Teaching Doctors How to Sell

A few hospitals are beginning to train their employed physicians to "sell" the hospital, which involves asking referring doctors in the community to send patients their way.
It's an intriguing idea, and I'm not really sure it's going to work, but the pressure to bring doctors into sales is mounting. Hospitals depend on admissions by primary care physicians, and future prospects are uncertain.

The new health insurance exchanges and state Medicare expansions that start next year could bring a tidal wave of new hospital patients — or maybe not. And all the while, payers are trying to pare back admissions.


Hospitals need a way to keep admissions flowing. It used to be that there were a lot of opportunities to reach out to referring physicians. When they came to the hospital to see their patients, the staff had a chance to tell these physicians about a new CT scanner or service line. Then these physicians would go to the doctors' lounge and chat with other doctors on staff, who would tell them about all the great specialty services.

But in a lot of hospitals this doesn't happen. Now hospitalists see the patients, and the referring physician doesn't come by any more. A crucial communications link has been severed, and hospitals are trying to find ways to restore it.

One tactic is to hire former drug and device reps to visit referring doctors and sell the hospital, just as they used to sell drugs and devices. In 2011, USA Today reported that HCA, Tenet and even the University of Chicago Medical Center were doing this. Tenet told the newspaper that it had doubled its sales force to doctors in the past two years and had increased its base of actively referring doctors by 39 percent.

But these non-physician sales people have limited entrée into the physician's office. They cannot match the doctors, who can comfortably chat with their colleagues, just like in the doctor's lounge. Also, why pay sales people for this work when hospitals have a growing cadre of employed physicians who could be assigned a few sales duties?

Many doctors, I'm sure, wouldn't be thrilled with this new assignment. I can just hear them say, "I didn’t go to medical school to be a salesman!" Salesmanship is what other people have to do — drug reps, car dealers, computer companies, restaurants, retail stores — in short, all the rest of us!

But the fact is that doctors and the whole world of healthcare would greatly benefit from sales skills. The heart of great salesmanship is great customer service, and that notion of customer service is sorely lacking in healthcare today.  

Some of the worst customer service around can be found in our hospitals and medical practices: inattentive and sometimes rude staff, long waits to get care and then scanty attention when it finally does come. In the rest of the economy, the customer is king, but not in healthcare.

Customer service lies at the core of salesmanship. The Business Dictionary defines salesmanship as satisfying customer needs through a sincere and mutually beneficial process aimed at a long-term relationship. Physicians already have a word for this; it's called "bedside manner." All doctors want to have a bedside manner, even if they don't always quite get there. This means recognizing that the patient — the customer — should always come first.

Physicians should strive to improve their customer service, but will they become great sales people? The jury is still out.

There are a lot of reasons why physicians should get involved in sales. Since they're peers of the target customers — physicians who could admit more patients to the hospital —they have a kind of access that a sales person would give his eye teeth for. And they definitely understand their customers. They walk in their shoes. They know the clinical challenges, the ins and outs of referrals and the personal pressures these doctors face.

Also, many physicians are very good listeners, which is one of the most effective skills a sales person possesses. When you listen — I mean really listen — to prospective customers, you get all kinds of hints about their needs and what you would need to do to win them over.

There are also many problems, of course, with using physicians as salespeople.

First, physicians are not your typical employees. They spend most of their time seeing patients, doing surgery or providing follow-up care at a location that is often removed from the hospital. Asking them to talk to other physicians takes valuable time away from their core work.

Second, those physicians who have a bad opinion of salesmanship will be set up to fail. When a person who hates to sell meets a person who hates to be sold, it's a very awkward and messy situation, and nobody wins.

Third, some doctors do not possess the innate talents needed to be good at sales. A sales person needs to have great people skills, but doctors spent their formative years studying, away from people, and some of them never got over that.

Of course, some doctors are extremely outgoing and friendly and are motivated to be great sales people. They understand the need for salesmanship and its notions of good customer service.

I met one of them recently at a meeting in Boston. He gave one of the most enthralling and motivational talks I've ever heard. This doctor said we are entering a new era in medicine — one in which physicians will be expected to think of patients as customers, just as anyone operating a business has to do. He said patients must be treated with dignity and respect — not only clinically but also in the way they are greeted, the way they are listened to, in the food they are served and in their total experience before, during and after they leave the hospital.

However, as I stated before, having to sell means taking a step beyond providing good customer service. I have been a salesman, and I can tell you it requires a special set of skills, including knowing when to open the deal, learning to pick up subtle cues from your potential customer and knowing when to close the deal.

Here are some pointers for a hospital that might want to launch a successful physician sales campaign:

1. Identify physicians with the talent and inclination for sales. Probably the only people who could identify these doctors are those who have actually worked in sales and have been successful at it. You would have to know the traits of solid selling to know who could do it.

2. Help them appreciate the role of a sales person. People who hate sales are usually thinking of "black hat" sales, where the sole aim is to strong-arm prospects into buying something they don't really want. But a truly effective salesperson tries to find out what the potential client needs and then address that need.

3. Train them in small groups. Many physicians are articulate, bright and have aggressive personalities. They are capable of picking up the rudiments of selling very easily. But even these physicians are still diamonds in the rough. They will need personal, individualized mentoring by sales professionals.

4. Teach them about body language. How you comport yourself, including eye contact, seems like a little thing, but it can make all the difference between success and failure. Good eye contact shows that you have respect for the person you are selling to and what they are saying. This is critical in a sales situation! Unfortunately, many physicians start turning to their computers after making initial eye contact, never to look back again! I hear this complaint all the time.

5. Help them with speaking skills. The art of selling involves speaking clearly and succinctly without a lot of excess verbiage. No one, particularly a fellow physician, has time to waste on someone who cannot get to the point right away. Being able to tell your story quickly and thoroughly shows respect for the other person.

6. Have them practice in a mirror. Practicing what to say to a prospect is a wonderful way to improve your sales skills. Most great sales people practice what they are going to say to a prospect in front of the bathroom mirror or even to a trusted colleague.

7. Teach them to do advance work. Before calling on potential prospects, a professional sales person tries to learn as much as possible about them. You should find out such things as the mix of physicians and where they are sending their referrals.

8. Teach them how to close a sale. This can be a very challenging task even for sales people who have years of experience. You have to ask for our potential client's order. After all, that's the objective of selling. To get the client to yes! When they do it is very rewarding! I know, I have been there many times!

Physicians are in a great position to sell to their colleagues, but it's not so easy to be successful with this. Not only do you need to have a favorable attitude toward sales, but you also have to realize that it's much harder than it looks. It takes dedication, an outgoing attitude and a willingness to learn.

Chuck Lauer (chuckspeaker3@aol.com) was publisher of Modern Healthcare for 33 years. He is now an author, public speaker and career coach who is in demand for his motivational messages to top companies nationwide.


More From Chuck Lauer:

First Things First: Treat Employees Right
Chuck Lauer: Trust
Chuck Lauer: Keep it Simple

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