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Selling successfully to foriegn-born physicians


Pharmaceutical Representative

The growing number of foreign-born physicians in the United States presents both challenges and opportunities for pharmaceutical sales representatives.

The growing number of foreign-born physicians in the United States presents both challenges and opportunities for pharmaceutical sales representatives.

To sell successfully to this important group of customers, sales representatives must first understand how cultural differences affect the sales process and then develop new strategies and skills for selling across cultural boundaries.

If sales representatives acquire the necessary knowledge and skills, they can service their current accounts with foreign-born doctors more effectively and generate more sales to this group of customers. More importantly, they can help their companies gain a competitive advantage.


Since the 1960s, there has been a dramatic flow of foreign medical graduates into the United States. These foreign medical school graduates now represent a significant component of the supply of physicians in this country.

Currently, almost one out of every four physicians practicing in this country was educated abroad. In actual numbers, over 123,000 foreign medical graduates are practicing in this country. The overwhelming majority of these foreign graduates are from Asia, the Pacific Islands, Latin America and the Indian subcontinent (India and Pakistan). Only 6% of the foreign graduates are United States citizens who have been educated abroad.

With the advent of the immigration law of 1992, the number of foreign-born physicians in the United States is likely to continue to rise. This law makes it easier for graduates of medical schools abroad to practice in the United States. Additionally, it allows foreign graduates from United States medical schools to remain in the country more easily because they do not have to return home before qualifying for employment here.

Selling challenges

Because of this growing number of foreign-born physicians in the United States, many pharmaceutical sales representatives now face the new challenge of effectively selling to a significant group of customers from different cultural backgrounds.

Few of these sales representatives, however, are adequately prepared to successfully meet this challenge. Sales representatives experience a number of problems in selling to foreign-born doctors, including difficulties in:

•Â Communicating with the foreign-born physician.

•Â Establishing and maintaining a positive business relationship.

•Â Modifying their selling approach to be effective with the foreign-born physician.

Achieving effective communication is a challenge when selling to a physician from the same culture. But effective two-way communication becomes even more problematic when the physician is foreign-born and is used to a different communication style. Perhaps the most basic challenge sales representatives face in communicating with foreign-born doctors is presenting information in a way that non-native speakers of English can understand.

Sales representatives may fail to get their message across when they speak rapidly or use slang, idioms or jargon that non-native speakers do not understand. Such speech is likely to be incomprehensible to all but native speakers of English.

Another challenge in selling to foreign-born physicians is establishing and maintaining positive business relationships. Of course, developing the rapport necessary for a successful relationship is important in any sales situation.

But relationships are more important, as a rule, in selling to foreign-born physicians than they are in selling to American-born physicians. Unlike many American-born physicians, most foreign-born physicians do not prescribe purely on the basis of price or product, but rather on the degree of trust and personal involvement they have with the sales representative.

In building a successful relationship with foreign-born physicians, sales reps need to consider several cultural differences. For example, cultures may differ on how long it takes to build an effective relationship and on when it is appropriate to be informal versus formal. They may also differ on what is considered an appropriate topic for small talk.

A final challenge sales representatives face is that of modifying key elements of their selling approach to be effective with the foreign-born physician. For example, they may need to take a different approach to asking for commitment and handling resistance than they do with American-born physicians.

Sales representatives also find that when selling to foreign-born doctors, they have to modify their usual way of gathering information about each doctor's needs and motivations. The direct probe, for example, can be very intimidating to some Asian doctors.

Selling guidelines

To successfully meet the challenge of selling to foreign-born physicians, sales representatives must first acknowledge that cultural differences do, in fact, exist. This may involve overcoming the common belief that "all people are basically alike." In addition, reps must learn to recognize and adjust to differences in values, attitudes and communication styles that affect the selling process.

Sales representatives can also become more effective by following these specific guidelines in fostering relationships with foreign-born doctors:

•Â Learn about the home country and culture of the physician. Ask for information. Show sincere interest in learning more.

•Â Take a low-key, non-aggressive approach. Avoid presentations or any behavior that may be interpreted as loud, pushy or aggressive.

With the increasing number of foreign-born physicians in the United States, sales representatives are challenged to develop the awareness, knowledge and skills necessary to sell successfully to this important group of customers.

They must understand how cultural differences affect the selling process, learn to effectively communicate across cultures and adapt their selling strategies to be in sync with foreign-born physicians. In meeting these challenges, sales reps will be able to help their companies achieve a significant competitive advantage in the culturally diverse marketplace. PR

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