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Do Physicians Need Sales Skills?


Would you like to attract more patient referrals, motivate your staff to be kinder to grumpy patients and increase patient compliance? Learn sales skills!

Would you like to attract more patient referrals, motivate your staff to be kinder to grumpy patients and increase patient compliance?

Your ability to build rapport and influence others is a leadership skill that will serve you well at work, at home, and at play.

What if selling were nothing more than the process of inspiring those around you to take a desired action? By this definition, selling is a critical skill for every physician.

Here are some “heal thyself” lessons about selling that will help you achieve better clinical and financial results.

My Old Beliefs About Selling

When I entered medical school thirty years ago, I believed, “Doctors shouldn’t sell; it’s unprofessional.”

Further, I believed that I didn’t have to sell. If I just took good care of patients, my practice would grow.

It was a different story when I traded my scalpel for a pen and a microphone and launched a career writing and speaking and consulting. I had to sell.

And almost every day as an entrepreneur I said to myself, “I hate selling!”

My New Beliefs about Selling

Here’s how I made peace with selling.

I reframed marketing as the process of engaging someone in a conversation; I reframed selling as the process of inspiring someone to take action.

You sell when you persuade your kids to practice the piano, help a colleague see things your way or get your food prepared as you want it at a restaurant.

You sell when you persuade your kids to practice the piano, help a colleague see things your way or get your food prepared as you want it at a restaurant.

You sell every day.

You sell when you persuade patients to take medication as prescribed, change lifestyle habits or follow up with a specialist.

Your Persuasion Tools

You have three basic tools to persuade others to act in the ways you want.

The words “because I said so” had meaning in the Father-Knows-Best era. Mandates generally build walls between people instead of bridges and undermine your ability to influence others.

1. Persuasion through authority:

You can persuade by appealing to reason. Here are the three most compelling logical arguments:

2. Persuasion through logic:

“Do it for you.” “Take this medication to prevent another heart attack.”

“Do it for me.” “I would be grateful if you could make these calls for me.”

“Do it because it’s the right thing to do.” “Responsible people put advance directives in writing.”

While we like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, many smart people make

3. Persuasion through emotion: not-so-smart choices. Brain science explains why. Growing evidence suggests we make most of our choices with our feeling brain (the limbic system) and justify them with our thinking brain (cerebral cortex). In other words, emotions drive motion.

Consider the possibility that most choices are driven by emotion. In other words, your ability to influence is greatest when you persuade with emotion.

The Four Emotional Homes

Each of us has a temperamental affinity toward one of four emotional states: to be in control and feel powerful, to belong and feel included, to be admired and feel important, or to be right and feel smart. Think of these states as a person’s emotional home. Most of our choices are efforts to get to our "emotional home."

You are most influential when you help another person achieve his or her desired emotional state.

Your power of persuasion is directly tied to your ability to help someone move from his or her unwanted feeling state to his or her desired emotional home.

This emotional drive forms the basis of four personality types:

“The Director” thrives when getting results, gets drained when losing control, and likes feeling powerful. This is a common personality type for physicians.

The Team Player” thrives when fitting in, gets drained when standing out, and likes a sense of belonging. This is a common personality type for nurses.

“The Score Keeper” thrives when right, gets drained when wrong, and likes feeling smart. This personal- ity type responds to your outcomes data and logical arguments.

The Actor” thrives on admiration, gets drained with disapproval, and likes feeling important.

Let’s say you wanted to persuade a patient to eat a heart-healthy diet. You have the greatest chance of success if your address the emotional needs:

For the Director: “You can’t control your family history, but you can get your heart healthier by taking control of what you eat.”

For the Team Player: “Here’s the phone number of a great support group committed to heart-healthy living.”

For the Score Keeper: “Here’s a journal you can use to keep track of what you eat. We can review it in two weeks when you return. I know you’ll get this right!”

For the Actor: “You are important to many people, and they all want you to stay healthy! Food choices make a big difference.”

You are most influential when you help another person achieve his or her desired emotional state.

Factors that Decrease Your Power to Persuade

Three factors serve as barriers to influencing others:

1. The “Eat your vegetables; they’re good for you” effect:

We have a human aversion to things we find distasteful, whether it’s a child facing yucky vegetables or an adult facing a difficult conversation. When you address a distasteful issue, expect people to turn away.

2. Competition for attention: In our crazy-busy world,it’s more difficult than ever to grab someone’s attention. We have developed attention spam filters to selectively ignore unwanted messages.

3. Failure to listen:

Unless and until people feel heard, they resist listening. Imagine every person you meet is wearing the t-shirt I saw on a toddler: “For argument’s sake, let’s assume I’m right.” Do not try to debate the beliefs of the person you are trying to persuade. Simply listen and accept the person’s perspective as his or her truth.

Factors that Strengthen Your Power to Persuade

Four factors increase your charisma—and your ability to influence others:

1. Tell stories rather than quote facts. Facts are the language of the logical brain; stories are the language of the feeling brain. Tell stories. Develop your story-telling skills. Listen to great story-tellers.

2. Say “I care.” As Dr. Francis Peabody famously said, “For the secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.” You increase your power of persuasion when people know you care about them.

There are five basic ways people complete this sentence, “I know they care because. . . .”

They tell me. They spend time with me. They give me gifts. They do nice things for me. They offer caring physical touches.

Each person—including yourself and the person you want to persuade—has a temperamental affinity to one of the five. Deliver the “I care” message guided by the recipient’s preferences—not yours.

3. Know when it’s time to offer a verbal aspirin, and when it’s time for a verbal vitamin. At any given moment, the person you want to influence is either moving away from what he doesn’t want or moving toward something he does want. The person is avoiding pain or aching for pleasure. When you’re attuned to others, you enhance your ability to persuade.

4. Watch the “I” to “You” ratio. The best way to get someone interested in you is to express an interest in that person. Shine the spotlight on your conversation partner. Learn her story. Listen to what she says—and to what she is not saying.

Practice Makes Perfect

If you meet resistance in your efforts to influence others, step back and reevaluate. How well are you listening? Are you missing an unmet emotional need? Do you need to ask for more feedback?

You will find amazing things happen as you enhance your powers of persuasion. Welcome to the world of sales!

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Victor J. Dzau, MD, gives expert advice
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