Smart questions and dialogue selling

October 1, 2000
Dorothy Leeds
Dorothy Leeds

Dorothy Leeds is the Guru of Questions, an internationally known speaker and the author of “Powerspeak,” “Smart Questions” and “The 7 Powers of Questions.” The concepts in her books are the foundation for the hundreds of workshops and keynote presentations she makes every year. She can be reached at dleeds@dorothyleeds.com or at (212) 864-2424.

Pharmaceutical Representative

Question your way through opening, probing and closing.

I'm sure that as a pharmaceutical salesperson, you wish you had a magic wand to reveal why your doctors aren't prescribing more of your excellent drugs. In order to sell effectively, you need to uncover and address the specific needs, wants, hidden objections and concerns that each individual doctor has. It is important to know about a doctor's current outlook and opinions concerning your products and your competitors' products so you can tailor your sales presentations. A tailored presentation has a much greater chance of falling on interested ears. It is essential to know a doctor's feelings, biases and loyalties. The only way to obtain this information is by asking smart questions. By asking questions, you are getting doctors involved in an exchange through which you can gain insights about their needs, values and attitudes. This is why dialog selling and smart questions are your most valuable tools as a pharmaceutical salesperson.

Your opening is one of the essential parts of your sales call. If you don't grab the doctor's attention with a smart question, you will have lost him or her for the rest of the call. And because of this, your opening deserves - and requires - a lot of thought.

The purpose of your opening question is to gain attention, to focus the tone of the call, to show that you care and to establish some context for the call. If you start out lecturing the doctor, you will probably lose him or her. Every smart question must have a purpose, and your purpose in an opening question is to initiate the dialogue selling process.

Good openers come in many forms, depending on the doctor's personality, his or her prescribing patterns and what you are trying to accomplish. If you don't have much time on your call and you want to quickly clarify a statement the doctor made on a previous call, say, "The last time I was here, you said you liked my drug. What do you like about it?" No matter what opening question you ask, the answer should be information that you can use to convince the doctor to prescribe more of your products. You can try to get the doctor to sell him or herself with questions such as "Why do you think so many doctors are prescribing so much of this drug?"

Make the doctor stop and take notice with the question you ask. You want to grab your doctor's attention and get him or her to realize that this is not going to be just the "usual" sales call. Change your expectations. Don't get stuck in the mindset that the doctor only has a minute for you. If the doctor says he or she only has a minute, ask, "What can I share with you that would make that time count for you?" Record how much time you get with each doctor and see if you can't double it in two months with smart questions. Work on those all-important, attention-getting openers. Make your doctors want to spend more time with you.

Now that you have opened the sales call, continue asking questions. This is where the real questioning begins, but it is here that most pharmaceutical reps make a common mistake: They let the opening question get away. What do I mean by that? Let's look at this sales call:

Rep: Doctor Jones, I notice you have been writing a lot of our competitor's drug. What is it you like about that product?

Doc: Oh, I like the fact that it has other indications.

Rep: Well, our drug can be a good choice because …

What was wrong with this dialogue? The rep just let the answer hang in the wind and started right in with the selling message, when he or she should have asked the doctor what the indications were and what the doctor specifically liked about them. The rep made the mistake of failing to ask the second probing question. The purpose of probing questions is to get the doctor to give you valuable information to "set up" your presentation.

Here are some rules for super probing:

Have a clear purpose in mind. Before you ask the question, you should say to yourself, "What do I want to accomplish by asking this question? Does this question do that?"

Give the doctor enough time to answer. If you are asking really smart questions, you will pique the physician's interest and it may take him or her a while to come up with an answer. Let him think. Get used to the silence.

Avoid putting words into the doctor's mouth. For example, you don't want to say, "Doctor, I know you write X. Is it because of factor A or factor B?" This is ineffective and can be seen as manipulative.

Ask one question at a time. Often, pharmaceutical representatives ask multiple, unrelated questions one after another. This confuses the doctor and rarely elicits a quality answer.

Concentrate on the physician's response to your question. Don't think ahead and try to come up with what you are going to say next. If you do this, you will definitely miss important points.

Go into the sales call with a questioning strategy, but make sure you are flexible in that strategy. You should go into the sales call with a clear idea of what information you need and what questions will get you those answers. But if you get a response that needs further probing, like "I use your product all the time," find out what the doctor means. Go into the call with questions you want to ask and don't be afraid to ask more questions based on the information the doctor gives you. The value of this strategy is that you have a plan and you will appear more organized. However, if you plan all of your questions, you will sound canned and insincere.

With the right closing question, you can be sure the doctor will begin to prescribe more of your product. But before you ask the question, you need to assess what your goals will be. Not every close is going to have the same goal. Ideally, you should close every time with the doctor prescribing more of your products, but that is not always realistic. A more down-to-earth goal is to keep raising the doctor's level of commitment. Sometimes your close may involve the doctor discussing an article with you, looking at a study or coming to a dinner meeting. If, on every call, you ask the doctor to perform a specific action, it creates the idea in the doctor's mind that you will ask him or her for something on every call. This is an effective habit to get into and will move the doctor closer to your ultimate objective.

Once you have gotten to the point where you are ready to close, you need to ask for specifics from the doctor. Even if you ask, "Will you write more prescriptions for our drug?" and the doctor says "Yes," your work is not yet done. Do not accept generalities. What specifically does "yes" mean? You need a real commitment. Ask, pause, make eye contact and clearly establish that you expect the doctor to answer. You should plant the idea in the doctor's mind that you will continue to ask for a commitment and that he or she will be expected to answer with specifics.

When you ask for specifics and hold the doctor to the answers he or she gives, you create the precedent for your future visits. Your doctors must know that you require more from them. The only way you'll get it is by asking and expecting a meaningful reply.

A questioning strategy in selling can make the difference between acceptable sales figures and phenomenal sales figures. By asking the right questions at the right times, you can put the stereotype of the "pitching" salesperson to rest. Once you become an asker, I know you will agree that asking smart questions is like having a magic wand on every sales call. PR