Relate to foreign-born physicians

January 1, 2001
Octave V. Baker

Pharmaceutical Representative

Establishing and maintaining positive business relationships is a key challenge in selling to the growing number of foreign-born physicians practicing in North America.

Establishing and maintaining positive business relationships is a key challenge in selling to the growing number of foreign-born physicians practicing in North America. Of course, developing the rapport necessary for a successful relationship is important in any sales situation. As a rule, however, relationships are more important in selling to foreign-born physicians.

Unlike many American-born doctors, most foreign-born physicians do not prescribe purely on the basis of price or product. They also take into account the degree of trust and personal involvement they have with the sales representative.

Consider cultural differences

In building successful relationships with foreign-born physicians, sales reps need to consider three distinct cultural differences.

First: Cultures differ on how long it takes to build an effective relationship and, thus, when it becomes appropriate to be more informal than formal.

Second: Cultures also differ on what is considered an appropriate topic for small talk. For example, many Asian physicians are not keen on discussing the latest football game. However, sales representatives can probably draw many of them into a discussion of the stock market.

Third: Culturally based differences in communication styles and perceptions may affect relationship-building with foreign-born physicians. Sales reps may find it difficult to establish rapport with foreign-born physicians, who may be seen as somewhat standoffish and overly polite. Many reps also view foreign-born physicians as reserved, quiet and difficult to engage in the give-and-take of an informal conversation. Also, many foreign-born physicians may perceive some American-born sales representatives as loud, aggressive and boastful, and may think that some sales reps rush the process of relationship-building by being too informal and familiar early in the relationship.

As a result of these differences in style and perceptions, many sales representatives experience difficulty in establishing common ground with foreign-born physicians and getting to know them on more than a superficial level. These factors make it difficult to establish the friendship and trust that are often the basis for a successful business relationship.

Learning new skill sets

Fortunately, sales representatives can learn a set of skills to meet the challenges of building successful relationships with foreign-born physicians. By following the guidelines presented below, representatives can increase their sales to this key group of physicians and gain a competitive advantage.


•Â Take time to get to know customers. Carefully and slowly give them time to get to know you.


•Â Learn how to pronounce their names correctly.


•Â Remember that physicians' self-esteem and sense of competence must be maintained at all times. Use each contact to show respect for their thoughts, feelings and cultural identities.


•Â Find out about foreign-born physicians' past experiences, but do this slowly. Ask about past work experiences and reasons for leaving their home countries. Also ask about their backgrounds, such as their family, where they live and interests.


•Â Learn about the home countries and cultures of the physicians. Ask them for information. Show that you are sincerely interested in learning more.


•Â In making small talk, choose appropriate topics such as: national holidays or special celebrations; restaurants; marketing of the medical practice; investment opportunities such as stocks, bonds and tax shelters; and education – especially, the scholastic achievements of their children.


•Â In making informal conversation, avoid topics such as: controversial news from the home country about such events as revolutions, upheavals, famine and changes of government; excessive sports talk; discussions about pets; off-color jokes; and sarcastic humor.

Sales representatives usually find that their customary approaches are ineffective in establishing productive business relationships with the growing number of foreign-born physicians now practicing in the United States and Canada. They face the challenge of being sensitive to cultural differences that call for new ways of building rapport and carrying on informal conversations with foreign-born physicians. Fortunately, sales representatives can develop a new set of skills to meet these challenges. PR

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