Medical Trade Reps

What not to do
– advice from a doctor



By Waqar Habib Ahmed, MD MS FACP FACC

Medical representatives in the Middle East are an incongruent group; the industry is made up of many of different types of representatives, from vast regional offices of multinational companies, right down to self-employed local distributors. The professional training on how to interact with physicians is extremely variable throughout the medical services industry. Only a small number of organisations do a superb job and consistently put out professional industry representatives. However, others woefully leave it to the whim of the individual, thus consistent interaction with medical professionals is not as prevalent as it is in the United States or Europe.

Loyalty is a prized attribute and business dealings are more personal in the Middle East, with a significant overlap of business and personal preferences. There are physicians who have used a product exclusively and switched to another product simply because their preferred distributor moved to the other product.

Furthermore, industry professionals need to understand the physicians. Most are highly competitive, were always so throughout school, medical schools and their professional training, and whilst a certain level of respect is necessary, overwhelming flattery only comes across as false.

Top 10

Here are my Top 10 Dos and Don’ts for medical industry representatives:

Do not be condescending and do not feel a sense of entitlement
Providing service or education benefit does not give you privileges. The customer/doctor does not owe you anything. Industry people feel that in return they can call any time, come any time. Don’t come to a doctor and say, “we took you to a congress so can we see you today?” First of all it is unrefined and it does not work. It will only cause resentment.

Any service you provide is not out of your own pocket, it is for the corporation by the corporation and from the corporate budget. Don’t hold an event or provide a service and then say, “We hope you had a good time.” You are not doing personal favours and you are not providing a good time, save that for your family and friends.

Do not leave gaps in contact
Apple stores have reservations and waiting lists for their latest products but you are not selling iPads. While it’s true that customers did chase the first sellers of the drug eluting stent, Cypher stent (Cordis, Miami Lakes, USA) in 2002-2004, now most competing medical products are pretty much equal. Thus the difference is you; if the product is non-inferior to the competition then you have to be superior. Stay in constant contact. Don’t just think that sales will move automatically while you are asleep at home. There is no magic remote-control. Have a regular face time schedule with the physicians. Even if only a few minutes: “I was just in the area and passed by to see if you needed anything.” The customer may have issues on his or her mind that they may bring up just because you are there and would have otherwise not bothered to call you. This face time is extremely important in the Middle-East; sales are based on relationships and relationships don’t happen over email. Be there, be seen, and be recognised.

Do not be arrogant
The paradox is, arrogant people don’t know they are arrogant. Nobody will ever even acknowledge that they are arrogant. The only way to avoid being arrogant is to be humble. I will repeat, BE HUMBLE. This is the most important advice I can give you. It does not matter if you are a salesperson or a manager or an owner, there is no excuse for arrogance. You represent your business. Even Bill Gates, with his immense wealth, has never been labelled as arrogant and you are no Bill Gates.

In Los Angeles you may meet a waiter in a restaurant and he is keen to tell you that he is not just a waiter; he is a ‘resting’ actor/director/artist. In the Middle-East there are many medical doctors who are working as industry representatives. Some of them keep reminding us that they are doctors, even asking us with great indignation to address them as doctors. The reality is that your customer is the one working as a doctor not you. The customer does not care if you are an ex-doctor or an ex-TV salesman. Use your insight into the way physicians work to your advantage; you have inside knowledge and connections, so use them instead of pointing out that you have a MD after your name. This holds true for those who have MBA or PhDs. Apply the knowledge you learnt in business school.

Another aspect of business peculiar to the Middle-East (virtually unknown in the United States) is the feeling of entitlement that salesmen have on belonging to a particular family (or clan). Again leave all this at home. When you are at work you are representing your business. Very close to arrogance is sarcasm. It seems so basic but I am surprised that some people are sarcastic with their customers, usually those in middle management. You may look clever and witty in front of others but you will lose the customer forever.

Do not argue. Even if you are right

Some customers have a habit of tring to bait you, provoke you or just be obnoxious even for their own entertainment. I was one of them. Don’t fall into the argument trap even if you are right. Nobody wins an argument; it is by definition a circular conversation. Don’t be an attack dog and start attacking the customer with data and numbers. The doctor will realise she or he is wrong but will never admit it. Even if it is light entertainment for the customer, it takes you away from your main purpose and it could even result in you losing the customer altogether.

Deliver your message with a smile and gentle cajoling. If the customer has a complaint, never get defensive and start an argument. However trivial or bizarre, the complaint deserves your full attention. If you promise you will inform the headquarters then do it and get back to customer with the follow-up.

Do not stink
Literally. There is nothing worse. Bad body odour will make the customer run away. Change your shirt every day, shower every day. This may sound like basic hygiene advice, but it is common enough to warrant inclusion in this list.

Do not ask for a sale
Sales happen due to a relationship you have spent time developing. Asking for a sale is crass, undignified and probably won’t work. Instead work on improving the customer’s business and sales will happen. Help your customers do their job. In the medical field it can be patients, research, speaking engagements or help in advertising the physician’s services. A salesman once told me, “I am doing the work for your purchasing department.” My answer was, “you are very lucky that your competition is not doing it.”

Do not be a Russell
If you have seen the movie Up you know what I mean. “Hi my name is Russell; I am here to help you cross the street.” Don’t read from a script that your clueless manager or the corporate office has fed you. You see salesmen roaming the corridors with transparent folders with PowerPoint printouts. Information should be given in the course of a relationship and as part of a regular conversation.

Do not be a Scrooge
“Our policy is Egypt Air and if you fly by Emirates you have to pay the difference”. Don’t hide behind the company policy. Work to change that policy. While it may be the policy, you will create an irate customer. Business travel either for education or speaking engagements comes out of our personal time, away from family. The travel and stay has to be comfortable and smooth. Standards developed in America or Europe may not apply here. Economy travel in Europe and USA is different than economy travel in the Middle-East. A good experience is expected but a bad one is never forgotten and retold again and again to others. It is much more productive to try to exceed the customer’s expectations.

Do not make promises you can’t keep
Nothing is worse than not meeting expectations and promising something and not delivering on it. Never getting back to the customer shows that you are not professional and you don’t care. Whether it is late deliveries, non-committal support, non-existing maintenance or simply not acknowledging queries. There is a particular company that has an extremely poor service, their local reps don’t know their own products, never have brochures, never call, never follow-up and yet every time I go to an international conference and speak to the corporate people in charge of the Middle-East, they exchange business cards with me, bow their heads, promise to follow-up and I have never heard from them. Despite having the best products in the market, wherever possible we all try and substitute them with others. Write it down in your to-do book if you will not remember and if you say “I will get back to you,” do it.

Do not whine and gossip
Stay out of petty gossip; it is really nobody’s business. Customers will soon know that if you gossip about someone today you will gossip about them tomorrow. I remember a rep once telling me what another doctor was allegedly saying about me. I was appalled not at the doctor’s alleged comments about me but at this man trying to win favours by creating animosity. You are not seeing the customer for complaining. Keep negativity out of your time with the customer. Your problems are your problems, business or personal. If you have personal problems talk to a psychiatrist or write to Dear Abby. Unless you really have a deep friendship with a particular physician keep your personal problems with spouse, family, finances, boss etc out of the conversation. You may be experiencing significant problems with your company but do not use them as an excuse for poor service. Be polite and concise in summarising these problems, offer solutions, but don’t whine about them.

The Author
Waqar Habib Ahmed, MD MS FACP FACC, is a Consultant Cardiologist at the Armed Forces Hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

ate of upload: 25th Apr 2011


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