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by Dorothy Leeds

Ho Hum. Listening. Not the most scintillating subject. Not a subject on which most reps want to spend a lot of time. However, if you spend just long enough to read this article, I guarantee you’ll find some quick and easy ways to rev up your quality listening, establish better relationships with your doctors, and get them to write more scripts.

I was recently in a doctor’s office and overheard a conversation between a rep and a doctor. The doctor said, “I really respect Dr. Smith. He’s extremely knowledgeable about endocrinology.” The rep replied, “Doctor, who are the experts you really respect?” Under most circumstances, this is very good question to ask – but not when the doctor had just given out that information. Obviously, the rep hadn’t been listening carefully to what the doctor was saying. The doctor, who had been engaged in conversation just a minute before, suddenly said, “That’s all the time I have,” walked into his office, and shut the door. The rep was left standing, not even aware of what he had done to turn the doctor off so rapidly.

According to a recent U.S. Department of Labor study, out of the total time we spend communicating, 22 percent is spent in reading and listening, 23 percent is spent speaking, and 55 percent is spent in listening. So even though more than half our communication time is spent in listening, only a small percentage of us are very good listeners.

There are two major aspects of listening: Listening to others and getting others to listen to us. We will cover both in this article.

How Good a Listener Are You?

Take the following short assessment. Be ruthlessly honest and objective. Don’t answer the way you feel you should be, or like to see yourself, but as you really are.

  1. Do you pretend to listen when you are not?
  2. Do people tell you that you are not listening?
  3. Do you ever finish other people’s sentences for them?
  4. Do you have a fear of silence?
  5. Do you have your mind made up before listening to the other side?
  6. Are you good at tuning in and out of a conversation without missing much?
  7. Do you frequently ask for clarification when you don’t fully understand?

If you answered “no” to questions 1-6 and “yes” to question 7, you are a good listener. Unfortunately, most people don’t fit into that category.


There are several essential reasons why it is important for pharmaceutical sales reps to listen attentively:

  • Build strong relationships with your doctors and others in the office who will impact your success. One of the great advantages of quality listening is that it makes us more empathetic – which means that we can identify with the thoughts, feelings, and attitudes of others.
  • You will know what to say and what to ask. Suppose you are in a Doctors office and the Doctor has shared that he relies on his long-time nurse to talk to the patients. If you are listening, you would want to learn more about which issues he entrusts to his nurse. You might want to ask, ”Doctor, could you describe the types of issues you ask your nurse to discuss with your patients?” That question will give you lots of good information and show that you are paying attention. The hardest thing for reps to do is to stop thinking about what they are going to say, start concentrating on what their doctors are saying.
  • You will show caring and concern. Think about how you feel when someone is not paying attention to what you’re saying. Now think about a time when someone really listened to you. How did that make you feel? How did it influence your relationship with that person? Doctors are no different than anyone else. Listening makes doctors feel you care (and, as an added bonus, it makes them feel that are intelligent as well).
  • You will learn important thoughts and feelings and persuade more effectively. Quality listening can alert you to problems or opportunities you never knew existed.
  • You will set yourself apart from the other reps by being a quality listener. Good listeners often stand out from the crowd because they have asked smarter questions, and gained a better understanding of the other person’s needs and concerns.
  • You will gain more time and access with the doctor. Think about it, if you were a doctor with limited time, which reps would you select to talk with? So many doctors tell me that the reps who come into their offices are so busy talking and pitching their drugs they do not have time to stop and listen. Since I’m not a rep, I try to put myself in your shoes to replicate your situation. I try to extend my time with each of my doctors. For example, my gynecologist used to spend three-six minutes with me. At my last visit, because I engaged her with interesting questions and listened and built on her answers, she stayed 18 ½ minutes. Her nurse had to come and get her.

Which of these is motivation enough to change your listening habits? We never listen in a vacuum. The most successful reps do not talk a lot. They ask thought-provoking, win-win questions where both parties benefit. It’s a flow chart. If you want your doctors to listen to you, you must learn what is of interest to them before you talk. You must find out what interests them (other than money and golf) and relate all your information to them. For example, if your doctor states his main concern is not knowing the real differences between competing drugs, he will probably not listen to anything you say until he feels you have explained these concerns. We listen to others in terms of our self interest and they listen to us for the same reason. So the big question is, “How do you learn what others are interested in, so when we speak they will listen to us?” By slowing down and asking smart questions.

Why Don’t We Listen Better?

More than 10,000 salespeople have taken my listening assessment quiz (a longer version than the one in this article) in my Smart Questions + Smart Listening Sales Workshops. Less than one percent claim to be excellent listeners, a few claim to be good listeners, many more think they are fair listeners and the largest group admit to being poor listeners. Although every rep and sales manager admits that listening is essential - and we all know that to be true – why are we not all better listeners?

Here are just a few of the many reasons why we are such poor listeners:

  • There are few rewards for listening well. There are rewards for speaking well and selling well, but not many obvious rewards for listening well. A crowd will never give you a standing ovation for being a good listener. The rewards you do get may be subtle, but they are invaluable – like gaining information and making the other person feel important.
  • There are few role models for good listeners. Since more than 86.7 percent of people claim to be poor or fair listeners, we have little opportunity to observe really good listeners. Even sales managers, who are mentors in most other areas, are not necessarily role models for listening. Most sales managers were salespeople and salespeople are usually hired because they are talkers not because they are smart questioners and quality listeners.
  • Listening is hard work: It takes focus and concentration to listen to what someone else is saying. If a doctor tends to ramble in his answers, for instance, you may stop listening and miss something important (which explains the rep in the first paragraph).
  • We have short attention spans: If you’ve watched television or gone to see an action film recently, you know that scenes often last no more than a few seconds before they cut away to the next car chase, explosion, or complex story line. We don’t get a lot of practice in listening to anything for more than a minute or two.
  • We feel the need to express ourselves. Reps often try to convince or persuade a doctor to prescribe their drugs. And we feel that the way to do that is to talk, talk, talk. Actually, the best way to do that is to ask questions so that you can practice what I call “targeted talking.”


As a rep, you have a very short time with your doctors; every statement and every question is important. Therefore, you only want to talk when you know what you say will fall on interested ears. If your doctor states she has only a short time, ask, “What questions or concerns can I address in this short time that would be helpful to you?” Listening to the doctor and responding to her answers is the best avenue you have to gain and keep her attention.


Most reps, like most patients, have no patience and want an instant cure. So let me end with the tried and proven process to become a better listener:

  • Go into every sales call with two or three things you need to learn to be able to get your message across more effectively. Having a plan and purpose are vitally important for that will affect your communication and your results
  • Have planned questions to get that information
  • Go into every sales call with a promise to yourself not to be thinking of what you are going to say but to focus entirely on what the doctor is saying to you.
  • Listen with all four organs (ears, eyes, head, and heart). For example, if your doctor hesitates when you ask him if he has tried the dosing you recommended, the hesitation will alert you to the fact that probably he has not done it.

Smart Listening takes patience, discipline, and hard work. But the rewards are enormous. One of the nicest compliments I ever received came from a client who, in thanking me after a workshop to his sales force, shared that by listening I was able to tailor the program to the real needs and concerns of his sales team and really help them increase sales.

Just imagine how helpful it would be to hear from your doctors, ” All those other reps talk way too much, but you really listen.” Beat the competition, become a Smart Listener, and reap the rewards.

  Dorothy Leeds
  800 West End Ave.
  New York, NY   10025
  212.932.8364 (FAX)

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