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Getting the most from your technical service rep.

Getting the most from your technical service rep

New technology has markedly expanded the range of testing in clinical laboratories over the last five years. Along with this technology has come a startling influx of information necessary for appropriate specimen collection, transportation, processing, and reporting of results. Yet funding cutbacks have often left laboratorians hard pressed for time to assimilate the information when implementing new tests.

Help is available. Laboratory suppliers' technical service representatives (TSRs) can answer many customer questions, but they must be used efficiently because their time is short, too. Like their lab colleagues, these representatives have had to cope with proliferating methodologies, often in the face of company staff reductions.

We will consider how to get the most our of this resource. First let's look at some instances where TSRs can lend a hand:

Jane, the supervisor of a mid-size hospital laboratory, has been asked to take charge of bringing autoimmune antibody testing in-house. She believes the lab can do the work efficiently and save on send-out fees. After researching the methods, she reaches a point where she needs help in selecting the right cell substrates to proceed with testing. She also needs references from the literature to help report test results properly.

Sue, a veteran microbiology supervisor in a remote Appalachian hospital, has trouble arranging reliable transportation of specimens to the regional reference laboratory. To avoid delays and specimen deterioration, she would like her section to begin screening pediatric fecal specimens for rotavirus. Sue knows that several companies produce and sell the necessary reagents. However, she has questions about reagent shelf life and wonders about the test's sensitivity and specificity.

Bob, the director of a reference lab, has noticed a growing demand for Chlamydia testing. He may adopt a new method to accommodate the increased volume, but he is not sure about its predictive value for his particular patient population. Margaret, a bench technologist in a physician's office, has been informed by a medical supplier that she can improve lab services by implementing a 10-minute test for Group A streptococci. Although Margaret is well versed in the traditional plate culture method, she needs help weighing the advantages and disadvantages of the more rapid method.

These are just a few of the areas where laboratory staffs can benefit from assistance of a diagnostic supply company's technical service representative. Since many recently perfected diagnostic procedures have a limited track record at the bench, data are sometimes scant or incomplete for certain patient groups. Some instructions from manufacturers may require clarification before a test can be implemented with confidence.

TSRs specialize in solving problems and meeting the needs of practicing laboratorians. Most reagent and instrument suppliers retain these house experts to help improve customer utilization of their products.

A few representatives may be based in corporate offices to assist customers who phone in for help or resource data. A larger number of TSRs serve a dual function, acting as a company sales representative in addition to providing technical field support. They visit laboratories on a fixed or flexible schedule and sometimes present in-services or assist at the bench in product evaluation.

Many technical service representatives are former technologists hired from clinical laboratories, so they empathize with laboratorians in need of information. They can assist in selecting appropriate products and procedures made or marketed by their company. They also can answer most questions that come up about product use or data that are generated by a test.

Beyond that, they have a wealth of references and resources to share with customers who need help with new or traditional procedures. When a question is complex or falls beyond their range of expertise, they may guide the customer to other resources.

From their companies' standpoint, TSRs perform a valuable feedback role, like a mini-marketsurvey team. For example, they alert management to potential problems with a product, based on customers' complaints. If a reliable customer suggests a procedural modification that could improve product use, the TSR can start the process that leads to inhouse trials. Once a modification has proved itself within the company, it can be submitted to the Food and Drug Administration for clearance and, if approved, passed on to other customers. TSRs also serve as a conduit for new product suggestions from customers.

Customer-oriented companies provide technical service support gladly. They know that consumer education leads to better product use, fosters goodwill, and encourages repeat business.

Unfortunately, it is easy to misuse such a service. Then customers and TSRs alike become frustrated and start compiling a complaint list. Following are their most frequent complaints and ways to resolve them.

Customer complaints

Complaint: "The service rep is never available when needed.' Customers who don't see a TSR on a regular basis may feel their questions cannot be answered in a timely manner. Even when they have a number to phone for technical assistance, some customers state that they are too busy to place the call.

Comment: True, a technical service representative cannot magically appear at the bench the moment trouble occurs. Expanded sales and service territories require that visits to labs be carefully planned in advance.

Some of the larger corporations, however, have several levels of personnel assigned to call at client labs. For example, a distribution representative--who may lack in-depth technical knowledge about a particular procedure-- probably stops by far more frequently than the TSR, perhaps even on a weekly basis. The distribution representative could be informed of any questions or problems and asked to notify the TSR by phone. Once the answer is researched, a phone call back to the lab often solves the problem with little inconvenience to the technologist.

Complaint: "There are too many delays when information is requested.' Customers may become annoyed if answers are not available immediately or if they have to spend too much time on hold waiting to speak with a service representative.

