New Perspectives

How Smaller Providers Can Make Their Marks

Small independent providers are doing business under dark skies these days. Because of funding cuts, these providers find themselves having to do more with fewer staff members and resources. Many smaller providers have closed their doors or sold their businesses to national providers.

Are those the only options? Or can providers with one or just a few locations remain independent by distinguishing themselves?

Ming ChangMing Chang has worked for several major complex rehab technology (CRT) manufacturers, both at the OEM and aftermarket levels. More recently, he formed MC Consultants and has worked with niche CRT manufacturers (disclaimer: including some but not all mentioned by name in this column) who themselves were perhaps looking for ways to separate from competitors with larger marketing staffs and budgets.

Eternally excited about the industry’s possibilities, Chang believes that independent providers can still thrive. In a conversation with Mobility Management, he shared some strategies.

Decide What You Want to Be Known For

Yes, you’re a CRT provider. But what do you want to be known for? “What’s your value proposition?” Chang asks. “Is it service? Is it products?”

Your answer can determine your next steps. Chang says he realized the importance of a value proposition when he was shopping for a vacuum cleaner and had done initial research on the Miele brand.

“I went to this independent vacuum store and I was talking to the owner, and I said it must be very difficult to compete against the big-box guy carrying a Miele,” Chang recalls. “But he walked me through what I needed to know about Miele and what services he provides. And he said, ‘I have all these independent reps telling me I’m a dinosaur. But I provide great repairs and service. I’m going to come to your home and fix it, and I’m going to do x, y and z. Those guys won’t do it.’

“You can draw a parallel to our business. It’s the same thing.”

Chang points out that CRT was once a cottage industry, but “We’ve matured rapidly in the last few years, where we can see we now reflect other industries. You’ve got to ask yourself what products and services that you carry differentiate yourself from the marketplace, how can you build a moat around your present marketshare, how can you gain more, but what is your value proposition now?”

Differentiate Your Product Offerings

“I know independent dealers are going through a reflection period,” Chang says, “and in listening to them and their struggles, it dawned on me: Then why would you carry the same products as the other guy?”

Looking again to retail businesses, he says, “It’s not different than when you look at a Home Depot and an independent hardware store. An independent store is only going to carry certain brands, and they’re going to carry the highly specialized brands and services to drive you to their store. The big-box people are going to carry certain brands and probably limited services. Why can’t we do the same?”

Chang suggests working with manufacturers who have products that offer something different and valuable to the referral source.

“PDG offers a manual tilt chair that allows somebody to either heel strike to propel or propel in a tilted position,” he says. “That’s a unique product.”

Another example: “I think of companies like Ride Designs. I don’t want to say seating is a commodity, but there’s a lot of seats and backs out there. Ride Designs has a nice custom mold that almost looks like an orthotic. Right when people were writing off custom molds, these guys brought it back to the forefront, saying, ‘Not only can we do it better, we’ll do it differently.’ Here’s a company that says, ‘We can still do custom, but this is how we’ll do it, and this is what makes it unique.’ They’re not a me-too company. And when a dealer has it, he can say, ‘This is something I can do if I have the expertise. This can separate me from the rest of the people.’”

Market Your Differences to Referral Sources

Chang is firm about one long-time marketing strategy: “It’s got to be more than pens and notepads. We’ve got this view in our minds that marketing is dropping off a notepad with our brand on it. We have to bring value to our meetings with referral sources.”

These meetings, he suggests, are the perfect time to talk up how you differ from your competitors.

“Amysystems has a powered seating system and base that handles up to 550 lbs.,” he says of the power chair manufacturer. “That’s pretty unique. For bariatric clinics in my area, for facilities that specialize in bariatrics, or even clinicians handling outpatient and inpatient visits: Do they know this is available? There are a lot of brands out there that offer something unique, but more importantly, they offer something unique for the dealer to talk about.”

Also for those conversations, Chang adds, “I tell dealers to have new talking points with referral sources every quarter. Say for the next 90 days, I’m going to talk about the latest advances in accessibility, or next quarter I have talking points for all my facilities about bariatrics. When the dealers bring fresh talking points every quarter, not only does that separate them from their competitors, but they’re bringing value to the sales call.”

Clinicians are on tight schedules and providers are constantly under scrutiny, but even everyday experiences can turn into talking points.

“Talk about advances that you’ve seen,” Chang says. “Talk about the changes in capped rental. I think there’s a lot to bring to the table, but I see too many dealers who get caught in a rut.”

Chang adds that CRT “can draw a lot of analogies” to other industries or healthcare models “that went through very big changes, and you can say hey, they came out of the woods.”

And that may be the take-away for today’s smaller provider. “I hope you can hear the passion and optimism I have about our future,” Chang says. “We just have to change the way we’re doing things, and that includes me.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Mobility Management.

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