Ten Sales Skills For Physician Advisors & CDSs For Success In CDI

  • Dr. Terrance Govender
  • June 14 2017

That’s right: Sales. Believe it or not, we are all in sales. Whether it’s you trying to sell your spouse on a specific restaurant for dinner, or a physician advisor or CDS trying to get buy-in from a group or individual physicians, you are selling. Unfortunately, selling has gotten a bad reputation over the years.

At the mere mention of the sales profession, one cannot help but envision a cheesy car salesman stereotype that does more for entertainment rather than effectiveness. This has left many of us less-than-curious about learning more about the skills necessary to be successful at sales. Hence, in some instances, making us less effective in our daily actions that are perceived to be “non-sales” related.

Depending on who you ask, the list of fundamental sales skills may differ, both in length and content. I have created, based on my experience in the CDI industry, a list of 10 fundamental skills that will be necessary to, at least, get familiar with so you can not only be effective in CDI, but also sell the “product” you have to offer, even to the toughest crowd of physicians.

1. Knowing Your Elevator Pitch

With the concept and practice of remote CDI becoming more and more popular, it might be more difficult to find CDSs who can articulate what they do in one impactful, attention getting sentence, in the event they have 30 seconds to deliver their value prop to a colleague and/or clinician. Don’t underestimate the power of being able to articulate what you do succinctly because if you don’t know how to effectively deliver your raison d'être, don’t have high expectations for others to believe in what you do.

This applies to physician advisors too. From my experience, physician advisors are, by default, usually lumped into the utilization review/case management bucket. Even though there is a dotted line that connects the two functions, I believe that physician advisors should be able to clearly articulate their CDI-specific roles and objectives. This single act might help you ponder on what exactly your purpose is as a CDI ambassador.

2. Product Knowledge

You cannot sell anything effectively if you don’t believe in the product or if you don’t have sufficient product knowledge. In CDI, this means keeping abreast of industry rules and regulations, and really becoming a subject matter expert, regardless of your rank on the totem pole. It’s not enough to know just enough to get you through to 5:00 PM every day. If you want to be successful, you must live and breathe your subject matter. Anyone can “do” CDI, but the ones who are hungry for knowledge have a competitive advantage, are successful, and have the results to prove it.

3. Building Rapport and Establishing Trust

Achieving physician buy-in and engagement is crucial to the success of your efforts as a CDI professional. Your credentials alone won’t pave the way for you (that includes your MD). You need to learn and practice how to quickly develop rapport and establish trust with your physician constituents. Learn how to relate to your physicians and understand that what works for one specialty or individual, won’t necessarily work for another. Personalize your interactions and be fondly memorable.

4. Listen Attentively and Communicate Effectively

One of our most negative traits as humans is that all too frequently, we listen and at the same time, try to configure a response while the other person is still talking. As a clinician, I was taught that the patient very frequently gives you the diagnosis in their own words if you would just listen and ask the right questions.

As a CDS, do not waste your limited time with a clinician by asking the right questions and then not actually listening to what they have to say. Frequently, physicians will give you clues as to what works for them, what they are interested in hearing at your next interaction, and whether they are open to suggestions that you have effectively communicated to them. Two ears and one mouth – it’s not a coincidence.

5. Provide Solutions

By adopting the mindset of being in the business of providing solutions rather than pointing out problems, you will not only be more effective in establishing trust and rapport, you will also train your brain over the long run to be more creative in helping physicians solve documentation issues that they do not have the time or interest to invest in. Be the shortest route between two points for them; Don’t just make them aware of where the two points lie. Provide the tools, the education, and the metrics that help them improve.

6. Honesty and Integrity

You don’t have to be in sales (or CDI for that matter) to realize that honesty and integrity will not only help you sleep better at night, but they will also help you be an upstanding and respected professional in your field. We all hear about industry experts striving to call our profession clinical documentation “integrity” rather than “improvement”. That applies not only to the content of the record, but also in the way you generate queries, do chart review, report metrics, and provide education. There’s no way around this one – ask the OIG.

7. Overcoming Objections and Rejections

Yes, there will be objections and rejections. The best way to effectively deal with them is to anticipate them, rely on your history with certain providers, and then prepare accordingly – don’t be blindsided. Dealing with rejection is hard, but has become easier to avoid since we can hide behind our computer screens. For those of you who are on the floors and must interact with physicians, or for the physician advisors who do not have the privilege of working behind a computer screen alone, you will literally face rejection. This is easier said than done, but do not take it too seriously.

One way to make rejection easier to overcome is to realize that they are not saying “no” to you personally, but rather “no” to the concept of CDI. Prepare, know your facts, prepare again, and then prepare some more. Know what to say in response to the most frequent objections and/or rejections you hear. Practice it and make sure that the way in which you decide to respond to and overcome objections also support your efforts noted in number 3: ‘Building Rapport and Establishing Trust’. Again, success will likely require adequate preparation.

8. Tell Engaging Stories

Being able to tell an applicable and pertinent story engages humans, causes them to listen to the outcome, and also makes your interaction memorable. In CDI, your story might be aligned with the effects of a case on length of stay, observed vs. expected outcomes, or quality ratings. I have gone so far as to quote instances where providers have been removed from the “preferred providers” list by third-party insurers due to being classed as costly providers or under-reporting the acuity of their patient populations. If you are having trouble coming up with stories, this is where number 2 (‘Product Knowledge’) can come in handy, along with your daily interactions, to tell good stories in the future.

9. Strong Work Ethic

To be wildly successful in CDI, you need to be relentless, work on what gets results, and have a very strong work ethic. It helps to frequently remind yourself of the impact you are having on billing, other externally reported data of your organization, and the difference you are making. You can take the easy way out and check in and out as you please without putting in serious effort, but the only success you will achieve is the watered-down version of success that you have convinced yourself is worth achieving.

10. Dedication to Improvement

This includes a dedication to improve yourself, your physicians, your colleagues, and your organization. Use the right metrics to monitor your performance because you will be encouraged when you start to see the needle move in the right direction. This will not only support growth in your career, it will help you be ahead of the curve in industry trends – it’s a win-win.

You are probably already implementing several of these fundamental skills without even realizing it. That’s great if this is the case, but I would encourage you to consider focusing on the skills that you may not have employed much in the past. I believe that there is not enough emphasis on these crucial “soft” skills in traditional training academies.

“The capacity to learn is a gift; The ability to learn is a skill; The willingness to learn is a choice.”

-Brian Herbert


Dr. Terrance Govender
VP of Medical Affairs, ClinIntell, Inc.