Consultative selling Seven strategies for maintaining long-term relationships

Oct. 1, 1998
How are you telling your patients that you want a long-term relationship? What are you doing and saying each day to ensure that you`re building rapport without using tired selling tactics?

Karen Cortell Reisman, MS

How are you telling your patients that you want a long-term relationship? What are you doing and saying each day to ensure that you`re building rapport without using tired selling tactics?

Take a hint from my life insurance agent. During our initial conference, he patiently gave us an abridged Life Insurance 101 course. Here comes the subtle slam-dunk. He ended by stating calmly, "I am not here tonight to sell a policy; I am here to begin building a long-term relationship with you. I want to be your life- insurance advisor for many years to come." And that`s exactly what has happened.

This article will explore ways by which you can create this same type of trust with the people in your practice. Here are seven "value-driven" steps to sell in a consultative manner, which will enable you to strengthen relationships with your patients and team.

Tip I. Vision

Whether it`s a treatment-plan consult or an annual review, you need to have a clear image in your mind of what you want to sell or say. Prioritize your thoughts. Then, paint that picture to your patient or team member. Your vision must come first. Next, explain the concept of that vision to the person.

Picture this: It`s 6 p.m. I`m at the check-in counter for a flight after a full day of consulting. I`m tired and hungry. I ask if dinner will be served en route. We all know the answer, "No, beverages only in coach!" With a smile (having nothing to lose), I say, "I volunteer for first class!" The guy looks up from his mundane typing, mumbling, "Huh?" I repeat, "I volunteer for first class. If you need more first-class passengers, I should be the one. After all, I`m dressed for success." He chuckles, and I go to buy a bagel. Thirty minutes later, just before boarding, he walks over to me with a gleam in his eye and says, "Mrs. Reisman, I`m sorry to inform you that this aircraft is experiencing a weight-distribution problem. The only solution is to seat you in first class."

I knew what I wanted. I painted a clear picture to the flight agent. With a little humor, luck, and good timing, I closed the sale. The filet mignon and Merlot tasted great.

Tip II. Focus

Consultative selling means staying on track. It`s easy to go off on tangents in a conversation, but you do not have time to waste. The huge benefit of staying focused is that you will communicate more information in less time.

First focus tip: Have something touchable and tangible to keep your dialogue on course. For example, in your morning huddle, use your daily schedule as the agenda. In a treatment consult, have models, imaging photos, before/after photos, intraoral pictures, or X-rays to substantiate your treatment modality. When doing a performance review, use a questionnaire filled out by you and your employee as a tool to stay on task. Your patients and team want you to sound organized and appear confident. These visual aids enhance that perception.

Second focus tip: Burn an outline of what you want to say in your mind. Know the three main points you want to convey. Then, figure out your "statement of purpose" - the one sentence that states what you want to say or sell. Finally, state it clearly and early on in your conversation. Your listener will be grateful, and you will benefit by staying on task.

You will have a difficult time selling anything if your ideas are not stated in an organized fashion. Use these tangible tools to stay focused.

Tip III. Closure

Ask for what you want!

Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, authors of The Aladdin Factor, suggest five reasons why we don`t ask for what we want. The first barrier is ignorance. We don`t know what to ask for, or "some of us have become so numbed out that we are simply unaware of our natural yearnings and desires." The second barrier is inaccurate beliefs, caused by parental or cultural conditioning. For example, several of my clients claim that they were taught, "It`s safer to keep your mouth shut and appear the fool than to open it and remove all doubt." No wonder they wanted communications coaching.

The third reason we don`t ask for what we want is fear. Fear of rejection, looking stupid, or humiliation. Low self-esteem is the fourth barrier. According to Hansen and Canfield, "Most of us suffer from inferiority complexes, neurotic guilt, and a lack of self-confidence. As a result, we don`t believe our needs and wants are important and worthy of pursuing."

The final reason is pride. I have referred to this dilemma as "impostoritis." If we don`t stretch and risk too much, then no one will realize that we`re impostors - not perfect, not cutting edge. In other words, how many times have you refused to get directions when you`re lost?

Ghandi said, "If you don`t ask, you don`t get."

In selling, the optimal answer is "yes." Wouldn`t it be great if all of your patients happily accepted your treatment plans all of the time? This may sound odd, but the next best answer is "no." If your patient does not buy into your vision, then a simple "no" allows you to move on to the next patient or project. The innocuous, "I`ll think about it," or "Maybe," receives third place in the optimal-answer contest. Here begins the time-consuming, endless, follow-up limbo land. Last place is not asking at all.

Sometimes, "no" means the patient doesn`t have enough information. Don`t be afraid to ask "why?" when you hear a "no." Ask your patient whether it`s the time, cost, pain factor, or confusion that is causing the negative response. Your questions give permission for the patient to be honest. The knowledge gained will help you to 1) change the patient`s mind, 2) increase your experience on what to do better next time, or 3) provide the opportunity to show you really care.

Finally, a "no" today may mean a "yes" tomorrow. Harvey Mackay speaks of the Law of Averages in his best seller, Swim with the Sharks. He suggests that being number two is almost as good as being number one. The Law of Averages often will allow those in second place to move into first. This is due to the fact that those in first may move, retire, change directions, or die. Then, those positioned in second place easily move up to the winner`s position. How often do you retain the patient who is just coming to your practice for a second opinion?

Tip IV. Empowerment

Admittedly, "empowerment" is a 1990s buzzword. But, you can empower your team to sell for you; and you can empower your patients to buy from you by incorporating these two principles in your practice: praise and courtesy.

