I recently went to my physician for a routine physical. During the visit, he asked me an impressive number of questions about everything including sleeping habits, international travel, family history, and exercise. Each time I answered a question, he would ask me follow-up questions to get to the root of the issue. When I mentioned I was having some numbness in my fingers in the morning, he asked enough questions to know that I would be best served by a specialist in solving that type of problem.

A week later I met with the specialist, an accomplished orthopedic surgeon. Ironically, however, when I went into his office, he did not break out a PowerPoint presentation highlighting his experience, showing photos of his most famous patients, or even pointing out the benefits of his approach to carpal tunnel surgery. He didn’t provide a link to videos of surgeries, nor did he provide patient testimonials. Rather, he asked me a ton of questions. Specifically, he asked what I had tried to solve the problem, and how it was affecting my sleep, work, and physical activity. He had a technician perform a test to detect nerve function.  Based on the results he laid out a plan:  I would wear a brace on my wrist for 6 weeks.  If this did not solve the problem he would recommend surgery since the condition could lead to permanent nerve damage (and I’m smart enough to figure out that such a conditions might be bad).

Six weeks after wearing the brace, I went to his office where he asked questions to reconfirm the impact the condition was having on me. Two weeks later, I had the surgery.  A couple of months later, the issue was solved and I hardly remember the recovery period. Oh, in the process, the physician “sold me” thousands of dollars of service. However, the point of the story is that at no time did I feel like someone was selling me anything.

I often hear sales professionals say that they cannot sell a product because that product requires too much change on the part of the client. Meanwhile, a physician can convince us to show up at an unfamiliar venue, strip naked, and have someone put us into a near-death state so they can cut us open and fix us up. Hopefully, they’ll wake us up when it’s over. Oh, and don’t forget that in the case of surgery, they always point out that a small percentage of people die during the procedure. Meanwhile, sales reps still say that companies are reluctant to make changes. How many of us are selling our clients solutions where there is a measurable percentage of customers who die as a result of the project?

What can we learn from this? There are 3 key messages:

  1. Be an Expert: The physician who performed the procedure was referred to me by my trusted advisor. I was not referred for the surgery, I was referred to an expert at solving my specific problem. So, when we work with our referral sources, let’s be sure to focus on the problems we solve, not the procedures (or products or services) we sell;
  2. Let the Client Convince Us of the Impact and Importance: At each interaction, the physicians took time to learn about my situation and let me convince them that the issue had enough impact to warrant treatment. We need to take the time to ensure that the customer has enough of a need to justify making a change or investing resources to solve it. If we pitch our products and services, we don’t gain an understanding of their need, and we waste time pitching an answer that we hope fits their question;
  3. Let the Client Do the Selling: At no point did I feel like I was being sold.  Simply put, the physician ensured that I felt comfortable that he understood my situation, conveyed expertise solving my situation, and was there to offer help in solving my problem.

This approach is not easy.  It requires subject matter expertise to allow us to ask the right questions to probe for pains we can address. And, much like my primary physician, when the client’s needs wander outside of our core expertise, we must not hesitate to refer them to an appropriate resource. In so doing, we become their trusted adviser, not someone selling a widget.

I have referred many patients to both physicians as trusted resources… not for surgery, but for expertise in diagnosing the problem, and having a number of solutions available if justified.

Please share stories about how you sell without selling.