Lifts and mobility accessories need more exposure

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Patient lifts and mobility accessories may be the most underexposed product segment in the HME industry. This is particularly ironic when one considers that the ever-maturing population will find these products useful for maintaining an active lifestyle well into their geriatric years.

Among the products in this category are vehicle lifts, ramps, elevators, stair lifts, vertical platforms, hand rails and even furnishings such as lift chairs. Although some products may qualify for third-party reimbursement, it is mainly a retail-based business, which manufacturers say should be attractive to insurance-beleaguered providers.

“There are so many dealers who don’t consider the lift and this is a missed opportunity because they’re turning away a good cash business,” said Kerry Diehl, director for marketing for Sarasota, Fla.-based Harmar Mobility. “This is a nice little gem waiting to be picked up.”

Boosting the profile of lifts and mobility accessories starts at the referral source level and vendors contend that mobility providers need to make a more concerted effort to make the right connections with clinicians, healthcare facilities, senior living communities, non-profit organizations, civic groups, family caregivers and consumers themselves. In essence, more people need to know that these options exist before demand can grow.

“As an industry we have fallen short of informing referral sources about what is out there,” said Ron Harville, vice president of sales for Calhoun City, Miss.-based Medlift & Mobility. “They may have some general impressions, but we don’t give them specifics. We don’t spend the necessary time with them, which is a major fault. As a result, the key people who can get the patients to us don’t know what the patients need.”

Concurrently, getting that necessary time has become more difficult in recent years, as competition for the attention of a primary referral source, such as the family practitioner, is at a fever pitch. Sales reps lucky enough to squeeze in to see the doctor may only get a few minutes to deliver their message.

“What can you convey in five or 10 minutes? It just isn’t enough time,” said Harville, who suggests that providers seek creative ways to reach the physician, such as through key support personnel.

“Most doctors have people they rely heavily on, such as an office manager or head nurse,” he said. “These people can be very influential and you can probably get more time with them. Make it a priority to find out who they are and focus on contacting them.”

Given the opportunity to spend “quality time” with referral sources, providers need to tune into their preferences and deliver what they’re looking for with regard to product expertise and dedication to patients, said Mark Roberts, vice president of sales and marketing for Phoenix-based Vantage Mobility International.

“They’re looking for quality, value, knowledge and responsiveness,” he said. “They want their questions answered. Far more often than not, referral sources want industry contacts who they know will provide quality recommendations.”

Expertise builds credibility and credibility builds trust with referral sources, Roberts said, adding that asking the right questions and conducting a needs analysis for the client is a critical part of the process.

“If you gather the right information about the needs and wants of their client along with the budget that their client has to work with, you can be more effective when it comes to making recommendations and answering their questions,” he said.

Referral source networking should also include focus groups comprised of both medical professionals and laypeople, such as physicians, physical therapists and family caregivers, Roberts said.

“The focus groups will give [referral sources] a chance to learn about your available products, ask questions and meet with other professionals in the industry along with your staff,” he said. “This will help build and solidify relations between these referral sources and your organization.”

Providers should also consider that the process of getting referrals can be “counterintuitive” because medical professionals may be looking to the provider for business leads as well, Roberts said.

“Some referral sources may not send business your way unless you do the same for them first,” he said.

Manufacturers agree that lifts and mobility accessories are ideally suited for in-services and workshops where they can be properly demonstrated. Joint presentations are especially effective, not only for an audience of medical professionals, but for consumers and caregivers as well, Diehl said.

“Be sure to emphasize the product’s convenience features,” Diehl said, noting that Harmar’s AL600 auto lift is a “hybrid” device that opens and retracts with one push of a button and its AL030 model for folding chairs automatically raises into position.

A diverse, versatile product line is also paramount, Diehl said.

“Lifts should be adaptable for vans, SUVs and cars and should cover a variety of situations,” he said.

Likewise, Harville said providers should consider the manufacturer’s warranty as a major selling point.

“Everyone says they make the best product, but warranties back it up,” he said. “Our lift chairs have a lifetime warranty on the base and frame and a four-year warranty on parts. Others may only have two- or three-year warranties.”

Vehicle lifts are certainly an important application for what is still considered a niche market within the mobility realm, but building lifts are also a critical need, said Scott English, network administrator and inside sales rep for Adaptive Wheelchair Lifts of Calgary, Alberta. The Canadian company’s product line is aimed specifically at the academic and institutional environments.

“Our lifts are used primarily to elevate mobility challenged performers on stages in pre-code buildings at schools, colleges, churches and synagogues,” he said.

In order to raise public awareness of these products, Adaptive is targeting consumers through its Web site, which is one of the first listings on the Google search engine. The company’s site refers inquiries to local providers when applicable. The strategy has yielded some success, English said, as the site is getting 5,000 hits per month with a 1% sales conversion rate.
Category: Lifts & mobility accessories
Key referral sources:
Family practitioners (and influential staff, such as office managers and head nurses), homecare agencies, physical therapists, consumers, caregivers, senior living communities (assisted living centers, skilled nursing facilities), civic groups, non-profit associations.

Effective marketing strategies:

- Seek out key influencers at the physician’s practice, such as office managers and head nurses.

- When marketing to consumers and caregivers, emphasize the product’s convenience features, such as automatic opening and retraction. Look for product lines that are versatile, with inside and outside applications for vans, SUVs and autos.

- Conduct joint in-services and workshops for medical professionals, senior living facilities, community groups (such as Kiwanis, Rotary and Lions) and non-profit associations. Leave descriptive brochures behind.

- Consider micro-niches, such as lifts for school and church stages.

- Partner with a manufacturer so that Internet inquiries are directed to your Web site when applicable.