Entering the healthcare segment can be lucrative, but it can also create its fair share of headaches and frustration as you work your way toward a commitment with a facility manager or hospital administrator. Product shown is NATURELIFE heterogeneous resilient sheet flooring, courtesy LG Hausys Floors.

If you are considering the commercial possibilities, a marriage within the healthcare niche may be perfect if you have the right product mix, talented installers, good operations management, and a strong stomach for frustration. In healthcare, there is a range of opportunities with community hospitals and medical centers, university and teaching hospitals, short- and long-term nursing care (connected with hospitals), federal facilities  (VA medical centers or DoD service facilities), state hospitals, and senior living facilities.

Each has their own unique challenges and your ability to do business with them will first depend upon what is in your geographic area and your contacts within that arena. Most of you will know someone connected with hospital administration or a facility manager for a local hospital, or similar people at other facilities. If you are not familiar with anyone in healthcare, nothing beats a cold call or making an appointment to introduce yourself and your company.

Ask all the pertinent questions you would usually ask to properly qualify a client: What type of flooring do you usually use, and what quantity do you usually use or replace each year? Do you have any larger scale replacement projects coming up within the next year? How do you budget for these projects and how do you approach contractor selection and bidding? Do you usually deal with certain contractors or do you have a blanket purchase agreement in place that covers product and installation in your facility?

My experience of landing a healthcare account has been this: At the initial contact, you look each other over to see if minimum expectations are met (similar to dating), and if so, perhaps do a small job to check out compatibility. If things go well, then you may become a resource for the client. Finally, after several small jobs, there is a degree of comfort about entering the next phase (going steady). This may mean you get the opportunity to do a series of small, high profile jobs to test your mettle or a multiple-phase project. If you perform well and avoid causing problems (and unwanted publicity) for the client, then you may be given the opportunity to bid on or be considered for a large project or a term blanket purchase agreement (getting engaged).

If you do well on the project or are selected for a term deal, then it is probable that you have built a solid working relationship (marriage). So far, you and your personnel and suppliers have met the expectations of the client and there is a strong comfort factor; if perhaps you stumble, you will be given reasonable latitude to make amends rather than being tossed aside. You have built up some goodwill. What you should hope for is the beginnings of a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship that will be profitable for both parties. If you are on your game and there is no significant change in the facility or its management toward you, you enter the relationship building stage (which, if all goes well, may continue for many years).

As with some relationships, though, no matter how well you’ve done, there is the specter of the infamous “seven-year itch” as in: “Am I missing something?” Many a relationship has soured because of the mandate to seek other partners by changing the bidding structure, products, requirements, or contractor suppliers. I’ll bet you have been the recipient of the momentary dissatisfaction of a client who had a long-term relationship. Maybe it was as simple as “I was instructed by my boss to review our procedures and get some bids from new suppliers,” or “We’ve been happy with Joe, but I just wonder if we could do better since we’ve been with him quite a while.”  

One way to meet this challenge is to look carefully at what you are doing. A supplier to a major medical center once told me that his position as the sole supplier was virtually impregnable so long as the current hospital administration was in place (and he had held the account for over 10 years against all comers). I had made numerous attempts to unseat him with absolutely no success.

I met with the senior vice president for purchasing and administration and he said, “Dave, I’ll be honest with you, Clete and his company have a lock on this account. I like you but it’s not going to happen; you are wasting your time.” I gave up and went on to green pastures. What Clete had done was cultivate not only the administrator (who had the final authority), but all senior managers as well as the current facility manager and her team. He did this through personal visits, small gifts and samples, and being interested in how his products performed and finding solutions to their problems.

Yes, he made sure his prices were competitive, and he even lowered the prices on some items without being asked and looked for ways to save the client money. He had proponents up and down the line, so it was easy for the administrator to turn away all comers who wanted to cut into the business (well into six figures sales volume every year). I finally did business with the account after Clete died, the administrator retired, and the facility manager was replaced.  

So, by this time, you have figured out that most healthcare business is not a quick turn. You have to invest time, money, and the right effort. To be successful, you need experience with and access to a range of flooring suitable for healthcare applications; products such as carpet, laminate, resilient, and accessory items. Installation teams with a superb track record in on-time performance, under a variety of jobsite and substrate conditions, are also essential.

Examples of what one should be willing to offer: Quick response service team (two hours); after hours work (4 p.m. until 11 a.m., OR 11 p.m. until 7 a.m.); installer team training on how work should be scheduled to eliminate frustration; team commitment for quality work and punch-out before leaving an area. Your healthcare client will focus on patient comfort in occupied areas and so must you. A critical service component is for you to eliminate odors, fumes, slick floors, improper staging of equipment, and to make the area accessible in emergency situations. You must be prepared and willing to redo areas if there are problems: I remember when a crash cart was driven right through fresh floor patching compound (the area was marked “no access,” but somewhat poorly).

You should pay particular attention to the latest methods of installation that will allow for fast, professional results. Perhaps something as simple as using self-adhesive sheeting rather than trowel-down adhesive for certain conductive or ESD flooring, or a specialty dry contact adhesive film for stair treads, reducers, and cove base. There are some wonderful products of this type already imported into the U.S.

You may just find that your expertise in this one area will open some doors for you at a new healthcare account. One company landed a large stair tread job at a major medical center because their proposal demonstrated that the job could be done without contact adhesive odor and quicker than their competitors (even though their price was slightly higher).

You can build a happy marriage in healthcare if you are willing to invest the time and effort. It may take you six months to several years to build that segment of your business, assuming you have the right clients in your geographic area. And yes, there will be bumps along the way, and your partner may cast a roving eye from time to time. However you can have a long marriage and build yourself an annuity. Do I hear wedding bells?