In 2018, Kim Bilyeu learned that one of Johnson & Johnson’s medical device companies had a big problem.
Bilyeu, Director for Global Education, heard from management that new salespeople at Biosense Webster – most of them young engineers – were frustrating physicians to the point they were being thrown out of hospitals by the very professionals they were there to assist. In some cases, accounts were lost.
Biosense Webster offers medical devices that enable cardiologists who specialize in electrophysiology to perform procedures to treat irregular heartbeats such as atrial fibrillation. The company’s highly trained salespeople spend most of their working hours in hospitals helping the physicians use Biosense Webster’s complex technology to treat patients.
The problem was with the youngest salespeople, who were typically recent graduates of bachelor's programs in biomedical engineering. Their technical acumen was superior, but their people skills lagged far behind.
“They’re typically 23 years old, and they didn’t know how to act in a hospital,” says Bilyeu. To fill this sensitive sales role successfully, “you need to know how to speak with someone who’s more experienced than you.”
The youthful salespeople’s dearth of emotional and social intelligence manifested in various ways. “Our new people would show up when the procedure was already starting, play on their phones between procedures, and correct doctors inappropriately,” says Bilyeu. Some would report to the hospital in cutoff shorts and T-shirts. “They didn’t have the social and emotional awareness to know that these things are all very taboo.”
Before the late 2010s, Biosense Webster had been able to fill these highly technical sales roles with mid-career nurses and technicians who had 7 to 10 years of experience doing related work in hospital labs. But when sales accelerated to 20% annual growth, there weren’t enough hospital professionals to fill the typical 100 to 200 openings.
That’s when Biosense Webster began hiring newly graduated engineers. “The catch is that you lose workplace experience,” says Bilyeu. “Some physicians were very unhappy with the young salespeople. They were getting kicked out of the lab. The physicians were so frustrated that they were saying, ‘Leave and don’t come back.’ ”
The problem was magnified by developments in the marketplace.
“We have long been No. 1 in the market for the Afib ablation procedure, but rapid growth makes it a very inviting market for many competitors,” says Bilyeu. “When we get kicked out of the lab, one of our competitors comes in and takes that business,” and each institutional customer typically generates hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in revenue.
Bilyeu concluded that the company had to take action. Young salespeople needed formal learning on how to interact with physicians. Her team began by looking into what it would take to create homegrown training. “We found some resources that helped build awareness, but they didn’t answer the question, ‘What do I do next?’ ”
So Bilyeu resumed her research and read Permission To Feel by Marc Brackett, Ph.D., director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a cofounder of Oji. From there she learned of the Oji Emotions e-learning program and got a demo. “I immediately said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is exactly what we need.’ ” What the salespeople needed was to learn how to interact with the physicians; they were already masters of the biomedical subject matter.
“Everyone knew we had a problem, but I still needed to build consensus with our sales leadership team, because they would be the ones to fund it,” says Bilyeu. “It turned out to be a very easy sell.” Leadership saw that EI training offered a potential solution to the sales force’s people problem.
How did those young graduates react when they learned they would be trained in emotional intelligence? “Being 23-year-old engineers, many were super skeptical,” Bilyeu says. But a good number of them came from undergrad programs where they were already talking about emotional and social intelligence. And when Biosense Webster’s vice president for the U.S. told the company “We’re doing this,” it sealed the deal.
Bilyeu seeded interest in the EI learning program by having her corporate education team take the training first. The team was then well-equipped to get everyone in the field excited about it.
In November 2020, the EI program was rolled out to the Biosense Webster sales force. How did the training go over with all those talented young professionals who had made fundamental errors in relating to their clients? “It was wildly successful,” says Bilyeu. “Everyone immediately appreciated it, and we saw the results in the field right away.” The company won back much business while continuing its double-digit yearly growth.
With EI training under their belts, the Biosense Webster salespeople had greater confidence in how to approach physicians in tense situations; they could be the calm in a storm and act to avoid conflict rather than create it. Some physicians even went out of their way to say, “You’re training your people better.” Biosense Webster has also seen significant declines in complaints about its salespeople.
“I’ve always thought emotional intelligence is a critical part of being successful,” says Bilyeu. “Our people who have done the training realize what a difference it makes when someone has the tools to regulate and properly respond to highly charged situations. They now understand that EI isn’t something that you’re born with, that these are actual skills people can learn and practice and get better at.”
Biosense Webster’s use of EI learning is growing rapidly. Now all salespeople will get the training, not just recent hires. The program will expand into Europe and Australia in 2022.
Bilyeu believes that acquiring skills in emotional intelligence is a wise investment in any industry. “These are skills that allow us to better interact with humans in any business,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to start the conversation. I was worried about how people would respond, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised that decision-makers were very willing to give it a try.”