Empowerment through praise. Do you ever feel overworked and underappreciated? Are you the one giving compliments and never receiving any? Having asked these questions to audiences around the country, everyone emphatically responds "yes" and "yes." We all feel underappreciated at times and feel that we`re usually on the giving end of compliments.

Studies prove that people are motivated more by attention and approval than by money. If you want your team members to sell dentistry and do their jobs efficiently, then you need to find specific ways to compliment them for their skills. When we know we are appreciated, we all want to keep doing a stellar job.

The same theory applies in a consult. Although this may be difficult, try finding some ways to compliment potential patients. The trick is that you have to be honest and mean it! For example, say something positive about their appearance, dental hygiene, or their job. You, the cynical reader, may be thinking that this is too manipulative. Wrong. It`s only manipulative if you are lying. Otherwise, it`s just plain nice and the patient will like you more.

In order to empower those around us, we need to compliment others sincerely and specifically. By doing so, we model the type of behavior we want from them in return. Before this day ends, compliment someone in a detailed way. You will make his or her day.

Empowerment through courtesy. "A Tiny Human Touch Goes a Long Way" is the title of a 1991 Tom Peters column, which now has become a classic. He writes, "We wildly underestimate the power of the tiniest personal touch. And of all personal touches, I find the short, handwritten `nice job` note to have the highest impact. (It even seems to beat a telephone call - something about the tangibility.)"

How often do you write a short note of thanks to a patient, a member of your team, your significant other, or your colleague? How often do you simply say "thank you"? Good manners go a long way in this crazy world. In fact, the art of consultative selling means creating more value for those around you. By using common-sense manners your mother drummed into your head, you can differentiate yourself from the competition.

Tom Peters concluded, "I wouldn`t bet the farm on scientific validity, but I think there`s a strong correlation between the little thank yous and the busyness, fortune, and fame of those who send them."

The handwritten or verbal thank you is a little human touch in our high-tech world. It won`t pay the bills, but it just might boost your odds of becoming adored, not to mention make you feel better about yourself. How about taking a few minutes at the end of each day to write a short personal note to a patient or team member who has made a difference in your day?

Tip V. Respect

Respect for time. We live in a fast-paced world. One way to maintain long-term relationships in this rat race is to have respect for the almighty clock. Here`s the strategy: Tell your patient or your staff how much time you will be taking for the consult or meeting, etc., and then stick to it! Call this the "tush factor." People can sit only so long. It`s your responsibility to stay on schedule without making your client aware of your efforts. Sometimes, I glance at my client`s watch rather than look at my own (which appears rude). Or, I strategically place a clock on the lectern to ensure that I am staying well paced.

One time, I scheduled a meeting with a busy top executive to go over the specifics for an upcoming workshop. I came in saying, "Thank you, Tom, for your time. In these 30 minutes I need to know . . . "Even though Tom knew the allotted time, he was relieved to hear that I had no intention of growing old in his office. Being clear and up front with my objectives (refer back to tips I and II) for this meeting, allowed us to finish in 25 minutes.

Respect for silence. Whoever speaks first, loses. Perhaps this does not work all of the time, but building relationships and selling in a consultative way requires some savvy negotiating skills. Believe it or not, I advise you to be quiet sometimes. We all know the power of listening. Those who actively listen gain the necessary information to move forward with confidence. Silence can be golden when used with care. Ask questions and then glue your lips together. Really hear the answers! You might be surprised at what happens when there is silence. It allows other people to think and shows that you are willing to respect their space.

Tip VI. Process

You are never not selling. Said without the double negatives, that means you are always selling. You don`t just sell dentistry during the workweek. You are constantly selling your integrity, your image, and your value system wherever you are.

Recently, I was at my son`s school picnic. It was 100 degrees and the mosquitoes were nipping at my legs while the sweat was dripping down my back. A new child was joining the class, and I was talking with his mom. She asked what I did, and I was happy to give her my 30-second spiel. Guess what? She was a senior vice president for Pizza Hut, and she hired me to do some training for her department.

The process of selling truly can happen anywhere. While vacationing in Jamaica, my husband and I were chatting with some other people in the hot tub. Again, a gentleman asked what I did for a living. Again he received the 30-second blurb. Guess what? He was a dentist, and we started a business relationship in a nonbusiness setting! Have fun selling dentistry wherever you are.

Tip VII. Hook

Selling effectively means swimming past the hooks.

In an article from Pritikin Perspective (Feb. 1997), Dr. Lynda Powell of the Yale University School of Medicine, talks about how we can stay in control of our lives. She writes, "Each morning, imagine you`re a fish swimming in clear water. No problems. No enemies. Life`s good. Then the first hook drops. Your office calls and says a virus has infected all of your computers. Before the cascade of adrenaline begins, say to yourself: `hook.` That one simple word can remind you that probably 30 more hooks are going to plop down in front of you today. This is what life is. You can make a choice. Do you bite the hook and become a helpless victim like the fish or do you pass it by?"

Hooks drop down all the time ... the lab lost your molds ... your dental assistant had to miss a day due to a sick child ... your patient didn`t show for a two-hour appointment ... the insurance company won`t pay ... the crown won`t fit. Hooks unexpectedly drop down, and adrenaline can rush through your body in seconds. But, Dr. Powell says, "There is time to say hook." In doing so, you have told your body that you have a choice. You don`t have to attack every problem at full tilt. Passing by each hook makes it easier to do so the next time.

Life is more pleasurable when you`re swimming past the hooks. Plus, your ability to maintain long-term relationships with patients and staff is enhanced.

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