Touchdown! What the Packers Can Teach Us About Closing

Pharmaceutical Representative - October 2004

Pharmaceutical Representative - October 2004

It’s early January 2004. It’s a good day to be sitting in front of the fire. It’s a good day for hot soup and warm bread. It’s a good day to be a Green Bay Packers fan. The Packers are on the brink of their fourth NFC Championship playoff game in the last nine years. They have a three-point lead over the Philadelphia Eagles, who face an impossible fourth down and 26 yards on their own 28-yard line. Green Bay is just 72 seconds away from the NFC Championship game. All they have to do is hold Philadelphia to less than 26 yards. One play. That’s all. 

Just one play. In sports bars and living rooms across the country jaws drop when Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb completes a 28-yard pass to Freddie Mitchell, and the Eagles get the first down. They kick a game-tying field goal and force the Packers to dig in for overtime.

Philadelphia receives the ball. After struggling for little gain the Eagles punt it away. Green Bay ball. Brett Favre is at the helm and the Packer running game has been strong. All Green Bay has to do is keep the ball on the ground and advance into field goal range.

Favre takes the snap, drops back, and inexplicably heaves a long pass... into double coverage. Into the hands of Eagle Brian Dawkins. Into history. Philadelphia marches into field goal range and kicks an easy three to win. Game over. Lights out. Thank you for playing.

Talent, tools and preparation are a powerful combination to get a team to a championship. But they are not enough. To put it into sales language, you could say the Packers lost because they didn’t close. They played well, but in the end it came down to the fact that they didn’t close and the Eagles did.

More Than Just Preparation

Talent, tools and preparation are vital for success, both in the National Football League and in pharmaceutical sales. But in order to change prescribing habits, we must also incorporate closing into the natural life of our sales presentations.

What qualifies as a close? Gaining face time with a prescriber? Setting up an appointment? Getting a commitment to prescribe your product? Yes, yes and yes.

In simplest terms, a close is an agreement to take the next step together. That next step may be in the form of prescriptions, permission to leave samples, or attendance at an educational program. What you close for varies based on your overall objectives and your history with a prescriber.

When I began in pharmaceutical sales, I was excited about my new products. I had a history of sales success and I felt confident that my home study and company-provided training had given me a solid foundation in relevant disease states and competitive products. I was ready for some office visits. Still, I was a little bit intimidated by the prospect of closing physicians. I remember thinking, "I’m not selling printing presses in grungy print shops anymore. These people are doctors."

I noticed right away that my new customers were very busy, and I was pretty sure that I didn’t have time to get through all of the steps of my sales call leading up to my close. "Besides", I thought, "they’re smart people. They know why I’m here. My close is assumed." I have since learned that closes are not assumed. They are carefully crafted.

Have you ever seen a football team attempt a one hundred-yard touchdown pass? Not likely. Both players and coaches understand that a touchdown is the last of a series of plays, each designed to bring the team closer to the goal line, which increases their chances of a successful touchdown attempt, which brings them closer to their ultimate goal of winning the game. Every play is important.

It’s the same principle in sales. If you try to close a sales call without first executing a customer-focused presentation, you’re probably not going to be very successful. On the other hand, as the Packers found out on that crisp January day, you can execute a lot of good plays well, but if you fail to close, you don’t get the win.

The Clock is Ticking...

Green Bay legend Vince Lombardi once said, "The Green Bay Packers never lost a game. They just ran out of time." When I’m tempted to sacrifice my close in the interest of time, I remind myself that in all likelihood, the Packers assumed that their three-point lead was safe with just over a minute left on the clock and Philadelphia deep in their own territory. The win (close) was assumed. As Packer Al Harris said later, "Fourth-and-26 yards, that's like fourth-and-forever." That assumption cost Green Bay the game.

Closing on every sales call is clearly important to a sales organization, but do you ever think about how important it is to the physician? An appropriate close is as valuable to your prescribers as any part of your presentation. If you believe that your products can positively change patient and physician lives, don’t you have a responsibility to convey the benefits to the physician, and to assist him or her in following through to provide those benefits to their patients?

Will your product make it easier for patients to stabilize their blood glucose levels? Demonstrate this and then simply ask the prescriber to share this benefit with his or her patients. Show how your product will improve the physician’s ability to relieve chronic pain, and ask them to do so. When you close you establish a game plan moving forward. It is an opportunity to reinforce your partnership with the prescriber. When you ask for a physician’s commitment, make sure that you give them yours.

An effective close answers these questions: What am I going to do? What are you going to do? What is the expected outcome? For example, if your objective is to have the physician trial your product on five patients, you may end your call like this:

"Dr. Lawson, I appreciate your time today. I’m glad that you found the results of this trial as compelling as I did. I’d like to help you achieve the same success with your hypertensive patients. These starter kits contain samples of Product X, patient education brochures and low sodium meal plans— everything you need to help them lower their blood pressure. If I leave five starter kits with you will you be able to select five patients to trial? I’ll schedule an appointment to come back and follow up with you. Would three weeks give you enough time to start five patients on the program?"

Physicians treat patients every day. Physicians write prescriptions every day. When you close by reiterating the benefits of your product— and establishing yourself as a resource - you give the physician reasons to prescribe your product to treat those patients. That brings you to the one-yard line. When you close by gaining a commitment, you make the touchdown. Because at the end of the day, some rep has closed that physician. Why shouldn’t it be you?

Getting the Win

By most measures 2003 was a successful season for Brett Favre. He passed Dan Marino and climbed into second place on the NFL's all-time list for postseason touchdown passes. He also surpassed Marino in all-time postseason passing yards, moving into third place in the record books. In addition, Favre extended his NFL record for consecutive postseason games with a touchdown pass to 15, and pushed his NFL record for most consecutive starts at quarterback to 208.

Clearly, the three-time MVP is a player with the talent, tools and preparation to win. But his team’s failure to close is what made the difference. Favre will be remembered as a champion, but he will never have another chance to win that game.

We have a chance to change lives on every sales call— the lives of the physicians, their patients and our own. When evaluating whether you’ve done enough to meet your objective, ask yourself, "Did I close?" That could be the difference between winning and losing.

As published in the October 2004 issue of Pharmaceutical Representative magazine. Copyright 2004 Pharmaceutical Representative magazine.

Sally Bacchetta is an award-winning freelance writer and sales trainer. She has published articles on a variety of topics, including sales training and motivation, pharmaceutical sales and emerging technologies. Read her latest articles on her freelance writer website.