Comment: Delays are sometimes unavoidable, particularly when the switchboard has to route callers to the next available TSR. Like all other employees, TSRs go on vacation, get sick, and take time out for lunch. If the telephones are constantly busy or you're left languishing on hold, register a complaint with the technical service manager. Perhaps the phone system can be streamlined or extra lines or personnel added to meet customer needs.

You can help speed up the process by making sure your questions are well formulated. This enables the TSR to quickly pinpoint the problem. If possible, place less-urgent calls early in the morning at the firm's location. The phones are less likely to be busy, and the TSR will have time to do any necessary research and get back to you the same day.

Complaint: "The technical service representative can't answer the question.'

Comment: TSRs sometimes encounter requests beyond their area of expertise and may not know whom to contact for help. Some service representatives are relatively inexperienced with certain product lines or procedures--just like new bench technologists. They need the same kind of support from their managers as the new laboratory employee needs from his or her supervisor.

With their many years of experience, customers sometimes know more about a procedure than a freshman TSR. If you are a knowledgeable veteran, share the benefits of your technical wisdom with the TSR. I guarantee that you will make a friend, and your suggestions may help other users if the company decides to modify or update its procedures.

Complaint: "The service rep dumps my requests into a black hole.' The customer asks for information, and the technical service representative promises to send it, but it never materializes.

Comment: If you haven't received promised information in a reasonable amount of time, check your own supply lines before blaming the TSR. It is not too unusual for a technologist's mail to land on the director's desk or turn up in the wrong department.

On the other hand, if you are sure the material never arrived, call the service representative and ask that it be sent again. Make sure the company has your correct address on file.

It is also possible that the supplier is back-ordered on a particular informational item, or that a revised version is being prepared. In this case, the TSR should be able to tell you when the item will be available.

TSR complaints

Complaint: "Customers ask for information that is already available.' Some customers do not bother to read the product insert or packaging materials before attempting to perform a procedure. This results in questions and errors that could have been avoided.

Comment: Customers must spend enough time with the product insert to understand basic uses of an instrument, reagents, or other materials needed for a procedure. You can save yourself embarrassment and headaches by carrying out this task.

Avoid substituting reagents from other kits or suppliers for those specified in the insert. Although some products are interchangeable, many are not. Use of the latter can create problems that confound both you and the TSR.

If the product label or the instructions are obscure and need clarification, follow any verbal recommendations from the TSR. Then send a memo to the TSR-- and, if necessary, to the service manager--so that other customers can be spared the same inconvenience.

Complaint: "The customer disappears before the question can be answered.' Product users who ask for help aren't always around later to hear the answer. After conducting the research, the technical service representative calls back with the information, and no one in the laboratory knows anything about the original question. In addition, the person answering the phone has no time to take a lengthy message.

Comment: The TSR may have to make frequent phone calls or more lengthy explanations to pass along information in your absence. If you plan to be away from the laboratory during the time that a response is expected, let the TSR know when you will next be available, or enlist a cooperative colleague to take the message.

Complaint: "The S.O.S. comes too late.'

Comment: Sometimes customers put off seeking help even though it is clear they are not succeeding with a new procedure. By the time they finally do contact the supplier, staff morale is so low that only a supreme being could resurrect the protocol.

Customers should allow for the possibility that their questions, particularly if complex, will require research to answer fully. Whenever they can, they should make their requests well before they expect to need the data.

Complaint: "Customers don't give the technical service representative enough time to do an effective job.' They may cancel appointments without notice. If they do consult with a TSR on the phone or in person, they may allow many interruptions to break their own concentration as well as the TSR's.

Comment: Field representatives find it especially frustrating to arrive for a scheduled meeting only to learn that the customer is not available or, worse yet, that the customer has taken a day off without notifying the rep of the change in plans. A delay at one account may cause the TSR to be late for subsequent appointments. If the TSR is traveling with his or her regional manager or another technical support person, two people have wasted what could have been productive time, all because of a customer's lack of consideration.

Honor your appointments and give the technical service representative the courtesy of a quiet, uninterrupted meeting place. Information on a complex subject should not be presented at a busy workstation. Even when things are hectic, it will pay to devote a few minutes to the TSR and transact what is probably the most critical business of the day. When you absolutely must cancel, try to call the TSR at least a day ahead.

Customers and TSRs work best as a team. By learning how to cooperate with TSRs and using supplier support systems more efficiently, you will earn a reputation as a responsible consumer who deserves an extra measure of support when time is short.

When the service is exemplary, express your appreciation to the TSR and the company. A technical service representative's job can be quite thankless. Positive feedback from a satisfied customer is greatly appreciated.
COPYRIGHT 1987 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Harris, Patricia C.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Oct 1, 1987
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Next Article:Why, when, and how to hire a laboratory consultant.

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