What Doctors and Salespeople Can Learn From Each Other

Jerry Groopman is a medical doctor by profession. He is also an inquisitive person who for many years has been fascinated by the ancillary aspects of doctoring, such as the business of medicine. In his 2008 book How Doctors Think, he explores the varying ways in which doctors approach the need to figure out what’s going on in the human body.

Groopman’s overall message is that medicine is converging on a mechanistic approach to diagnosing. There’s a tendency to rely on “preset algorithms and practice guidelines in the form of decision trees.” (Insurance companies like this approach too). 

Together with an increasing reliance on evidence-based medicine, this drives thinking more and more “inside the box,” with less and less emphasis on the wildly varying kinds of intelligence needed to deal with the wildly varying mysteries of the human animal. 

What Doctors Can Learn from Salespeople

Given the trends above, it’s scary, albeit not surprising, to learn from Groopman this statistic:

 “…on average, physicians interrupt patients within eighteen seconds of when they begin telling their story.”

Eighteen seconds. Now cut to sales uber-guru Neil Rackham, in response to my question, “What’s the single biggest sales problem, and the hardest-to-correct sales problem?”

…the most pervasive one is also the hardest to correct. I’d call it “premature solutions”. [many salespeople] mistakenly believe that the sooner they can begin solving the problem, the more effective they will be.

Our earliest research showed that top salespeople didn’t focus on solutions until very late in the sale. Less successful salespeople couldn’t wait to begin showing how their products and services could solve a customer problem.

So most salespeople don’t spend enough time listening and questioning. The moment they think they have the answer, they jump straight to talking about their solution. As a result they don’t do a good enough job of understanding issues from the customer point of view. And if customers don’t feel that they are listened to and understood, there’s an inevitable loss of trust.

Message to docs: if you start cutting off patients after 18 seconds, you’ll get bad data, you’ll make bad diagnoses, and you’ll get little compliance with treatment. Not to mention low referral business.

What Salespeople Can Learn from Doctors

On the other hand, there are great and not-so-great doctors, just as there are salespeople. Here’s what one great doc had to say:

 “Osler essentially said that if you listen to the patient, he is telling you the diagnosis…Once you remove yourself from the patient’s story, you no longer are truly a doctor.”

The great advantage of open-ended questioning is that it maximizes the opportunity for a doctor to hear new information. What does it take to succeed with open-ended questions? The doctor has to make the patient feel that he is really interested in hearing what they have to say…

…Even if the doctor asks the right questions, the patient may not be forthcoming because of his emotional state. The goal of a physician is to get to the story, and to do so he has to understand the patient’s emotions. 

…You need information to get at the diagnosis, and the best way to get that information is by establishing rapport with the patient. Competency is not separable from communications skills. It’s not a tradeoff.”

Salespeople, you won’t find a more eloquent statement than this about the importance of listening to your customers. 

What Selling and Doctoring Have in Common

It makes a great deal of sense that the skills of a good physician should mirror those of a good salesperson.

First, nobody knows more about the customer/patient than the customer/patient. The danger of subject matter expertise is that you end up thinking you know more than the customer does. The truth is: you both know more than the other in particular areas, and the real power comes from collaboration.

Second, customer/patients are humans first, computers second. If you access them as computers—repositories of data waiting for your diagnosis-seeking brain-suck—then you alter their perceptions and feelings, and you end up poisoning the very data you set out to look for. In old computer lingo, it’s GIGO. Customer/patients’ data is only as good as their ability to clearly convey it to you, and that is affected by your ‘bedside manner.’

Third, soft skills and hard skills are complementary for the salesperson as well as for the physician. You can’t get by with just one, and you can’t spend much time in just one mode or the other. The best salespeople, like the best physicians, are practicing students not only of their product line or their specialty, but of human nature. 

Salespeople: think of your favorite doctor. Does he or she do a great job of ‘selling’ you on the right course of treatment? If so, take some sales lessons from them.

And if not, then perhaps it’s time for you to find a doctor who understands how to sell.