The sales profession has a problem. Most people don’t like and don’t trust sales people. In Gallup polling of how the public sees people in different professions, salespeople rank with members of Congress and advertisers, below lawyers. While the slimy, self-interested sales rep is simultaneously a cliche, a stereotype, and a far-too-accurate view of many members of the profession, I noticed something when I started interacting with sales people as a young software engineer. The most successful sales reps seemed to actually care about their customers first, and themselves second. They got great leads, handled them well, closed deals, and got referrals. Later, when I went to see a doctor (I needed shoulder surgery), I made a connection. The best sales people acted more like doctors.

The stereotypical sales rep is out to sell to make their commission, their quota, their goals. The doctor is there to help you feel better.

Doctors like to make money just as much as anyone else, so what’s the difference?

First, doctors have great lead generation. Through word of mouth, referrals, advertising, and more, people come to doctors for specific reasons– if you have heart problems, you see a cardiologist, if your kid is sick, you see your pediatrician, and so on. Sometimes, that doctor may need to refer you to another specialist, which results in an even more targeted lead for that second doctor. In other words, doctors are great at seeing people they are qualified to help directly, or by quickly referring to someone who can. Sales teams waste a huge amount of time on people who aren’t real prospects. It would be a like a cardiologist calling up everyone and asking if they have a heart, then trying to sell them. Instead, doctors focus on solving particular problems as well as possible. Then they rely on their group, referral network to funnel people with those problems to them. If they generate good outcomes and patients like them, they get more referrals.

So, how to generate good outcomes? First, lots of training. College. Med school. Residency. Fellowships. Then you start what’s called, for good reason, “practice.” Most sales reps do not invest in themselves the way doctors do (perhaps for good reason). Nor do the sales leaders at companies. Sales tools and processes are more haphazard than they are in medicine. I’m not saying that someone selling snowboards needs the same level of training or tools as a neurosurgeon, just pointing out the big difference. Sales reps get some scripts, some leads, and maybe a CRM system (which they probably don’t want), weekly meetings, and maybe a training session or two per year. Doctors are supposed to be experts. They are supposed to know more about the patient’s own body than the patient. Some sales reps barely know their own products, let alone their customers’ businesses. Yes, there’s a lot to learn, and sales reps don’t have the advantage of working in a supply constrained environment, but take time to learn about your customers. Learn how different types of customers in different industries, stages of growth, organizational structures, etc. have different needs. If you have the luxury of a vertically-focused sales team, take advantage to become “doctors” to your customers.

I’m not the only one who recommends that sales professionals can learn from doctors. As Marc Wayshak writes:

#4. Learn about key challenges. Your prospects will not be buying your product or service; they’ll be buying a solution to their challenges. By starting your conversations focused on the challenges that your prospects are facing, you are going to have a much better idea of how to actually solve those challenges.

Think of going to a doctor: A doctor doesn’t ask you what solution you want. A doctor asks you, “What are the challenges that you’re facing?” and asks a lot of effective questions to understand what’s really going on. Follow this same protocol and you will find that your approach is totally distinct from that of your competitors.

Perhaps the biggest thing to learn from doctors is how to handle people who aren’t good patients for you (yet). Know how to diagnose that quickly, and give a great referral, instead of trying to force the sale. This will save you tons of time and stress, and help you build up your own referral network.

(Of course, there are also some ways that doctors could learn from great sales people. Many doctors like to be perceived as experts, and they sometimes like to rush, so they sometimes cut off patients to offer a diagnosis before they have all the information, much like less skilled sales people.)


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