Opening The Gates

By Malcolm Fleschner

Do you know how physicians choose which administrative staff members to station behind the glass in the office reception area? It’s usually a simple competition where the winner is the person who can say the word “no” the most times in an hour.

Jokes aside, it’s no secret that office administrators guard their physicians’ precious time fiercely, much to the chagrin of drug reps everywhere. And as Jean Male, CEO of Emp-Higher Performance Development Inc. (, a New Jersey-based sales performance consulting and training company, points out, many reps view these gatekeepers as “SPOs” (Sales Prevention Officers) instead of potential allies.

“The mindset that the gatekeeper is a necessary evil to get past is often overtly or subtly transparent to the gatekeeper who develops a low tolerance for phony or rude representatives,” she says. “I probably wouldn’t be so keenly aware of the issue if I hadn’t worked my way through college as a Medical Assistant in a primary care office. That experience had a profound impact on my ability to be a successful sales rep and trainer early in my career.

“I often tell the story of one self-important rep who demanded to see the doctor just because she had an appointment. Her superior attitude and demeanor resulted in our office’s very first ‘do not see’ list, an index card posted at the front desk. Some version of this list, arbitrarily created and enforced by the office staff still exists in many offices.”

Of the myriad behaviors that tend to get reps’ named on such lists, Male says a few of the most common are not: learning enough about the practice and people, not learning and using names, insensitivity, and not making any impression at all or making the wrong one. Instead, she says, reps need to view each office as unique and set about mastering what she calls the “Three P’s.”

“First is Policies,” she explains. These are both written or spoken as well as the unwritten/unspoken that are etched in stone. For example, if the office manager says you have five minutes and the doctor speaks with you for fifteen, you may never see that doctor again. Even though I was hypersensitive to office policy, I still made this mistake as a new rep and it was a rude lesson. If the office manager says five minutes, make sure you only stay for five minutes.

“Next is Personalities. Most offices have a personality of sorts. Some are more formal and stand-offish while others are relaxed and warm. Never assume that you won’t get anywhere with the former or try to be too familiar too quickly with the latter. Many factors are involved in this equation with social or behavioral styles being just one aspect of how the office and individual should be approached.

“Finally, there’s Politics. Large offices can be a bit like ‘Survivor.’ There are alliances, so while you may think you’re ‘in’ because someone with a title gives you the time of day, they may not be the true gatekeeper. In addition, if you befriend the staffer that isn’t popular with colleagues (which may be why they’ll spend time with you) you could end up being passively punished for the association.”

Male’s description of typical office behavior provides plenty of items to add to your “not to-do” list for your next office visit. For her tips on the right strategies for getting past the gatekeeper check in with next month’s issue of the Selling Power pharmaceutical sales newsletter.