Avoid Foot-In-Mouth Disease

By Malcolm Fleschner

Picture this: You’re making your first sales call to Dr. Lee’s office in the Chinatown section of San Francisco. Approaching the young Asian woman behind the desk, you say who you are and ask to speak with Dr. Lee for a moment. After a brief pause the woman looks up from her paperwork and deadpans: You’re speaking with Dr. Lee right now. Whoops!

Even if you haven’t made this particular faux pas, the mistake of assuming something about a physician or practice – gender, race, ethnicity – and then having to backpedal and apologize for the error is all too familiar to many drug reps.

Wanting to take a proactive approach with his team to avoid such potential hazards, Harry Bradford, a regional sales VP with GlaxoWellcome turned to Orlando-Ward Associates, a San Diego-based workplace training organization that specializes in using live-action drama to address diversity and other interpersonal workplace issues.

“I wanted the reps to see, firsthand, how diversity mistakes and assumptions can cost us,” Bradford told Black Perspective magazine. “But I needed them to get this experience in a safe environment, where they could spot the assumptions, learn to avoid them and practice their diversity skills.”

In fact, the scenario described above comes directly from one of the live drama vignettes Orlando-Ward developed specifically for the GlaxoWellcome team. The scenario featured two professional actors in the roles of doctor and sales rep. Understanding his error, the rep apologizes profusely and then Dr. Lee responds that she’d be happy to meet with him – about a year from now.

After each vignette was presented during the half-day program, Orlando-Ward producing director Gregg Ward led a discussion with the reps to identify the mistakes made and to brainstorm about more thoughtful approaches. Next, reps were invited to participate in what Ward calls Replays, where the scene is reenacted but this time with a program participant playing the role of the sales rep. The rep’s task is to handle the situation more effectively, without making errors based on cultural stereotypes.

Having completed the program, GlaxoWellcome’s Bradford effuses over the lessons he feels his team will carry with them into their territories. “This is some of the most powerful and effective sales rep training I’ve ever seen,” he says. “Anything that can give my reps a realistic sense of the diverse people and situations they’ll encounter is absolutely golden to me.”