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Clinical Empathy - Where Doctor & Selling Skills Collide

· transparency sale,trust,behavioral science

Have you heard this comparison before?

Salespeople are a lot like doctors.

  • You uncover pain - doing so through thoughtful discovery and listening.
  • You prescribe a potential solution to their pain based on your diagnosis.
  • The client is looking for a remedy. Otherwise they wouldn’t be talking to you.
  • Either way, the solution costs money.

However, there's one big difference...

In Gallup's annual study1 of the relationship between a profession and trust...

Doctors rate near the top of the list in terms of ethics & honesty.

Salespeople rate near the bottom.

Why? What is it about the doctor's approach that has created such a trustworthy perception that sales typically misses?

Like the nerd that I am, I turned to medical journals. I spent some quality time ear deep in journals like the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine and Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics.

Yes, I'm serious. I feel like the LinkedIn world is a bubble, where we're all just repeating the same lessons. They only way to break that is to search in non-obvious places.

Two skills - two, which when taught and executed properly, make a tremendous difference in the perception of the profession.

The Key Strengths of a Trustworthy Medical Professional

Clinical Empathy

I think we all know, for the most part, what "empathy" is. It's official definition is, "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another."

But "Clinical Empathy" is different. As defined by the Society for General Internal Medicine, it's defined as "the act of correctly acknowledging the emotional state of another without experiencing that state oneself."

In other words, it's impossible to experience what the patient is experiencing. However, clinical empathy is about the intellectual form of knowing - not necessarily the emotional.

Doctors can't over-identify with a patient, as it can become a threat to their ability to be objective. The doctor's role is to be able to think objectively, and do what needs to be done for the patient.

Transparency. Through "Clinical Empathy", you immediately trust the doctor to tell you if nothing is wrong, if no treatment is required, if the cheapest approach is the best approach. You trust that your doctor is going to be transparent in the diagnosis, prognosis and recommended treatment. The doctor is not going to recommend surgery if you don’t need it just to get a big payment. The doctor is not going to put you on a medicine or therapy regimen if it’s unnecessary to solve your issue.

Clinical Communication

Communicating effectively. It's not just the words that come out of the mouth of the doctor explaining the diagnosis along with the options for treatment. Their tone of voice could be patronizing. What if there is no meaningful eye contact? What if the patient is focused on the prognosis, and you, as the doctor, are focused on empathy? It could undermine the entire relationship.

Doctors are trained on their ability to deliver a message, focused on three core areas:

1) Relational (the ability to maintain & build trust)

2) Task (disclosing the prognosis)

3) Identity (respecting the drive for autonomy in the patient)

This is hard! But it's the core to their ability to be effective.

Through "Clinical Empathy", the doctor is able to establish trust with transparency as a foundation. However, no matter the message, if the delivery is off, the foundation could crumble. The combination with "Clinical Communication" is fundamental.

Can you see the overlap with sales yet? Reread these last few paragraphs again, but thinking about the seller/prospect relationship.

The Downsides of Clinical Empathy

Believe it or not, there were enough downsides to the concept of "Clinical Empathy" to warrant the sanctioning of a study. The study conducted by professors from the University of Oxford, University of Toronto, UC-Berkeley and the University of Edinburg titled, "A price tag on clinical empathy? Factors influencing its cost-effectiveness."2

The study managed to find two downsides. When you think about the two - think about the selling profession's perspective as well. Do these tend to take an oversized prominence in the sales profession?

The first downside? When practicing clinical empathy, the number of patients a doctor is able to see is reduced due to the increased amount of time required to do it right.

Sounds like many sales organizations I'm familiar with. When sales leaders focus on metrics & scale, the quantity takes precedence over the quality.

The second downside? Training. There is an increase in the costs associated with training around clinical empathy, and in so doing, can take practitioners out of the office to be able to do it effectively.

Oh, but did I mention the upsides?

The study also revealed a couple of upsides to the investments in training clinical empathy effectively, while also reducing the quantity of patients a doctor is able to work with.

🌟 In trials, patients overwhelming reported having reduced pain and an improved quality of life.

🌟 Patient satisfaction improved.

🌟 Mortality rates WERE REDUCED BY 50% (the study focused on diabetic patients)

🌟 Overall "wellbeing" improved.

🌟 Hospital stay durations were reduced.

🌟 Readmission rates were reduced.

🌟 Diagnosis accuracy was improved, which reduced what they call "medico-legal risk".

🌟 Medication adherence was improved - in other words, the patients were more likely to heed the doctor's advice.

As a sales profession - as a sales community - our prospects and customers invest time with us. They could be doing a hundred other things, but they're spending time with us. Why? It's likely because there's something worth fixing in their world.

Now imagine a doctor visit that sounds like a lot of sales engagements:

"Doctor, I have this pain right..."

The doctor interrupts, "Ok, but would you also like to be stronger, and sleep better?"

You reply, "Well, I guess, but..."

"My mission is to make the world a better place for all of my patients. Here's a slide with pictures of just a few of my 1000+ clients. I've won many awards. Here's a map of my offices."

While that may be a touch of an exaggeration, its core is why we're near the bottom of Gallup's list, and doctors are at the top.

Scale is a dirty word in the medical profession. It's time to start thinking like a doctor. If the perceived downside is "I can't see enough clients" and "I need to spend more time training", and the upsides are faster sales cycle, higher win rates, better qualified in opportunities, higher customer satisfaction, and a higher likelihood the client will stay, buy more and advocate, where should we be focused?

The answer seems so obvious: Clinical empathy and clinical communication as a double-down focus for the sales world.

2Howick, J., Mittoo, S., Abel, L., Halpern, J., & Mercer, S. (2020). A price tag on clinical empathy? Factors influencing its cost-effectiveness. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 113(10), 389-393.

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