What Doctors Can Teach You About Patience and Persuasion in Sales
Whatever you're selling, you likely walk a fine line between building trust and urging a decision.
In a recent New Yorker article, Duke University scientist and doctor Peter Ubel explored how doctors handle this difficult dynamic. Here are three key insights from the story, all of which dovetail with sales best practices:
1. Learn and respect the pain points of your patient-customer. Ubel describes a cancer patient who desperately needs chemo, but protests whenever her doctor suggests it. She's mainly concerned that the chemo would imperil her ability to work. The doctor listens carefully to her concerns, and then says:
What I'm talking about is--I'm watching you die in slow motion. Obviously, it [the tumor] is developing. You have a threatened upper extremity which also threatens employment, ability, and function. I mean all of it is going away if that arm goes away, and I have a dozen things on the list I can do to make it better."
The doctor expressly addresses the topic of her future employment. He knows chemo is the only medical option, but he still makes a point, verbally, of recognizing his patient's anxieties about working again.
In doing so, the doctor is demonstrating a sales best practice that Dale Carnegie describes in How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carnegie tells the story of how Joseph Allison, a sales rep for Westinghouse Electric Company, learns and respects the pain points of a customer--even though those pain points have no basis in fact.
Here's the short version: It took Allison and his predecessor a whopping 13 years of sales calls to finally sell someone in their territory a few motors. The buyer then told Allison that he'd order several hundred more motors--if those first few worked well. Allison was excited. But when he checked in three weeks later, the buyer angrily announced he would not buy any more motors. The reason? The motors were running too hot. "I can't put my hand on them," he told Allison. Allison was shocked, but instead of expressing it, he found a way to get on the same page as the angry buyer:
"Well, now look, Mr. Smith," I said. "I agree with you a hundred percent; if those motors are running too hot, you ought not to buy any more of them. You must have motors that won't run any hotter than the standards set by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association. Isn't that so?"
You can guess what happens next. With kind and sensitive questions, Allison steered the buyer toward the realization that the motors were not too hot. Yes, they were hot enough to scald a hand, but that didn't mean that there was anything wrong with them. In fact, the temperature of the motors adhered to an accepted national standard. Eventually, the buyer bought $35,000 worth of motors.
2. Create a dialogue based on multiple options. After the doctor addresses the patient's pain points, the rest of their talk "became much less combative and more of a give and take between the two parties rather than a lecture from on high," writes Ubel. "The patient asked lots of questions about treatments' side effects and about whether chemotherapy would affect her ability to work."
Crucial to creating this dialogue is letting the patient know she has plenty of options to choose from. This tactic, in and of itself, ensures that the conversation doesn't devolve into a yes-or-no binary. As soon as the doctor says, "I have a dozen things on the list I can do to make it better," he opens the door to a wider discussion. The patient, instead of thinking of chemo as a yes-or-no choice, is now assessing the side effects of specific treatments.
The power of offering multiple solutions is a well-known sales best practice. Sung Park, the founder of Umagination Labs LLC (U-Labs), a joint venture between IDEO (the elite design firm) and WPP (the global marketing agency), believes it's an essential part of selling. U-Labs invents, patents, and market-researches consumer products for large manufacturers and retailers, which means that Park has plenty of practice at building trust with big companies.
From his perspective, you and a sales prospect should always be discussing how to solve one of the prospect's top problems. Ideally, you want to suggest more than one way to do it. This makes the conversational give-and-take much easier for the prospect. If you make three solid suggestions, it's as if you've given them an easy multiple-choice test. The prospect can then reply to you by saying something like, "Actually, option No. 3 is one we've already discussed internally." Now you've learned more about the partner. And you have a leg up in terms of how to drive the dialogue toward a formal collaboration.
3. Do not hurry a decision. The doctor tells the patient that she doesn't have to undergo chemotherapy immediately. Ubel writes:
"Take your time," he told her. "You have time. You don't have six months, but you have a couple of weeks. So that's plenty of time to make a good decision." And she decided to take that time to discuss the decision with her family and pray.
Earlier, the doctor had also emphasized that the patient take her time: "Don't tell me today. I'll give you as long as you want to think about it. I don't want you to answer right now. I'm not twisting your arm."
While it's Sales 101 not to hurry a customer, it doesn't always happen, thanks to the pressures of quarterly sales goals and commission-based compensation systems. Park, for one, believes it requires 10 in-person visits with a potential customer to establish a formal partnership or sales relationship.
But you can't just try to squeeze in 10 visits as soon as possible. You also have to respect the customer's buying cycle--and the need for them to discuss your multiple solutions internally. Don't make the mistake of using your sales calendar. Empathy for the buyer's cycle also allows you to position yourself as a win-win partnership-seeker and problem-solver. "If you're truly solving a problem, you want to show them how you're doing it--and you want to be a resource," says Park.
Above all else, Park notes, you need to make empathy your top priority. A customer will choose when they're good and ready, but not a moment sooner--and not because you've pressured them. Oncologists, of course, don't always have the time to be flexible. But in finding ways to muster patience and empathy under life-threatening circumstances, doctors can serve as a model and bright example for salespersons to follow.