The courage to ask

August 1, 2002
Kimberly A. Farrell
Kimberly A. Farrell

Kimberly A. Farrell is the CEO of Los Angeles based Unlimited Performance Training(R) Inc. UPT(R) is an educational services corporation specializing in integrated and blended instructor-led and virtual learning and development programs for executives in healthcare. For more information send requests to: or call (800) 877-5755.

Pharmaceutical Representative

Learning to be assertive.

The representative reviews call plan notes and identifies pieces to use during her sales call on the decile 10 physician scheduled for this morning. Ready to go, she walks in and greets the receptionist by name, has a brief but personal conversation about her two small children and is turned away. "The doctor is too busy to see any reps today," the receptionist says. Elizabeth is patient. "No problem. Take care, Sharon," she says as she walks out the door toward the elevator.

Elizabeth immediately pushes the button to the medical practice on the third floor of the building. "Maybe Dr. Jones will be in so I can sign him up for our speakers bureau." She walks into Dr. Jones' office only to have him tell her through the window that he couldn't possibly be on one more drug company speakers bureau. Elizabeth smiles politely, says she understands, acknowledges that he is in a hurry and asks if he needs samples. Dr. Jones says, "Check with the nurse, I don't know if we need anything." Elizabeth does, but by the time the nurse tells her they have been all out for two days, Dr. Jones is already in with a patient physical. "Sorry Elizabeth, Dr. Jones will be at least another hour before he can sign your signature card. Why don't you come back later?" Elizabeth says she will, and heads back to her car.

Does Elizabeth have the courage to ask? The courage to ask is a key ingredient for successful pharmaceutical representatives, and involves understanding not just when, but how, what and who to ask for what is critical to moving toward making your sales goals.

The courage to ask takes:

1. Self-awareness of your risk aversion.

2. Ability to increase your assertiveness.

3. Timing.

4. Impromptu speaking skills.

5. Solid closing skills.

6. Recovery skills.


Often we avoid any questions that may create conflict. If we were to compare our tolerance for conflict (meaning our perception of what creates tension in a conversation) with others', we would find we all have different ideas about what are acceptable and unacceptable ways to ask for what we need or want.

Take Elizabeth, for example. A comment about the doctor being too busy to see representatives today was enough to make her go away. If Elizabeth had the courage to ask, she would have used a variety of sales strategies. She could have given a solid reason why the doctor would prioritize seeing her today, requested a better time to see him using a statement explaining the urgency of her message, product or resources, or found someone else in the office with influence on prescribing, and had the courage to ask for time with customers. Building off of every sales encounter takes courage - and is well worth the rewards when handled correctly.


Elizabeth was immediately shut down by a physician not wanting to be on one more company's speaker bureau. Is Elizabeth just firing off questions, or setting up the benefits of taking action before asking for the action she desires? Is her company's speakers bureau just like everyone else's? Or is that the perception she has to debunk? When the doctor made a statement that grouped all speaker bureaus in one category, she had a momentary opportunity to differentiate her company and business opportunity. If you were in her place, could you be more assertive in this situation? Would you respond? Or would you close up your bag and head to the next call?


Timing refers to when and where you are in a conversation with a customer. For example, if you were Elizabeth, and an important strategic goal for your territory was to have Dr. Jones on your company speakers bureau, would asking through the window between patients be appropriate? Having courage to ask is great – if it is accompanied by sound judgment about when and where to ask.

Impromptu speaking skills

When you have an appointment and you are told the doctor can't see you, it can catch you off-guard. Unexpected situations test the impromptu speaking skills of any seasoned representative. How do you land on your feet? The easy way is to say, "O.K., I understand," and reschedule. But what if the next appointment is two months away? You have a new product to discuss and do not think it is in the doctor's best interest to wait to hear about your product for another two months. What do you do?

Selling the receptionist on your purpose, the benefits to the physician and, thus, the bottom line benefit to the patient is the first step in using all your opportunities to see the doctor sooner rather than later. What about having the courage to ask if the receptionist will call you if someone cancels a lunch? What about asking if she would mind if you telephoned every Monday to see if there have been cancellations? Would she mind if you came as a back-up for certain appointments? Or would she keep your card handy to call you on your cell phone with last-minute changes? This may be one of many ways you can utilize your impromptu speaking skills and see the doctor a lot sooner than two months!

Closing skills

Asking for the business is too broad a term to address my interpretation of great closing skills. Great closing skills demand great call objectives, interesting openers to focus the call and appropriate requests (closes). Timing is critical. Take the example above. When faced with a "no" from Dr. Jones about the speakers bureau, Elizabeth asked about samples. She then received an "I don't know" response and lost the attention and time of the doctor.

Another strategy she could have tried would be to have the courage to ask if she could set up an appointment to discuss her product, service or programs. She could also have had the courage to ask about the results the doctor has had with her product in a certain patient type discussed on a previous call. All of these strategies are most easily employed if the sales representative has good timing, seasoned impromptu skills, great call planning and the courage to ask questions that are appropriate to closing the sales situation.

Recovery skills

Often, trying to be more assertive with the right questions feels awkward at first. One way to help the anxiety that often comes with the use of a new skill or behavior is to think through worst-case scenarios. If I say or do this, and this happens, what will I do to recover? The mental process of thinking through your recovery if a question you ask is not received well is important to building your confidence to ask for what you need.

Asking for time, resources, support, appointments, commitments and referrals is a way to increase your impact with the customers who matter most - doctors who, through the use of your product or services, will make the lives of their patients better. PR

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