Selling PWCs to consumers: It’s a lot of work

Saturday, May 31, 2003

The consumer market for power wheelchairs is big, so providers who want to compete must think big as well, mobility manufacturers say.

That means investing in advertising, hiring dedicated sales people, conducting extensive education for staff, offering comprehensive service and building a company image as an authority in power mobility equipment.

“Easy to say, but not easy to do,” said Jack Sheehan, director of sales and marketing for Oconomowoc, Wisc.-based Bruno Independent Living Aids.

For the average independent provider looking to make an impact in power chair retailing, Sheehan suggests looking at what the large, successful retailers are doing to generate sales.

“The lead retailer in this category does direct mail and the key to that is getting a good list,” he said. “Once a lead comes in, move quickly and decisively to respond to that person’s needs.”

One important dynamic of the consumer power chair market is that the customer base comes from outside traditional referral source channels, said Scott Higley, vice president of sales for Exeter, Pa.-based Quantum Rehab.

“Many of these people are obese, have different respiratory conditions, have experienced strokes or have progressive muscular conditions like MS or ALS,” he said. “So to reach these people, you need to make them aware that these products exist and that they are available from you.”

Advertising is indeed important, but the thrust of the message should be to promote the provider’s operation instead of product brand, said Jim Ernst, self-ascribed “elder statesman” for Kansas City, Kan.-based Leisure-Lift.

“Promote yourself instead of the brand,” he said. “If you promote a brand, what you’ll find is that two or three other competitors are carrying it, or worse, the Internet. Build up your company as a brand name.”

Consumer demand for power chairs as a lifestyle product has been steadily growing and shows no sign of abating anytime soon, mobility manufacturers say.

In fact, because reimbursement for these items is already scarce, consumers may fuel growth even higher by eschewing insurance altogether in favor of straight cash transactions, said Pieter Leenhouts, global product director for Longmont, Colo.-based Sunrise Medical’s Consumer Power and Standard Wheelchairs division. Leisure-Lift reports that its consumer-oriented power chairs have sold well, representing some $160 million in revenues last year, noted President Duwayne Kramer.

Despite the fact that power chairs aren’t as readily reimbursable as standard chairs, third-party insurance is still an influencing factor in sales, he added. One look at Medicare billings across the country is a telltale sign, he said.

“There are regional differences in buying mobility products,” Kramer said. “In Region C, there is a preference for power chairs, while in Region B, there are fewer chairs and more scooters.”

There’s no denying that power chairs are in high demand by consumers, however, vendors say. Gauging this new audience’s buying preferences is a daunting task, they contend, because the products are more sophisticated than scooters and customers need to be given detailed explanations about how they operate.

As a result, providers need to have knowledgeable sales reps that are dedicated to power chair sales, said Cy Corgan, national sales manager for Exeter, Pa.-based Pride’s Mobility and Light Rehab division.

“It’s important to have someone dedicated to sales, definitely,” he said. “These products require custom fitting. The patient’s home environment needs to be evaluated. You need someone who can make the right recommendations for clients.”

Customers may have an idea of what they want, but ultimately it is up to the provider to steer them in the right direction. That is the nature of effective selling, said Jimmie Hall, national mobility director for Golden Technologies, Old Forge, Pa.

“You have to understand why the person came in your door,” Hall said. “You need to evaluate them – learn about their abilities, environment, insurance and funding sources before you can find out what their expectations are for the equipment they came to see. Only then can they tell you what they want and you can tell them what they should have.”

Collecting information about customers, determining their needs and demonstrating the features and benefits of the products are keys to effective retail sales, Hall said.

Based on the feedback he’s gotten from providers, there is a lot of room for improvement on selling techniques.

“I recently canvassed a room of providers and asked about their closing rate,” Hall said. “It amounted to 50% at best. That’s not good enough. It should be 80% for customers who have their minds made up to the point of coming into your store to see a product.”

A no-pressure approach is the best sales technique, Hall said, because it allows customers to make the purchasing decision themselves. In the showroom, because the customer came to you with some idea of purchasing, if everything prior to the close is done properly, then the close could be as easy as, “What color would you like, Mrs. Smith?”

“Using this approach helps customers make comfortable decisions faster and they leave the store happy,” he said.

Providers need to be more cognizant about the value of upselling as well, added Walt Yercheck, national sales manager for Anaheim, Calif.-based Evermed. There needs to be more emphasis on value, comfort and performance, he said.

“Don’t focus on the lowest price models,” he said. “And don’t be satisfied selling a solitary chair. Show customers the value of adjustable chair arms, elevated leg rests and cushions.

Offering consumers a selection of brands is also paramount, Leenhouts said.

“Many retailers restrict their offering to one brand, offering the consumer very little flexibility in term of product choice,” he said. “When buying a pair of tennis shoes, consumers like to compare brands. In our industry it appears that most retailers restrict the consumer’s choice to Nike. Nothing wrong with Nike – it’s just that some of us prefer to wear Adidas or New Balance.”

Besides their parents, boomer-aged sons and daughters are also active catalysts in the consumer power chair market.

“Mother’s Day is a busy time for power chair sales,” Sheehan said. “Use that to make special offers, like a free lift installation if you order by Mother’s Day.’” HME
Category: Power Wheelchairs (Consumer)
Effective marketing techniques:
- Learn about the customer’s disability, living environment, insurance status and funding sources before showing products.

- Use a soft-sell closing line instead of asking for the order outright.

- Tailor marketing campaigns to the boomer-aged sons and daughters around special holidays like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

- Offer a wide selection of brands to give consumers a choice.