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How to sell like a doctor? 3 lessons from the trenches

Posted on Jun 14, 2017 by Administrator

Are doctors like salespeople? Are salespeople like doctors?

When I got started in business development and sales, these questions constantly flooded my mind.

There are some similarities between the two professions. Customers, like patients, present with “symptoms” that are indicative of underlying problems in their businesses. A good sales professional asks relevant questions, comes up with set of diagnoses and provides professional guidance to help the prospective client make a quality decision to resolve the problem.

On the other hand, doctors and salespeople differ in a couple big ways. First, doctors are perceived as authority figures in society, and for good reasons. They spend decades undergoing medical/surgical training and honing their expertise to keep patients healthy. Doctors enjoy perhaps the highest level of trust in society.

Sales, on the contrary, is largely viewed differently (what comes to mind when you think “used car salesman”?). Unlike doctors, they actively seek customers to sell their products and services.

Below are three pearls I have learned working in business development and sales. These pearls are based on academic research but tempered by real-life experience. Coming from the world of medicine, my approach was to experiment with many principles/practices until I found what worked. I threw out all the things that didn't.


1. Before “selling” anything, affirm the customer.

Sales rookies believe they know all about the customer’s situation and problems.

They betray this mindset by asking leading questions that tee up their products/services. After the questions, they jump right into the pitch and tell the prospect why they need to buy their offerings.

 As you can imagine, the results of this approach are usually poor.

“People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care” -- Theodore Roosevelt

Telling people what to do can backfire because of a phenomenon called reactance.

Reactance is defined as an aversive reaction in response to impositions that restrict freedom and autonomy (J. Brehm, 1966). People are endowed with freedom to behave in ways they see fit. These behavioral freedoms help define an individual’s self concept, their sense of being. Self-concept is a combination of values, attitudes, goals, beliefs and identities that provide individuals with a sense of control and predictability (Pittman & Heller 1987).

The basic premise of reactance is this: when someone’s freedom to do something is threatened or eliminated, they will act so as to reinstate that freedom. For example, telling a prospect to buy item A may threaten their freedom to buy item B. In the prospect’s mind, the best way to reestablish this freedom might be to buy item B.

Reactance is like a “psychological immune response” that automatically produces antibodies to new messages or suggested actions. People have a need to protect their self-concept from threat and change.

Once I understood this statement and its implications, I became a better salesperson.

So how do you “sell” while preserving the prospect’s self-concept? How do you decrease reactance? How do you operate without setting off the “psychological immune response”? Answer: affirm the customer!

How to affirm a customer

  • Listen fully: Make your all-encompassing focus the other person and what they have to say. Ask questions that get to the root of their problems (“why is this important to you?”). Pay special attention to the customer’s beliefs, identifications, values and other self-concept domains. Incorporate relevant self-concept domains into your presentation to affirm the customer (this is an art that only the very best salespeople do).  
  • Summarize and clarify: “What I heard you say is ….Am I missing anything?” This builds empathy.
  • Always acknowledge the prospect’s autonomy: This gets right to people’s intrinsic need to feel in control. Remind your prospect that they have the freedom to do what they want. Likewise, always give them a way out. Statements such as, “ It’s your decision”, “It’s up to you”, “I’m not sure whether this is right for your situation or not” are effective. Acknowledging autonomy is like a super-power when used in a genuine way.  
  • Be careful with “absolutes”: Examples of absolute language include imperatives such as “must” or “need to”. Instead, use messages that include: a) qualified propositions (“there’s some evidence that shows…”) and; b) objective information (facts and figures).


2. Use stories for your sales message.

Before writing existed, humans relied on storytelling to convey concepts, beliefs, culture and history.

Cave paintings (15,000 -- 17,000 years old) at Lascaux told stories of hunts and animals. Jesus used parables to teach the principles of Christianity. Many African societies also used stories to teach essential life lessons.

Stories shape our beliefs, behaviors and identities. In fact, one could argue that human brains are evolutionarily hardwired to understand and make sense of the world through stories.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, stories and narratives rule significant aspects of our lives. We "storify" our successes, challenges and failures.

The customer you are engaging with is no different. They also have a set of stories about their business problems. As a salesperson, your job is to:

  • Identify your customer’s current story
  • Expose them to new and empowering stories (via testimonials)
  • Help them craft new stories and paint a better future

Human brains are evolutionarily hardwired to understand and make sense of the world through stories.

As a newbie, I relied almost exclusively on air-tight, logical arguments in selling situations and business presentations. Not anymore!

The elements and structure of stories make them effective vehicles for sales messages. In a story, there’s a protagonist with goals and motives. He/she encounters conflict and challenges that they have to overcome to reach their desired state. Use this blueprint.

Special note on conflict

 All stories need conflict. Popular types of conflict include:

  • Man versus man
  • Man versus self (most people want the person's better nature to prevail)
  • Man versus nature
  • Man versus society (little guy against big guy – people instinctively root for the little guy)
  • Man versus machine

For the purposes of sales presentations, use real customer testimonials as your stories. Try to incorporate as many story elements (see table 1) as possible to increase its power.

People love stories (think Disney movies). If your customer can identify with the characters and their struggles, they will be receptive to your message.

The best salespeople don’t sell, they tell stories.


 3. Proactively seek and handle resistance.

If the prospect doesn’t bring up an objection, then it doesn’t exist, right?” How many of us still think this way?

Resistance (objections) and persuasion are like tug-of-war partners. They are opposing, yet integral parts of any sales conversation. Just as friction is present between moving surfaces, resistance is always present in a sales interaction.

The reasons (resistance) why someone will not make a deal are often more powerful than why they will. A good salesperson addresses resistance using a variety of strategies (see table 2) and tries to clear the barriers to agreement.

I actively seek objections and resistance. In fact, I found that real sales conversation begin only after objections/resistance are out in the open.

Some customer objections genuinely mean that a sale/agreement/partnership cannot be made. However, a good percentage of objections present salespeople the opportunity to be problem-solvers and trusted advisor in the eyes of the customer. Don’t waste it. 


A good percentage of objections present salespeople the opportunity to be problem-solvers and trusted advisors in the eyes of the customer.

As a bonus, here's my step-by-step approach to handle resistance:

Step 1: Agree with his/her feelings and massage their ego out of the way (remember the principle of self-concept?)

Step 2: Never say, “I agree with you, but…”

Step 3: Point out the areas of agreement and even common objections. Appeal to common values, beliefs and principles.

Step 4: Actually address the objection in an earnest way. Did the prospect misunderstand your presentation? Can you restate your case in a more compelling way, or use a different angle? If it’s truly a make or break objection, then stop here. If not, proceed to step 5.

Step 5: Reaffirm their autonomy, e.g. “it’s totally up to you”.

Step 6: Help the customer “save face”.

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