

“Most large rehab hospitals have one,” Peterson said. “Their patients usually have experienced a life-altering event. Their job is to get people into these activities after they leave the hospital. Do some research in your community and find out what these people want from a provider.”

Christy Shimono, senior product manager for Sunrise, is in lockstep with Peterson on that point

“The therapist’s main focus is getting the person into the most active lifestyle,” she said. “They don’t have time to know every manufacturer’s product in the industry. They want someone who understands manufacturers and their products.”

Referral sources’ product demands are pretty cut-and-dried - simplicity rules, Shimono said.

“They want quality, durability and configurability, meaning it can meet the client’s needs without having to do a lot of mixing and matching to make it work,” she said.

Simplicity also means offering convenience for the client, for which referral sources want providers to assume full responsibility.

“Having the ability to do maintenance work on setup and repair is critical because something will go wrong along the way,” Shimono said. “They need someone who will get their clients’ chair going again with minimal disruption.”

Keen knowledge about customization also is essential for impressing referral sources, said Josh Anderson, director of sales & marketing for Kennewick, Wash.-based TiLite.

“If you have 100 people who need this type of chair, you will end up with 100 different chairs,” he said. “The lighter, more efficient and durable the chair, the greater the user’s performance and quality of life. Customization is a key part of that equation. There is not much sense in making ultra lightweight chairs if you can’t fit the user.”

One valuable referral source providers may not have considered is the physiatrist in high-end rehab spinal cord facilities, offered Mike Nordquist, director of sales and marketing for Kuschall North America in Longmont, Colo.

“High-end rehab spinal cord facilities are a tight-knit fraternity,” he said. “The physiatrist is the doctor who prescribes the mobility product and works with the therapist to shape the best course of action for post-injury patients.”

Physiatrists are usually associated with the seating clinic, holding weekly scheduled sessions with clients in need of new equipment. Providers and vendors need to be a key part of the care team, alongside the physician and therapist, Nordquist said.

Kuschall, which recently re-entered the U.S. market, makes everyday lightweight chairs with built-in features that adapt to sports.

“I don’t see us making road racers, rugby chairs or any other chair that sits idle most of the time,” Nordquist said. “Our chairs are designed for a smaller customer base who appreciate the European influence in quality on high-end rehab.”

Vendors agree that providers seeking referral source relationships in the custom, lightweight and sports chair market need to become involved in the world of wheelchair sports. Becoming a sponsor and getting to know the participants is especially important because self-referrals are among the best business connections in this field.

“Conducting sports and recreational camps is a great way to get involved with end-users,” Anderson said. “One provider in my area sponsors many of the events at a large rehab facility and because of their knowledgeable staff and commitment, they are getting more than 80% of their business from that facility.”
Category: Custom, sport & lightweight chairs
Key Referral Sources:

Physical therapists, occupational therapists, recreational therapy specialists, physiatrists, rehabilitation centers, municipal parks and recreation departments, advocacy groups (such as the ALS and MS societies), wheelchair end-users.

Effective Marketing Techniques:

- Offer your services as part of the clinical care team. Work with physicians and therapists to assess each patient’s chair needs and offer demo products for them to try.

- Demonstrate thorough knowledge of chair capabilities, maintenance and customized fitting for each client. Don’t promise more than you can deliver.

- Become a highly visible part of the local wheelchair sports scene. Network with local parks departments and advocacy groups to sponsor wheelchair events.