Sales Skills for the Independent Pharmacist: Necessary Evil, Or Exciting Opportunity?

Irving Stackpole

In the last installment we looked at marketing skills. The result of effective marketing is interest in, and inquiries about your services. Once a prospective client has contacted you, it’s necessary to convert that inquiry or interest into a customer. This requires sales skills.

“Sales are contingent upon the attitude of the salesman - not the attitude of the prospect.”
W. Clement Stone

For many people in this culture, sales is almost a dirty word, associated with an unpleasant, adversarial experience. The grinning used-car salesman is a stereotype and cultural icon. In health care, sales has been denigrated for many years; after all, we didn’t go into health care or pharmacy to sell – we entered our professions to serve. Fortunately, or unfortunately in most businesses, nothing happens unless a sale is completed.

For those of you who find the idea of selling offensive, think of it as exercising influence or persuasion. As anyone who has raised a child knows, to be human is to persuade. We are all consumers and producers of influence. If you have negotiated with a five-year-old child about an ice cream cone, the movies, or any other desired goal, you understand that influence and persuasion are part and parcel of the social fabric. The effective use of influence must be ethical and principled – nothing I’m suggesting should be interpreted otherwise.

The first and most important sales skill is listening. It is a common misunderstanding that an individual who is loquacious is necessarily a good salesperson. Nothing could be further from the truth. Effective salespeople – really good ones – talk less and listen more. Only by listening carefully can we understand what our clients are telling us, and convert what we’re being told into meaningful responses. It is the nervous and insecure person who talks incessantly. If you are responsible for recruiting salespeople in your role, pay close attention in the interviewing process to how carefully the candidate listens and then converts what’s being heard into effective responses and further questions.

Good listening starts with good questions. Sometimes called “probes,” there are two types: open and closed. Closed questions elicit a yes, no, or simple numerical or factoid response. “How many prescriptions you dispense every month in your nursing center?” This is a closed probe. Open questions, on the other hand, are designed to encourage the other person to talk. “What types of pharmacy challenges have you experienced among your rehabilitation patients?” This is a good example of an open probe. While it is certainly important to collect information in a sales interview, it is far more important to let the prospective customer talk to you. Only in this way can you learn what is truly important to her, and how you can best address those concerns. If possible, never ask more than three closed probes in a row.

Successful sales interviews begin with thorough preparation. As a pharmacy services professional, it is up to you to understand in advance the general nature of the challenges faced by your customers. Prospects will find a series of closed probes about their business wearisome, even annoying if you are asking questions to which you could have easily found the answers through a little bit of research. It is important that you conduct discovery about your prospective client before the sales interview. This will allow you to prepare questions which show the client that you understand her business, and provide you an opportunity to listen carefully to the responses. For example, instead of, “Have you had communications challenges with your pharmacy?” try, “Many of our clients find that short-cycle dispensing creates communications challenges. What has been your experience?”

In most sales interviews, customers will reveal their concerns or objections to accepting your solution. Responding effectively to these concerns and objections depends first on effective listening (of course) and then on a simple technique. This is not a parlor trick, but a proven way to demonstrate that you have heard the other person and are responding. The first step is to reinforce the concern. Don’t be so quick to correct a misunderstanding or overwhelm an objection with facts. First, validate the concern. “I can certainly understand why you are concerned about pricing.” Next, you state how your business, solution, process – or whatever – addresses that concern. “At ABC Pharmacy we offer the very best pricing available, and the type of 24/7 responsiveness you are looking for.”

To respond effectively to objections and concerns, it is often necessary to provide backup, i.e., evidence or proof that you can do what you are claiming. This may take the form of reports, price lists, testimonials, etc. It’s important to only present these documents when clearly necessary, or requested. It is a common mistake to dump information, documents and other materials onto the client. Why offer a prospective client information that he hasn’t asked for, may not need, and which may only create other questions that would sidetrack the sales process?

Prior to every sales interview, you should have goals or objectives prepared, and the end result of should always be an agreed-upon set of next steps. It is important to recognize when you are receiving buy signals. Clients will typically say something like, “Sounds good,” or “Where do we go from here?” At these points, it’s absolutely critical that you stop selling! You must resist the urge to explain yet one more feature, or one more program. The client is trying to tell you that she is done – and you should be too. Agree with her about the next steps, including specific timetables and deliverables, thank her for the time and get to work to follow up and close the deal.

If you have any questions about marketing and sales, contact Irving Stackpole at istackpole@StackpoleAssociates.com or visit www.StackpoleAssociates.com

Article references available upon request (info@ncpanet.org).