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.

10 replies
  1. Rich Sternhell
    Rich Sternhell says:

    Charlie, once again a great post.  But I’m afraid it’s an ideal rather than the world we actually live in.  I hear from doctors today that they can’t take the time to listen…they would love to but they are paid for procedures not for listening.  Our health care system has created incentives fairly similar to transaction based businesses but removed the economic connection between the customer and provider.  I like the ideal you’ve raised, but with the exception of concierge medical practices it’s no longer a good real world example.  Dr Groopman now earns a living writing books rather than treating patients.

  2. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Unfortunately Rich is quite right about Groopman’s example being, these days, more theoretical than real, for all the reasons he mentions.

    And more reasons on top of that. One of the Amazon reviewers takes Groopman to task for being critical of the methodical approach inherent in evidence-based medicine, pointing out that failures of evidence-based medicine are often failures of process execution, not concept.

    True, I’m sure; but also yet another nail in the coffin of treating people like people, as opposed to getting more efficient at pushing homo sapiens protein through the processing system. 

    Ah well, at least salespeople can still draw conclusions from the theory of doctoring; too bad about doctors not being in a position to draw conclusions from the theory of selling.

  3. John Gies
    John Gies says:

    I hear much the same that Rich does, from my customers. And yet my Primary Care Physician is so open, questioning and willing to share I have to get him to cut to the chase so I can move along with my day. I know great problem to have.

    I think there is room for improvement though. If a physician (or a sales person for that matter) is interrupting after 18 seconds, they aren’t even trying to listen. I am reminded of a story Stephen Covey tells, of the patient going into the Optometrist and saying. I don’t see so well anymore." The Optometrist takes off his glasses and says, "here these will work" and see’s the patient to the door. How does that feel? There was no diagnosis, how the heck would the Dr. know what will or will not work.

    It is easier said than done. As a professional sales exec I often have to pull back the reins to keep from spewing a solution before I have completed the diagnosis. I hear the pain and know I have an answer. If I can relax into the meeting and continue to ask questions the customer often comes up with the solution on their own and I don’t have to sell.

    As usual great post Charlie,


  4. Barbara Garabedian
    Barbara Garabedian says:

    Charlie, how about turning the scenario around. 

    Consultants & salespeople should think back to their worst DOC examples (interruptions while you were explaining the issues, very little probing, no rapport,  feigned listening, fast diagnosis, few or no explaination of options, lack of info regarding method of treatment, etc).

    What did that behavior say about the professional? How vulnerable did it make you feel? How satisfied were you in that assessment of your illness and that the prescribed treatment would cure the problem? How much faith did you have in that person? How comfortable were you that the Doc really cared about you & your outcome?

    If you or a loved one wouldn’t want to be treated that way, think twice before using the same bedside manner with your clients and/or customers.

    It may not be the best method out there but there is some value to negative learning.

  5. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    (adapted from their website, and they’re not the only med school that takea such an approach)The Healer’s Art is a course offered to second-year medical students at the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Duluth campus since 2003, incorporates dialogue about what, beyond science and technology, physicians can offer patients. The purpose is to explore the art of medicine – how they interact with people. &nbsp
    The course gives students a chance to discuss topics that often aren’t covered in medical school—the importance of listening, dealing with grief and loss, how to handle situations in which they as physicians may not have an answer…that science and technology were critical to the practice of medicine, but equally important was that patients be heard and cared for in a way that supported the whole self. By recognizing and supporting the wholeness and uniqueness of each individual, we as physicians could open a door to make healing possible.  
    One of the primary goals of the Healer’s Art is to explore foundational elements of professionalism. Certainly, professionalism encompasses technical, intellectual, and cognitive competencies; but the Healer’s Art course targets other aspects of professionalism such as the importance of calling on our values as we relate to others as well as our need for emotional intelligence. These latter components of professionalism are sometimes difficult to address in the standard medical school curriculum. Two objectives. The first was to have students explore the essence of healing—what, beyond science and technology, they have to offer patients and others. The second was to help them stay connected with the meaning of their work in order to avoid burnout.
    In order to best fulfill the first objective, we help students understand that as future physicians one of the most important things they can do for their patients is to listen to them. Each patient, each life, each story is unique, and listening validates the individual, strengthens their sense of self, and opens the door to healing. Also, by listening to their stories, thoughts, and feelings, physicians can better understand each patient’s unique needs and manage their medical problems in ways that are meaningful to them. We believe that by teaching medical students to listen to each other, they one day will be better listeners when working with patients.

    I couldn’t help but think about (1) substituting (generically) business for medicine and  (2) substituting ethics (honesty, trust and the like) for  healing (think: the MBA Oath) in our B-schools.

    Always my curiosity is what happens along the way that folks choose to allow themselves (and it is a choice) to be co-opted to the degree where at some point they check their values, priorities, and integrity at the door. Where “we” (you know, that once cherished and respected, caring and concerned “relationship morphs into the “transaction” – “I/me.

    The conventional response – the victimization response – is: “He-she-they made me change..” Really!? Total denial of self-responsibility. 

    The operative question is "Why (really, really why) did I choose to compromise and change?" (Hint: not everyone did, or does). What got in the way between my (once cherished) values and me?

  6. Phillip Greene
    Phillip Greene says:

    I had to stop and drop a quick note about the quote below:

    "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."

    It struck me as profound and perfectly put. (I help technical people ‘sell’ by building trust,  and then confidence in success.)

    Your quote describes the problem and the opportunity; it should be on mouse pads and screen savers everywhere.  

  7. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    …mousepads and screensavers…there’s something I definitely like about that…

    I think my doc is great too, btw. He does all the things Groopman talks about.  But it’s mainly because he’s opted out of the system.  He’s done well enough, and more importantly, well enough is he’s OK with doing just well enough.  He takes insurance, but he’s not trying to make a living on doctoring anymore–he just does it to serve. 

    Good thing, too, because he referred me to a local somewhat struggling young dermatologist.  Talented woman, good with patients, the waiting room is a disaster and the facilities are cheap.  Until I saw the insurance paperwork, I didn’t realize why.  To cut into my epidermis and determine whether I have cancer, my insurance company pays her a pittance; well under half of what I pay for a plumber. 

    No good way to make a living, Rich is quite right.


  8. Rich Sternhell
    Rich Sternhell says:

    We all know that we are more satisfied with our business (or medical) interactions when they are relationship based rather than transaction based.  The health care system has become distorted through the imposition of multiple players (employers, insurance companies, government) into the doctor/patient relationship. We would all like it to be different, but few of us (either doctors or patients) can take the financial or health risk of buying only what we can afford.  The real question is why we allow transactions to dominate our mindset when we are selling non regulated goods or services?  I understand the bind doctors are in…for the most part they are not free agents, just folks trying to pay off their student loans…but what about the rest of us?  Peter is right…it is a choice and we make it in every interaction we have.

  9. Lance E Osborne
    Lance E Osborne says:

    Charlie, you have to check out the December issue of Southwest Airline’s in-flight mag, Spirit. The article is entitled "See What I’m Saying" and is about Dr. Carolyn Stern…she’s deaf. The article is completely parallel with what you have blogged and an interesting read.


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