How you can win the sales race

May 1, 1999
Jean (Mowrey) Male

Pharmaceutical Representative

As pharmaceutical sales professionals, we are similar to road-racing professionals in several ways.

As pharmaceutical sales professionals, we are similar to road-racing professionals in several ways. Like racecar drivers, our careers are 'on the road' - our goal is to beat our competitors, and we have to apply both art and strategy in order to win the 'race.' Skill level can mean life or death to the racing pro, and it means success or failure for us as professionals. Like racecar drivers, we compete in different events and must adjust our skills accordingly.

Racecar drivers can specialize in either quick or long racing events. There are drag races, which are usually only 1⁄4 mile long, and NASCAR events, which average 190 miles in length. Each kind of race requires different driving skills, strategies, vehicles and tires. Sales reps, on the other hand, encounter both quick "stand up and tell" selling situations and longer "sit-down-and-ask" situations. We have to be able to shift gears and strategies at a moment's notice. When we walk into an office, we cannot be certain of which event we have entered; we have to be prepared for a NASCAR and yet be ready to shift into a drag race.

Even if every call is the equivalent of a drag race, your goal is similar to a NASCAR event. Success depends upon your ability to outperform competitors during each call cycle, or lap around the track.

NASCAR drivers know that a single lap, while important, will not win the race. All racing manuals give the same advice: qualify with as high a placement as you can get, and, once at the starting line, make the strongest, fastest start possible. After that, the goal is to complete each lap as smoothly and quickly as possible to get to the finish line ahead of competitors.

NASCAR approach

In order to win a NASCAR motor race, a driver must qualify during pre-race trials. Top performers in the qualification trials are given a 'standing' and are eligible to enter the race. The single most important aspect is not just qualifying, but qualifying ahead of the competition. Being at the front of the pack puts the driver at an automatic advantage and provides visibility.

For sales reps, qualifying means being given face time by office gatekeepers, and visibility means face time with physicians. Each time we qualify for entry, we have another opportunity to make another lap around the track, to learn and evaluate new information that will make the next lap smoother and more efficient. So our primary strategy must be to qualify for entry, preferably ahead of our competition. We can't use our selling skills if we can't even get in the race.

After qualifying, the easiest time to win a NASCAR race is at the start. In "Drive to Win: The Essential Guide to Race Driving," Carroll Smith wrote: "The number of racecar drivers who downgrade the importance of qualifying and the start never fails to amaze me."

Once you qualify to see the physician, you must start with a strong opening. You must assess whether you have entered a drag race or a NASCAR event during this call by asking about an assumed or confirmed need.

Like the racing professional, we need to be prepared to adjust quickly to changing conditions, anticipate breakdowns (although in our case we have breakdowns in communication, not engines) and have a plan for dealing with the unexpected.

Prepare to shift gears

If you assess that the call is going to be a drag race due to the physician's lack of time or your inability to confirm needs, you must smoothly shift to an assumed need. During the drag race, your objectives are:


•Â Learn new information that will take you closer to confirming a need and to allow you to tailor meaningful benefits during the next lap or call.


•Â Build the relationship. It is important to prevent alienating the customer by being so pushy that you are eliminated from the next lap (call), disqualified from the race or banned from access entirely.


•Â Link your branded product's benefits to an assumed need.

Too many sales professionals make the mistake of thinking they must be "fast" in order to succeed. Racecar drivers know that speed - although important in both drag races and Nascar events - is only one component of success. The corollary to us is that going too fast (being too pushy) can severely damage the relationship that we are working to establish.

If we injure the relationship, we may lose the chance to use information we have gleaned during that call because the customer will not see us again. In auto racing, if you crash and burn, you are out of the race. We, too, need to keep our strategy in mind: each call or lap provides more information that we can use in order to complete the next one more quickly and smoothly.

Start with a spark

When a racecar driver is at the starting line awaiting the sound of the gun that signals the race can begin, he or she can look around and see competitors on either side. If he or she doesn't get a strong start, he or she is behind the competition and must spend the rest of the race trying to catch up.

The same is true in selling. Every time you gain access to the customer and your competitors do not, you move ahead of the pack. At the start line, your established relationship with the gatekeeper and the physician along with your opening statements are the high-octane gas and spark that will propel you and the selling process forward.

I call strong openings START openings. START stands for "Simply Tell (them) A Reason To" see you. You must identify a business or therapeutic need that one of your products or services can help fill. This gives the doctor a reason to talk with you. You have several basic objectives in a START opening:


•Â Capture attention and involvement.


•Â Create a direction for discussion.


•Â Establish agreement to topic(s) and time frame (specific enough to gain attention but broad enough to allow for other options).

Every START opening needs a spark. How would you define spark? A glowing particle thrown from a burning substance? A short pulse or flow of electric current? A quality or factor with latent potential? A seed? Or a means to rouse to action?

In automobiles, a spark plug is a device in an internal-combustion engine cylinder that ignites the fuel mixture by means of an electric spark A driver can have a full tank of gas, but if he doesn't have the spark, the car won't start.

In sales, the short-term goal of a START statement is to capture your customer's attention and "spark" his or her interest in your product. Sparking interest creates involvement and agreement to proceed.

As the advertising industry has learned, there are as many ways to spark customer interest as there are types of spark plugs. The most common are:


• "Hot button" business or therapeutic issues, or shock statements. For example, "Sex!" "Free!" "Don't Look!" or "Don't Open This!"


• Challenges. For example, "Doctor, today let's have a medication delivery duel between yourself and one of the office nurses." (Offer a prize to the winner.)


• Little-known facts. For example, "The NCQA and the Joint Commission acknowledge that human error is a predominant risk in medication errors," or "Did you know that my product enjoys greater reimbursement than the industry average?"


• Hook questions. For example, "If you had more time, what would you do with it?" or "How would simplifying therapy benefit your patients and practice?"


• Benefits. For example, "Doctor, can we spend five minutes discussing how my products can help your patients and MCOs minimize medication errors and cost?"

Sparking interest and then making gradual gains are as critical in sales as they are in car racing. And just as in racing, if you don't make a strong START, you will be behind from the beginning. Even if you are really good, it will take many laps or call cycles to make up lost ground.

Race to win

Perhaps the most important similarity between racecar professionals and sales reps is the financial stakes of engaging in either endeavor. Racecar professionals invest huge amounts of time and money just to compete. They dedicate themselves to honing their skills to a level at which they are willing to put their lives on the line to prove their merit. Pharmaceutical companies invest huge amounts of time and money in preparing sales reps, and customers can lose money for every minute they spend with sales reps instead of with patients. It's your job to make the return-on-time investment clear. Their unspoken question, "What can you do to help my practice or patients?" needs to be answered from the START! Your ability to answer the question is what qualifies you for entry and propels you ahead of the competition. PR