Physician Holding Out StethoscopeI noticed something interesting when I went in for my annual physical this year: my longtime family doctor is booked a month in advance. With no billboards, advertising, or sales pitches. And I don’t think he would ever be interested.

I see the same thing in my own psychotherapy practice. In fact, traditional sales techniques would probably work against me. Advertising may technically be legal but makes you look like someone wearing loud plaid pants to a formal party. Same thing with prospecting: it just looks cheesy most of the time. And client retention? Ewwww. Our job is to see people get better as quickly as possible, and then applaud their going away. And yet, like my doctor, my practice is generally full.

So here is my lesson for you, even if you don’t wear a white coat: the strategies for being a successful healthcare provider also work for every other business. Here are the key points:

Your most important sales tool is to be really good. Why do you pick your doctor, or dentist, or plumber? Because you heard that they were a great doctor, dentist, or plumber. And probably not because they got their name or their pitch in front of you – especially in today’s highly connected economy, where bad reviews trump good PR every time. Which leads me to the next point:

Your next most important sales tool is your relationships. If I don’t do any selling, how do I get new clients? Simple: from my existing clients and colleagues. And in turn, I refer clients to people I like and respect. Frankly, if I did absolutely nothing other than make people feel good about interacting with me, that would probably be all the marketing I would need.

Your next most important sales tool is your credibility. Someone comes to you for help. You know that for their particular issue, you might be able to hum a few bars, but other people are really good at it. Do you discuss these options with them? In my case, absolutely. First, because I would want the same thing for myself. But equally important, credibility is a big part of where good relationships and happy customers come from.

A little marketing is OK. To be fair, I am not completely mute. I am listed in professional directories for my specialties. I have a nice website. I network with other colleagues. I’ve been hosting a low-cost, community-based group program for years. And I am writing a self-help book. But none of this comes first. And if you took all of it away, I would still be pretty busy.

This is not to say that I am bashing sales. Selling is a tool for creating demand, and sometimes you need to create demand. If you are trying to drum up interest in your subscription website, or your new Bluetooth yo-yo, or whatever, go ahead and sell. Especially if no one would ever know about you otherwise.

But most successful small business people I know personally don’t focus on creating demand. They focus on being good. Like the people who do my lawn care and landscaping, with a shiny fleet of trucks. Or the plumber who recently showed up at 3 AM to fix a leaky pipe in my basement. Or my longtime literary agent. They all sell like doctors, and they are all pretty successful.

 So here is my point: is your plan for business success as good as someone who doesn’t advertise AND can talk people into getting a colonoscopy? If not, learn some lessons from your local doctor’s office, and see what it does for your business.