How should you, as a pharmaceutical sales rep, establish credibility with a physician? The typical answer might be that you should talk about your product and disease state in a way that demonstrates your breadth of knowledge and insight into the challenges physicians face. But as Jane Williams, pharmaceutical sales consultant and author of Professional Pharmaceutical Selling (Principle Publications, 2005), notes, this response neglects a key element of showing physicians what you’re made of – probing skills.
“Probing, which means asking intelligent questions, has a direct effect on credibility,” she says. “What sales reps know about their product and competitive products as well as the physician’s practice and personality type are revealed easily by the questions the sales rep poses to the physician. Increasing your understanding of the relationship by asking good questions and earning the respect of the physician comes with sales training and experience. I believe that more training and emphasis in this area is needed to accelerate the learning process.”
There is, of course, more to effective probing than simply asking questions – or even asking the right questions. Williams believes that how you ask probing questions also is an important factor.
“The best probing questions are phrased in a manner that elicits a positive response from the physician and reveals information required by the sales rep for maximum job performance – product sales,” says Williams. “The properly phrased question is personalized and specific for the physician and his or her patients. Accurate timing and the proper phrasing of questions are important. By listening carefully to what the physician is saying and paying close attention to the physician’s body language, a sales rep can stop and rephrase for understanding and then move the conversation in the right direction if necessary. Properly phrased probes are smart questions asked at the appropriate time.”
Newly minted trial attorneys frequently are told they should never ask a question to which they don’t already know the answer. To a degree Williams believes the same is true for pharmaceutical reps, but adds that when handled properly an unexpected response can open up new opportunities.
“Yes, reps should have a good idea about how their question will be answered,” Williams says. “Now I am specifically not referring to trap questions because I do not approve of them. Trap questions are antagonistic and counterproductive. If reps are well informed about their product, their competitors’ products, targeted disease states treated by their product, current trends, recent studies and the physician’s current prescribing habits, as well as the physician’s patient-base characteristics, they should not be surprised by a physician’s response very often. Unexpected answers, however, usually are a great opportunity to learn more about the physician and his or her practice, so reps should make the most of it by listening carefully and asking questions that are not self-serving but allow the physician to elaborate on his or her thoughts.”
Williams says her biggest concern related to questioning is the use of generic probing techniques that instantly can turn an opportunity to gain insight from a key physician into a dead end. Ultimately, she says, this is a problem that can be addressed only with training.
“The biggest mistakes happen when canned probing questions are used during a sales presentation,” she says, “and no thought is given to asking appropriate questions based on the physician’s practice, area of specialty, personality, position and particular interests. These are all areas of knowledge reps should understand if they have prepared sufficiently for the sales call.
“Thoughtless, canned probes are used most often by reps with insufficient training, which results in ignorance and insecurity and can cause reps to feel and act nervous, overenthusiastic or pushy, says Williams. “In this situation, it’s evident the rep is not prepared to sell and is unlikely to have a successful sales call.
“My recommendation is to improve probing skills by developing better listening skills. Constantly and consistently improve your product and industry knowledge, attend more sales training classes, practice sales presentations and use precall planning to personalize sales calls,” suggests Williams.