HME sales vet shows how it’s done in new book

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Monday, June 30, 2003

Newly published author Len Serafino says he had a sales book inside him for 20 years, but it wasn’t until he assumed the role of a customer that it finally came out.

As vice president of sales for Brentwood, Tenn.-based American Home Patient, Serafino relied on keen sales and negotiating skills to help fuel the company’s growth juggernaut of the mid-1990s. He left the company in 1997 only to return in 2000 as vice president of purchasing. In just the first few weeks at that job, he found the book angle he was looking for: effective communication.

“Suddenly I had salespeople calling on me and it gave me a new perspective,” he said. “As a customer, I got frustrated because I thought there were a lot of salespeople who didn’t know their products. But when I questioned them in a way that was logical to me, I learned that they indeed knew the products - they just didn’t know how to articulate it.”

That experience inspired Serafino to write the manuscript for the just-published “Sales Talk: How to Power Up Sales Through Verbal Mastery,” a 190-page paperback published by Avon, Mass.-based Adams Media. Aimed at a general business audience, the book will be carried by national chains Barnes & Noble and Borders Books, and on the Internet at Amazon.com.

The communication aspect of the book is what distinguishes it from the litany of sales manuals already on the market, Serafino said.

“It’s not a ‘how-to’ on sales,” he said. “My premise is that any sales technique will work, but only if you can effectively communicate it.”

In studying how salespeople work, Serafino detected several communication errors; chief among them is lack of preparation.

“I’ve noticed that a lot of salespeople don’t have a strategy when they make a call,” he said. “You have to know why you’re there. If you don’t, you’ll be all over the lot.”

Coherent presentations are especially crucial for HME providers calling on referral sources, Serafino said.

“Referral sources are educated professionals who know disease states and that raises the bar for anyone who sells in health care,” he said. “If you can sell to them, you can sell to anyone.”

Although his book is geared for a broad audience, Serafino has some words of advice to those who sell healthcare products: remember the industry’s purpose.

“What has been largely ignored is how lucky we are to work in an industry that helps people,” he said. “There’s too much time spent focused on sales quotas and moving product than on the real value of the products and that is what is most important to the customer.”

Serafino has spent his entire career in health care, going back to 1970. His first 17 years in the industry were spent in Blue Cross provider relations - 10 years with the New Jersey organization and seven at Philadelphia. He shifted from payers to providers by working in managed care sales at Caremark, T2 and AHP. Between stints at AHP, he served as chief operating officer of a start-up HME company in Rochester, N.Y., and worked for a dot-com called Passport Health Communications.

During AHP’s growth spurt in the mid-‘90s, Serafino handled many of the company’s managed care contracts. Successfully negotiating those agreements required the same communications elements outlined in his book, he said.

“It gets back to the ‘p’ word - preparation,” he said. “At the same time, there’s nothing like having companies competing with each other over your business to make you a good negotiator.”

Ed Wissing was CEO of AHP during Serafino’s first tour of duty with the company and remembers him as an energetic executive who was instrumental in boosting the chain’s revenues.

“Len was a very solid sales guy who had good concepts,” said Wissing, who now serves as chairman of the board for Norcross, Ga.-based Pediatric Services of America. “He was a strong contributor in leading our managed care sales. Communication is certainly a passion of his - after all, he sold me on him.”

Serafino acknowledges spending a lot of time learning about communication techniques, devouring books about the subject and belonging to Toastmasters, an association dedicated to public speaking. He cultivated that interest while working at Blue Cross.

“There were two people who taught me a lot: Joe Walsh at Blue Cross in New Jersey and Leonard Davis in Philly,” Serafino recalled. “Joe sent me to rate commission hearings where I’d take copious notes and he’d kick them back to me covered in red editing marks. Leonard taught me a lot about presentation, communication and preparation. They got me interested in the process.” HME

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