The evolution of a Renaissance rep

Pharmaceutical Representative

Wit, wisdom and the art of lifelong learning.

I don't know much about chickens, but I intend to learn. And I've got good reason. As a matter of fact, I have two of them: One, poultry is a subject about which I know very little; and two, a high-prescribing physician couple I call on own a hobby farm where they raise - you guessed it - blue-ribbon bantams.

Besides, what could it hurt to learn a little more about something unfamiliar?

Developing a familiarity with any subject, even the odd or trivial, adds another color to your life's palette. Enhancing this palette not only enriches your life, but doing so offers a rewarding advantage in a career such as sales, where the ability to quickly establish trusting relationships is integral to success.

But how does such knowledge, especially that which is irrelevant to our specialty, improve our business relations? Isn't it hard enough to cultivate trust when so many of our daily interactions are limited to snippets of conversation and speed-of-light, drive-by details?

Learning to learn

Such a dilemma challenged me early on in my former career as a radiation therapist. Each day in the hospital cancer center, I encountered new faces filled with anxiety, fear and anger.

Mindful that patients' chances of recovery increased with faith in their therapy, I considered it imperative to earn their trust as quickly as possible.

But in order to earn their trust, I first needed them to feel comfortable with me. So I asked myself: With whom do most people feel most comfortable? I decided it was usually someone who's a bit like themselves. Therefore, whenever I met a new patient, I tried to find some common ground. Sometimes this was easy, especially if the person was wearing a Yankees T-shirt or carrying the book of an author I liked. But occasionally it required a bit of detective work.

Noticing a piece of jewelry or an accent, I'd offer some casual questions and let them lead the conversation. If I was unfamiliar with the topic, I'd listen attentively, learn a little something new, and then make an effort to learn more about that subject. It wasn't always easy, especially since I normally saw at least 30 patients a day, but it certainly was enlightening.

Along the way, some strange things began to happen. My Spanish improved. I learned to cook. I shaved a few strokes off my golf game. And I got a whole lot better at Jeopardy!

I never fully recognized the advantages of this until the night I found myself at a dinner party three miles above my social stratum trapped in conversation with an avant-garde sculptor. Our talk ran the gamut from Japanese theater to sea-kayaking to the Yankees' need for left-handed pitching. The discourse finally culminated with the artist announcing his elation over "conversing with another Renaissance man."

Renaissance man? Me? I am certainly no Leonardo da Vinci. About the only thing I can draw is a bath. Still, the concept intrigued me.

Eventually, I changed careers and became a pharmaceutical sales rep. I traded my lab coat for a suit. RT was replaced by PE. And the "Renaissance man" became a "Renaissance rep."

Becoming a Renaissance rep

What is a Renaissance rep? Simply speaking, a Renaissance rep is an individual who employs the full collective of his or her knowledge, skills, talents and experience in his or her daily routine.

Of course, "routine" is probably a bad word choice because the Renaissance rep's day is anything but routine. To the Renaissance rep, every day is a lesson, and every scenario is an opportunity for growth.

Inherently, we're all Renaissance reps. We just don't know it.

For instance, you probably know a lot more than you think you do. If you're still uncertain, take an inventory. Make a list of your skills, your talents, your know-how and your hobbies. Be exhaustive; you never know what's going to distinguish you.

For example, there was this certain gastroenterologist I could never see. "It's not that he doesn't like reps," his receptionist explained. "It's just that he's always swamped. And with leaving for Ragged Mountain later…"

"He's a climber?" I asked.

She must have caught the glint in my eye. "Oh, don't tell me you're one of those crazies, too," she said.

I didn't get to see him that morning, but upon leaving the office I made a beeline to the climbing store and bought the annual climber's gear guide for him. I jotted a few words on a company post-it note, added my business card and returned to the office. When I got home that evening, my wife told me about the wonderful conversation she'd had with Dr. Dan, who was thrilled to learn that a fellow climber was calling on him. At our face-to-face, he gave me the names of the other climbing docs in the territory. Guess where the next PE program is?

Once you have your list, you need to do two things: Use it and expand it.

The latter is easy. Indulge your interests. Utilize existing skills to cultivate new ones. Creatively elevate the simple. For example, cook or bake something for your offices. If you don't know how to cook, learn to make at least one good thing. Remember, no clinical study has ever disproved the unsurpassed effectiveness of homemade chocolate-chip cookies.

In addition to a mastery of product and rapport building, the Renaissance rep is also a resource. Rising above the call of duty, the Renaissance rep employs his or her expertise in matters of managed care, Microsoft Word - even the best local pizza joint - when the customer's need arises.

Conversely, the Renaissance rep recognizes the value of knowledge in others - fellow reps, patients, physicians, office staff or the cleaning crew. Since nothing turns people off like a know-it-all, the Renaissance rep is more ears than mouth. Most folks feel good knowing a little more about something than the next guy. The Renaissance rep fortifies relationships by letting others be the expert.

A Renaissance rep discovers opportunity in every difficulty and learns from losses. Through ingenuity, a Renaissance rep finds the time to grow, so that at the end of the day, he or she can confidently answer the question: What did I learn today?

Finding the time

But wait a minute! Aren't we sales reps already too overloaded with calls, lunches, paperwork, voice mail and PE programs to learn new stuff? What about our personal life? Think of the children!

Here's a thought: In my route, I average about 100 miles a day. At an average of 40 miles per hour (20 miles per hour if I'm with my manager), that's about two and a half hours of windshield time. That amounts to 12 hours a week, or roughly the time a full-time college student spends in class. Throw in the summers, and we're talking about earning a Bachelor's degree in your driving time. So, turn off Rush or Busta or Shania, pop in a tape and start learning.

Downtime presents another great opportunity for learning. If you're like me, you spend a fair amount of time in waiting rooms. Bypassing People for a medical journal does wonders for your credibility. In the periodicals you read for enjoyment, go beyond the business or sports section, and read the sky charts. While I was working at the hospital as a radiation therapist, a sales rep came in with a bunch of homemade cardboard devices we could use to view a solar eclipse. A lot of reps came and went, but I'll never forget that guy. Or his product.

Read books. Experience life. Discover the world like a child. Resolve to live by the Renaissance rep's creed: The more you know, the further you'll go. So back to the chickens. Did you know that the araucana hen from South America lays eggs that are already Easter-colored? Well now you do. See, you're on your way! PR