Permobil plans for CRTS base

Monday, September 30, 2002

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - While rehab professionals grouse over the proliferation of K0011 Internet dealers and the soiled reputation they're bringing to the rehab industry, Permobil is drawing a line in the sand with its customer base.

The company is currently working on a set of standards its dealers will have to meet to become certified as a Permobil dealer. By Medtrade, the high-end wheelchair maker hopes to have a set of guidelines available.

In short, the company plans to restrict sales of its power products to companies that employ rehab technology suppliers who carry the CRTS certification issued by NRRTS.

Admittedly, as a maker of high-end products, many of the company's customers are already credentialed by NRRTS. Those who are not will be grandfathered in past the implementation date with the stipulation that the rehab company will meet an as yet to be determinded deadline.

"We want to raise the level in this industry," said Barry Steelman, Permobil's marketing manager. "That's what we've always been about: raising the bar."

The nascent standards may stand as the staunchest guidelines in the business and as a palliative to dealers who say manufacturers are too lax about their customer base.

"When you get into high-end rehab, it seems like the industry has taken a turn in the direction of allowing anyone who is a dealer to buy the equipment," said Bruce Bayes, as president of Largo, Fla.-based Custom Mobilty, a 30-year veteran of the HME industry.

Bayes said Quickie, before its acquisition by Sunrise Medical, was a demanding business partner. "You did not get a dealership unless you were in the direction of becoming a rehab dealer," said Bayes. "It didn't matter who you called, or who you threatened. You did not get a dealership."

That rigorous appreciation of its customer base was compromised by the emergence of Sunrise Medical as a full-line vendor whose customers could leverage their buying power to access Quickie chairs. Today, Sunrise says it's a believer in standards but wants consumer protections to be accomplished through legislation.

"If the top domestic manufacturing companies looked to sell only to high-end certified dealers as a way to police the industry, that would only open the doors for lower-cost manufacturers to step in with lower quality products," said W.B. Mick, Sunrise Medical's vice president of rehab sales. "We don't think that's completely in the best interests of the customer."

Like Quickie, Invacare also used to keep a firm rein on its customer base. Only those suppliers who attended one of its schools could sell Invacare power chairs. That resolve softened through the 1990s.

"We didn't have the best support from the dealer base at that time, so we backed off it," said Hymie Pogir, vice president of marketing for power wheelchairs.

Today, though none of Permobil's competitors have embraced the same wholesale commitment to CRTS seal of approval by mandating it, the push to professionalize the customer base is on.

Starting April 1, 2003, Invacare will once again require that all suppliers of its Tarsys powered seating be graduates of a two-day school on the system. Invacare also requires, and has for several years, that suppliers of its ASL driver input device attend a school.

In late 2000, Pride Mobility Products distinguished its geriatric mobility business from its high-end rehab business by setting up a separate division, Quantum Rehab. Last month, Pride began distinguishing high-end providers from geriatric mobility dealers on its Web site. Companies that employ NRRTS members are being flagged.

"Rehab providers were asking us what we could do to distinguish them on our site," said Scott Higley, vice president of sales at Quantum. "The rehab market [and geriatric mobility] is totally different, in the same way that respiratory is different. Lumping the two together is crazy."

Permobil hopes that its move will prompt its competitors to make the same tough choices about the rehab market. And if they don't, Steelman says he hopes rehab professionals who have been vociferous in their opposition to Internet retailers will pay them back by transferring business to.

"We have talked to some dealer groups and told them you guys are going to have to support us on this," he said. "If they are telling us they are sincere about this, that it's something they want, then show us." HME