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Smart Questions and Dialogue Selling

by Dorothy Leeds

Pharm Rep Magazine, October 2000

I’m sure as pharmaceutical salespeople, you wish that you had a magic wand to uncover why your doctors aren’t prescribing more of your excellent drugs. In order to sell effectively, you need to uncover and address the specific needs, wants, hidden objections, and concerns that each individual doctor has. It is important to know about a doctor’s current outlook and opinions concerning your products and your competitors’ products so you can tailor your sales presentations. A tailored presentation has a much greater chance to fall on interested ears. It is essential to know a doctor’s feelings, biases, loyalties and valued thought leaders. The only way to obtain this information is by asking smart questions. By asking questions, you are getting doctors involved in an exchange through which you can gain insights about their needs, values and attitudes. This is why dialogue selling and smart questions are you most valuable tool as a pharmaceutical salesperson.


Your opening is one of the essential parts of your sales call. If you don’t grab the doctor’s attention during the start of the call with a smart question, you will have lost him for the rest of it. And because of this, it deserves – and requires – a lot of thought.

The purpose of your opening question is to gain attention, to focus the tone of the call, to show that you care, and to establish some context for the call. If you start out lecturing the doctor right away, you will most probably lose her. Every smart question must have a purpose, and your purpose in an opening question is to initiate the dialogue selling process.

Good openers come in many forms, depending on the doctor’s personality, her prescribing patterns and what you are trying to accomplish. If you don’t have much time on your call and you want to quickly clarify a statement the doctor made on a previous call, ask, “The last time I was here, you said you liked my drug? What do you like about it?” No matter what opening question you ask, the answer should be information that you can use to convince the doctor to prescribe more of your products. You can try to get the doctor to sell himself with questions such as “Why do you think so many doctors are prescribing so much of this drug?”

Make the doctor stop and take notice with the question you ask. You want to grab your doctor’s attention and get her to realize that this is not going to be just the “usual” sales call. Change your expectations. Don’t get stuck in the mindset that the doctor only has a minute for you. If the doctor says he only has a minute, ask, “What can I share with you that would make that time count for you?” Make a list of how much time you get with each doctor and see if you can’t double it in two months with smart questions. Work on those all important attention getting openers. Make your doctors want to spend more time with you.


Now that you have opened the sales call, continue asking questions. Actually, this is where the real questioning begins. But, it is here, that most pharmaceutical reps make a common mistake: they let the opening question get away. What do I mean by that? Let’s look at this sales call:

Rep: Doctor Jones, I notice you have been writing a lot of our competitor’s drug. What is it you like about that product?

Doc: Oh, I like the fact that it has other indications.

Rep: Well, our drug can be a good choice because …

What was wrong with this dialogue? He just let the answer hang in the wind and started right in on with his selling message. What was the question he should have asked? He should have asked what the doctor what are those indications? What do you specifically like about them? His mistake was not asking the second probing question. The purpose of probing questions is to get the doctor to give you valuable information to “set up” your presentation.

Here are some rules for super probing:

  • Have a clear purpose in mind. Before you ask the question, you should ask yourself, “What do I want to accomplish by asking this question? Does this question do that?”
  • Give the doctor enough time to answer. If you are asking really smart questions, you will pique the physician’s interest and it may take him a while to come up with an answer. Let him think. Get used to the silence.
  • Avoid putting words into the doctor’s mouth. For example, you don’t want to ask, “Doctor, I know you write X. Is it because of factor A or factor B?” Not only is this ineffective, it is seen as manipulative.
  • Ask one question at a time. Often, pharmaceutical representatives ask multiple unrelated questions right after another. This confuses the doctor and rarely gets you a quality answer.
  • Concentrate on the physician’s response to your question. Don’t think ahead and try to come up with what you are going to say next. When you do this, you are definitely going to miss important points.
  • Go into the sales call with a questioning strategy, but make sure you are flexible in that strategy. You want to go into the sales call with a clear idea of what information you need and what questions will get you the answer. But, if you get a response that needs further probing, like “I use your product all the time,” find out what the doctor means. Go into the call with questions you want to ask and don’t be afraid to ask more questions based on the information the doctor gives you. The value of this strategy is that you have a plan and you will appear more organized. But, you can’t plan all your questions or you will sound canned and insincere.


With the right closing question, you can be sure the doctor will begin to prescribe more of your product. But, before you ask the question you need to assess what your goals are going to be. Not every close is going to have the same goal. Ideally you want to close every time with your doctors prescribing more of your products. But that is not always realistic. A more down-to-earth goal is to keep raising the doctor’s level of commitment. Sometimes your close may involve the doctor discussing an article with you or looking at a study or coming to a dinner meeting. If, on every call, you ask the doctor to perform a specific action, it creates the idea in the doctor’s mind that you are going to as him for something on every call. This is an effective habit to get into and will move the doctor closer toward your ultimate objective.

Once you have gotten to the point where you are ready to close, you need to ask for specifics from the doctor. Even, if you ask, “Will you write more prescriptions of our drug?” and the doctor says “Yes,” your work is not yet done. Do not accept generalities. What specifically does “Yes” mean? You want to get a real commitment out of her. You must ask, pause, make eye contact and clearly establish the your expectation of the doctor to answer. You should plant the expectation in the doctor’s mind that you will continue to ask for a commitment and that she will be expected to answer with specifics.

When you ask for specifics and hold the doctor to the answers he gives, you create the expectation of your future visits. Your doctor’s must know you expect more from them. The only way you’ll get it is by asking and expecting a meaningful reply.

A questioning strategy in selling (and, in fact, every facet of our lives) can make the difference between acceptable sales figures and phenomenal sales figures. By asking the right questions at the right times, you can put the stereotype of the “pitching” salesperson to rest. Once you become an asker, I know you will agree that asking smart questions is like having a magic wand on every sales call.


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