The following blog post is written by PatientPop Senior Vice President of Sales Justin Welsh.
Socrates was not a salesperson. But he became a master at something the best salespeople do today—asking questions as a means of persuasion. He understood 2,400 years ago what many of us struggle with today, especially if we aren’t in “sales.” Socrates discovered that the art and science of persuasion relates less to what you say and more to what and how you ask questions.
While doctors, in particular, might eschew engaging in traditional sales tactics, they should know that sales is not about car-salesman-style tactics anymore.
The best sales practices are “soft skills” that include asking patients the right questions at the right time and listening carefully to their answers.
This approach will help medical practitioners boost their practices by strengthening physician-patient relationships, improving patient satisfaction, and enhancing patient compliance.
Here are seven key lessons from sales professions that healthcare professionals can borrow to gain significant benefits.
1. Establish Trust
This is a crucial first step in any patient encounter. It’s as much about building trust with patients as it is about avoiding distrust. This requires learning to be a perceptive listener and careful observer of small details.
Great salespeople establish themselves as trusted partners and lay the foundation for future business. One way to accomplish this is to communicate your medical philosophy to patients. For example, if you believe in shared decision making about their healthcare, let them know. If patients know that their doctors are there as guides to help them make decision rather than omniscient Gods, it could improve collaboration and, therefore, relationships.
Body language is also critical to establishing trust. For example, make eye contact, don’t slouch, don’t stand over a patient, and smile!
2. Fulfill Patients' Needs
Many cases of patient dissatisfaction can be traced to an inadequate discovery of patient needs. Many professionals simply ask an open-ended question such as, “What brings you in today?” Naturally, that’s a great start. But you should consider taking your inquiry a step further.
A great way to uncover patients’ needs is to ask “value questions”—with a spirit of curiosity and with a goal of understanding how others perceive the world. It’s important that values questions are open-ended, requiring a thinking response, not merely a yes or no response. For example, a great question to help pinpoint patients’ values is this: “What is most important to you about your health?” Once you know a patient’s concerns, you can customize your treatment presentation to appeal to this value.
3. Show You Care
Given the chance, people will buy from people who care. How do your patients know you care? Patient care is expressed on many levels. It usually involves exceeding customer expectations with unexpected thoughtfulness. Your office must convey an atmosphere that lets patients not just know, but feel that you are their advocate and that you truly care.
Delivering satisfying patient care is a process that encompasses the total patient experience. To that end, consider adding personal caring touches, such as requesting your staff to call patients by name and following up with patients after emergencies or special medical tests. Showing you care with this small, simple gestures can have a huge impact.
4. Engage in Focused Communication
Most sales experts understand a general concept: Spend time with people and they will be more likely to become loyal, lifetime customers, not just “sales”. This commonsense sales perspective may be true, but it is also challenging advice given the time constraints in medical practices. To make better use of the time you spend with patients, engage in focused communication versus casual conversation.
Casual conversation is the social chit chat you enjoy that takes your patient relationships from clinical to personally meaningful. But conversations about the weekend football game, latest election, or weather can easily gobble up your precious clinical time.
Focused communication requires staying on point about why the patient is in your office today. While this could include some “chit chat” about their personal lifestyle, the point should be to focus on gathering information that impacts their overall health. This kind of conversation provides you with important patient information to use when developing a customized treatment presentation. Plus, your patients will appreciate your focus on their health.
5. Think Dialogue, Not Monologue
Just as everyone dislikes salespeople who dominate conversations, patients dislike when physicians don’t listen. Rather than hearing patients’ complaints and immediately responding with a solution, dig deeper. For example, find out how their health problems affect their day-to-day lives, or how they have approached their problem and what their results they’ve experienced so far.
This is so important that Columbia University has a program that provides narrative training to doctors, nurses, social workers, and therapists. In the lessons, they learn how to improve the effectiveness of care by developing the capacity for “attention, reflection, representation, and affiliation with patients and colleagues.”
Stories help us make what author Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind) calls high touch connections. “High touch” experiences tap into our emotions and our aesthetic sensibilities. In fact, in a study where medical students were asked to keep two parallel charts on patients (one with quantitative data like blood pressure readings and medication amounts, the other with the patient’s story and how their treatment affected them), the doctors maintained better relationships with the patients than those that kept only the standard chart.
6. Don't Forget the Close
“The close” is a sales term that describes the phase of a sales interaction during which the salesperson obtains a commitment from the customer to close the deal. The timing of this step is critical. You can’t get people to “sign on the dotted line” before they are ready and if you push it too soon, you’ll instill a sense of mistrust and even anger.
As a physician, your “close” may be to get patients to comply with the care protocol you recommend. But how do you know if a patient is ready? One technique is called a “test close.” For example, if a patient with uncontrolled diabetes says he’s too busy to exercise, try saying: “If we could find an exercise plan that doesn’t take a lot of time, would you be willing to commit to getting it started?” If the patient agrees, then you can move to the close, such as prescribing 15 minutes of walking three times per week.
7. Follow Up With Patients
Effective salespeople always follow up with their customers to assure they are satisfied. Physicians should do the same to ask how things are going, whether they’re progressing toward their goals, and whether they would like to make another appointment to see you. If you don’t have time to follow up yourself, have your staff call your patients after their visits. Patients appreciate the attention and concern. This simple action builds stronger patient relationships—and also compliance with their protocols.
Sales acumen is a critical skill regardless of your business, but unfortunately, it often has negative connotations. The reality, however, is that all people—even physicians—should learn some subtle sales skills in order to be more effective at engaging others. The days of patients accepting prescriptive and paternalistic advice from their doctors are over. Today you need to ask questions, explore values, and connect with every patient. This approach improves your “bedside manner” and patient relationships, something that’s critical in our age of “self-diagnosis by Google.” Also, by gaining patients’ trust and appreciation, you may even end up delivering more effective medical care.