‘Salesman’ is not a dirty word

March 15, 2012

By Gary Gerber, O.D.

Willy Loman was a salesman (and apparently not a very good one). Most optometrists will tell you, point blank, that they didn’t go to school to become one.

Yet, as pejorative as the term might be to many medical professionals, and as tragic a life as the protagonist in “Death of a Salesman” might have led, great salespeople can help make any organization successful.  

In fact, virtually no one without a monopoly on a product or service can hope to succeed without the ability to sell.

For starters, successful salespeople should not be viewed as oily or unctuous individuals with a propensity for making outlandish promises or bogus claims.

Rather, the good ones should be congratulated on their ability to build trust and credibility and, as a result, exchange a personal commitment with their “customer.”

Many struggling business owners use the alibi “we are not doing well because we can’t compete with the competition on price.”

Or the competition has a bigger budget. Or we’re in a lousy location.

Those are cop outs; a good sales staff can level the playing field.

When any organization, whether it’s a hotel chain, a supermarket, or an optometry  practice can demonstrate its willingness to go the extra mile, other issues become secondary.

The service station that washes windows, vacuums the carpet, and checks the oil will do just fine, even if it charges six cents more a gallon, or is not the first gas station most people pass on their way to work.

Before any exchange of commitments can occur, establishing trust is critical, and it begins the very first time the prospect makes contact, which is usually by telephone.

The salesperson, i.e., the person answering the call, must create an opening in the first few seconds of that call, or it’s too late and the prospect will be gone.

This is when the prospect needs to be thinking, “Hmm, there is something going on here. I don’t necessarily know what it is yet, but maybe I can trust this person.”

This is the critical first step to building a long-term committed relationship.

In an optometry practice it all begins by training the receptionist to handle calls properly.

Does the receptionist simply answer the caller’s question of “How much do you charge for an exam?” or “Do you take such and such insurance?”

If that’s the case, there is a better than 50-50 chance that those prospects, who are obviously shopping, will be gone, because they will eventually find someone who will quote a lower figure or who accepts their insurance.

Instead, the staff member needs to be taught, and teaching through role playing scenarios works well, to begin a dialogue that will convince the caller that deciding whether or not to make an appointment is dependent on more than cost or insurance coverage.

“Are you having a specific problem?  Is there anything in particular we can help you with?”  Teaching the receptionist to engage the caller in such a way is far more likely to convince the prospect that there will be personalized and caring services.

Furthermore, the staff person needs to learn to be proactive by not simply saying “When would you like to come in for an appointment?” but rather “The next available times with Dr. Smith are Tuesday at 3 p.m. or Wednesday at 8 a.m. Which time do you prefer?”

“Customers,” regardless of the call, are looking for someone they can trust and who has demonstrated a level of competence in solving their problem. This continues once the prospect becomes a patient.

Does the patient feel that customized service will be available?  Or does the patient feel like just another number?

This may mean calling the patient to see if the new lenses are comfortable or following up after an ophthalmology referral has been completed.

Just as certain hotel chains convince customers that the experience is a special one, so do optometrists who have managed to keep patients even after they’ve switched jobs and their new insurance is no longer covered by the practice, or when they have moved 30 minutes farther away.

Yes, patients will choose to leave for reasons that go beyond how good the salespeople are in demonstrating how special the practice is (which is why, over time, some patients will realize this and return).

The bond fostered between the patient and practitioner who have exchanged a commitment is indeed a difficult one to break.

Gary Gerber, O.D., is the president and founder of The Power Practice®, a practice management consulting company. He can be reached at drgerber@powerpractice.com or 800-867-9303. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AOA.

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