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Boosting pharmacy sales — are you asking the right questions?

by Gareth Malson

Selling in a pharmacyAccording to a pharmaceutical industry sales executive, some of the questions asked by pharmacy staff could be reducing customer loyalty. Gareth Malson summarises his suggestions for how to rephrase them

Business insight |Getting the best from your workforce


Some of the most common questions or phrases used by pharmacy staff could be limiting business profits, said Trevor Gore, sales development controller for Reckitt Benckiser. He shared his views during the 2010 Sigma Pharmaceutical conference, held in Shanghai, China (12–20 February).

Despite none of his suggestions being particularly revolutionary in marketing circles, the phrases to which he was referring remain a common part of counter assistants’ vernacular.

Have you had this before?

When Joe Public is suffering with an ailment for the first time and visits a pharmacy for a treatment recommendation “that’s when you’re at your best,” said Mr Gore. “You ask all the right questions, you look after [your customers] and the public love it.”

He pointed to results of customer surveys suggesting that people who visit non-supermarket pharmacies, particularly independents, do so because they expect to receive better advice.

When people return to pharmacies for a second time and ask to buy a medicine by name, pharmacy staff ask far fewer questions. For example, a member of staff might only ask whether the customer has used the product before and check whether they are taking any other medicines.

However, Mr Gore argued, on this occasion the medicine might be being purchased for another ailment and be unsuitable (eg, co-codamol previously bought for a headache but now being requested for toothache).

“There’s no advice in that,” said Mr Gore, adding that this leads many customers to buy top ups from supermarkets, where medicines are often cheaper. “If you’re just going to sell boxes for money, somebody else can do it better,” he said.

Would you like to wait or call back?

Mr Gore believes another counter-productive question often asked by pharmacy staff — at least from a business point of view — is: “Would you like to wait or call back?”. This question can prevent customers from doing what you actually want them to do, he explained.

“What do they do when they’re waiting,” he asked delegates. “They either stand there and stare at you, or sit there and stare at you, and then leave. All around them are things you sell. But you’ve said to them ‘don’t move or get out’.”

He suggests that the waiters could be converted into shoppers by rephrasing the question. For example: “Your prescription might be five or ten minutes. Would you like to look around and see if there’s anything else you need?”

This brand is cheaper…

D’you want fries with that?

In his current role, Trevor Gore, sales development controller for Reckitt Benckiser, has witnessed many counter assistants who appear to be afraid of link-selling.

“You have an ethics-versus-commerce debate that no other shop on the high street has,” he said.

Although he accepted that there are situations in which selling a medicine is not appropriate, pharmacy staff should not be afraid to suggest other products that might be beneficial because customers are not offended when they are given a choice.

(He offered as an example the “d’you want fries with that” model of sales used so successfully by McDonalds.)

“[Products] have no intrinsic value other than what customers give them,” he explained. “And if they want them, they spend whatever it takes.”

When pharmacy staff suggest to customers that they should purchase a generic brand because it is cheaper, future sales could be jeopardised, Mr Gore believes. This is because few customers value their health above price.

Often, he said, people go into a pharmacy and ask for a branded product by name and the staff say “you don’t want that, you want the cheap version”and this could be a mistake: “Where will they go to get [the medicine] the next time? A supermarket … you’ve convinced the customer that it’s about the ingredient [not the product] and the supermarket sells that ingredient cheaper than you do,” he said.

He went on: “Instead of a five-minute argument about why they actually want [generic] paracetamol, give them the Calpol they asked for, some advice and something useful that will make them want to come back to your pharmacy.”

Making your pharmacy more than just a place to buy products is the key, he believes: “Find a way of giving them some advice, an alternative product or an additional product. Do something that makes you different from the hole in the wall or a vending machine.”


Admittedly, Mr Gore’s employer manufactures both Nurofen and Gaviscon – branded medicines whose sales are threatened by lower cost generics. So it could be argued that he has a vested interest in convincing pharmacy staff to sell more of the brands.

On the other hand, Calpol — a brand highlighted by Mr Gore during his presentation — is manufactured by rival manufacturer McNeil Ltd. So, perhaps the points he makes are logical, regardless of who pays his salary.

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Citation: The Pharmaceutical JournalURI: 10998958

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