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Pharmaceutical Representative

Five steps to diplomacy that will defuse any situation.

When you're in the world of sales and service as we are in the pharmaceutical industry, dealing with upset or difficult customers comes with the territory – literally. You will invariably have to deal with situations in which the customer is angry (because of back-orders, recalls, etc.) and your ability to resolve an issue and keep your company's reputation intact is an exercise in real diplomacy.

The first time it happened to me, I was really thrown by it. While my sales training had made me a whiz at discussing the features and benefits of my products, I was totally unprepared to deal with an angry physician. Here's what happened: I picked up a message from a very irate, high-prescribing specialist physician telling me that he wanted to see me right away and that he wanted some answers. Of course, I called right away to follow up and get more insight into what the problem was. I barely got to say hello before he started an angry tirade about how my company's headquarters had invited his two partners to be on the speaker's bureau while ignoring him. I listened, took notes and told him that I would get back to him in 24 hours with an answer. Then I called my manager and told him about the problem along with my recommendations for what I hoped we could do. He agreed to call the marketing department for details and to come with me to speak to the physician.

In the meantime, I did some research on how to deal with upset customers. Through the years, I've amended the information to what has become a tried and true technique.

The WIRED technique

W = Welcome the negative message. It is important to realize that instead of writing us off or telling others how terrible we are, angry customers are doing us a service by giving us a chance to remedy the problem. So, if customers are upset, let them vent. Never cut them off with excuses or counter-arguments. These are sure ways to agitate an already angry person. When you're on the "front line" dealing with a problem that you didn't create, it's only human to feel some degree of anger or frustration. Whatever you do, don't let it become evident in your body language and facial expressions because it can come across to the customer as if you are angry with them. This can create a catch-22 for the customer to feel like they are taking part in an argument, and they may become more anxious or loud. Stay calm, and keep your voice low and steady, too.

I = Investigate the causes and/or details of the problem. Ask them to tell you why they are unhappy. Then ask for specifics and time frames with questions that start with who, what, why, where, how and when. You will quickly find out whether the customer has a legitimate complaint or concern or whether he or she is just being cantankerous.

Ask them what they would like to see happen. Sometimes they don't know, want a simple apology or even say "nothing." Other times, they might ask for something that you don't have the authority to do or something that is unrealistic.

R = Respond with the three Fs: Feel, Felt and Found. This technique acknowledges the customer's feelings so that the customer can "have the ears" to hear your response: "I can understand how you could feel that way." "Others have felt that way, too." "After learning why, they found that…" Whatever the situation, remember to choose your words wisely. Words can build or burn bridges of communication.

Then, let them know what you can do and when you can do it. If you need management or corporate support, say so, and avoid making any promises or committing to deadlines that are not in your control. You can, however, promise that their situation will be brought to the attention of management and pursued. You can and should agree to a follow-up date. Even if you don't have an answer and can only report what action has transpired, you should stay in close contact.

E = Evaluate whether the problem has be remedied to their satisfaction. Most importantly, never promise more than you can deliver. If ever there was a time to under-promise and over-deliver, this is it. Make sure you know the customer's expectations of you now and in the future. Schedule a follow-up appointment.

D = Deliver. Period!

After the situation has been resolved, make sure to document what happened, what the customer likes and doesn't. Ask the customer how they now feel about the company, its products and you. Then, be sure to build on anything positive.

Applying the technique

Here's how the WIRED and 3Fs techniques worked with the angry, high-prescribing specialist. I called back to arrange a face-to-face meeting and told him that I was bringing management to meet with him. I told him that in the interim, my manager would be speaking with marketing to find out why he was not included in the invitations.

At the meeting, I invited the doctor to explain the whole story. While he got more excited and angry as he explained his position, we remained caring and open. I took notes and encouraged him to continue sharing by saying, "tell me how you feel about …" and "Is there anything else?" We saw firsthand how the oversight had bruised his ego and caused him to lose face. We asked what he wanted to have happen.

We watched as he wore himself out in the process. What we were left with was a tired, somewhat embarrassed and docile person with a problem that we could then focus on addressing.

My manager explained that the window of opportunity was closed for this round of invitations and let him know that marketing was well aware of their oversight and had agreed to put him on the short list for the next round.

We let him know that we did some troubleshooting to make sure that oversights due to changes in sales or marketing staff would never happen again. Then, with their permission, we gave him contact information for the marketing and sales directors.

The result? He wrote a letter to marketing and sales describing how disappointed he was in their system and how impressed he was by our reaction to his complaint. The doctor did become a speaker's bureau physician and eventually, a high prescriber of our products.

Remember that, when all things are equal, people buy from people they know, like, trust and respect. Learning how to defuse anger and resolve a bad situation can actually strengthen your relationship because you've been through a problem together. Diplomacy and problem solving are pivotal to your company's health and your sales success because it takes a lot more time, energy and money to convince a physician to write the first prescription than it does to expand on their positive experience.

In the best-case scenario, these skills really can convert critics to evangelists.

In the worst case, if no matter what or how much you do, you simply cannot satisfy the customer, try not to burn any bridges.

Remember, you can't win them all, but you can be diplomatic. PR