The selling process is changing; an increasing number of customer contacts are now being made in group situations. However, many sales people are concerned about the effect of this, as group discussions can easily slip into an unfocused free-for-all if they are not carefully managed. The more people involved, the greater the potential for disaster. In this article I will identify some of the problems that can arise in group discussions, and suggest how you can either prevent them from happening in the first place, or handle them if they do occur.
Do your homework
As usual, it all starts with careful preparation. Find out as much as possible about people’s likely attitude to your product so that you can identify the potential influencers, supporters and blockers. Are there any difficult relationships within the group? Who has the most influence [not necessarily the most senior person]. Will others have their own agenda which might sabotage your meeting? The more prior knowledge you have, the better.
Anticipate and plan for the most likely questions. Identify the one question you really don’t want to be asked – and work out how to handle it. Remember that as far as the group is concerned, you represent your company, so be alert to any recent media coverage – make sure that you are briefed on the official company line.
Potential problems: the negative voice One negative voice can affect the whole discussion; sweeping state ments such as ‘You won’t find anyone here prescribing that’ delivered in a confident voice by someone senior can silence the whole group. There are a number of ways of handling this.
• Ask questions to separate out fact from opinion, and correct the facts if appropriate.
• Open the discussion, and ask others if they have had any experience with the drug.
• Refer to other local respected doctors who have prescribed the product.
• Brief a supporter before the meeting and ask them to ask probing questions to get at the underlying issue.
• You might be able to bring a champion with you – for example, a respected GP who has done a patient review and had good results – who will give their own positive experience.
Paradoxically, if another member of the group is too enthusiastic on your behalf, it could come across to some as a set up, and therefore be counterproductive. So brief your supporters carefully in advance and try to make sure that they present a balanced picture.
The reluctant contributor
Some people are reluctant to speak out in front of colleagues for fear of seeming ignorant. Open up the discussion by addressing the problems – for example, ‘What barriers do you see to prescribing this product?’ Ask open questions such as ‘How have you managed this in the past?’ Be prepared to contribute relevant examples to the discussion. It’s crucial not to make anyone feel stupid, so beware of jargon and of taking people out of their depth. Remember that doctors don’t have an in-depth knowledge of pharmacology, so try to avoid detailed discussions with the pharmacist in the meeting.
The persistent expert
There may be one person in the group who has a particular knowledge of or interest in one aspect of your product, and who keeps asking detailed questions. Valuable time is passing, and you can recognise that other members of the group are getting bored. You need to move the discussion on. Obviously you must be polite, but don’t be too deferential, and remember the power of eye contact. Say something like ‘John, you obviously have a lot of experience in this area, and what I’d like to do is schedule a further meeting with you. However’ [at this point shift eye contact and look elsewhere in the group] ‘I’d like to come back to Dr X’s question about the safety profile.’ By looking away from the first speaker, you discourage them from continuing.
The unanswerable question
However thoroughly you prepare, you can still be caught unawares by a question you can’t answer – perhaps something someone has just read on the internet. Admit calmly that you don’t know, promise to find out and get back with an answer, and make sure that you – or someone from your company – gets back to them that day.
Runaway time: runaway discussion
It can be very difficult to control time if everyone is keen to have a say. You will almost certainly have been given a specific time slot, and it’s important that you get across your key points in that time. So keep an eye on your watch, and as you get near to the end of your allotted time, check with the group whether they’re happy to continue. If they can’t carry on, summarise the discussion so far and make your final points.
It’s hard to keep an animated discussion on track – but sometimes the change in direction can be very useful to you. If, for example, you are meeting with the whole practice, many more issues are likely to come up than if you were talking to an individual GP. Group members will learn from others’ questions and experience, and the whole discussion can take on another dimension. Listen carefully and assess whether the discussion is helping you achieve your objective. If it is, and there’s time, let it continue. If not – summarise and move on.
Skills needed to facilitate group discussions
The most important skills you can develop for group meetings are listening, asking effective questions and summarising. Most people think they are good listeners. However, on our training courses we find that when participants are put to the test, they are often allowing their minds to wander and preparing the response while the speaker is still talking. In a group you will need to concentrate so that not only do you hear the words, but also the direction of the discussion. You might well want to take notes, but don’t let this get in the way of listening. If necessary, ask people to pause for a second while you make a note of their point.
The ability to summarise is very powerful – a concise summary can get the discussion back on track and can move things forward while emphasising any action points.
Asking effective questions is an essential skill for anyone in a selling role. Make sure that you ask open questions, for example, ‘How did the patient respond to the change in medication?’ and follow it up with probing questions – e.g. ‘What exactly do you mean by x?’ – to get more information. Questions also enable you to disagree with someone without causing offence. Instead of saying ‘You can’t prescribe that for patients with high blood pressure’, ask ‘Isn’t that contraindicated for high blood pressure?’
Learn the skills to break into the discussion and redirect if you feel it is going down a negative path or leading nowhere. Use a slightly stronger voice and positive body language, leaning forward in an open position and making eye contact. If possible build on the previous comment, ask a question or invite a contribution from a supporter or someone you’ve observed to be concise and on track.
It’s crucial to end the meeting on a positive note. Summarise the key messages and emphasise any agreed action points. If you can, get commitment for some future action to keep people involved – for example, you can ask for a projection of the number of patients they might have next year. Finally, make sure they have all necessary contact details and that you have arranged any follow-up meetings.
Group discussions are an essential part of the sales process and are here to stay. If you develop the skills I have described you will find that they can be both successful and enjoyable.