Tips and DOs & DONTs of CRO Business Development – The Art of Asking

27 August 2020


By Peter-Jan van Doorn

In this article, Peter-Jan van Doorn used his experience in the pharmaceutical industry to write about his tips and DOs and DONTs of CRO Business Development. Peter-Jan is a Consultant & Interim Manager in the healthcare industry.

A client visit in chronological order

Instead of making a long list of bullet points with Tips and DOs & DONTs of CRO Business Development, I decided to make a ‘story’ telling about the way I am used to visit clients abroad.Therefore, this is a description of a client visit in chronological order in which I included my tips and DOs and DONTs.

Train over plane

I prepare my client meetings well: I gather information about the company I am going to visit, and I figure out what is the best way of traveling. I also look into the business history the company I work for has with the company I am going to visit, if any. If I did not have enough time to prepare myself well, I can still get the most essential information while traveling. If possible, I take the train rather than the plane. Flying is more exhausting than going by train and to a certain extend it is even unhealthy. For pretty much the same price (total round-trip fares, incl. taxi-rides) I sit like a king in the train’s first class, compared to sitting like a tinned sardine in the plane’s second class. The odds are that by train I travel from city-centre to city-centre, where most likely my hotel will be anyway. This also means my taxi-rides will be shorter and (much) cheaper than those to or from the airport. Even when total travel-time may be longer by train, I can spend my time much more efficiently with my laptop and the things I need or would like to read. When I look up from my work, I see the landscape passing by on one side and on the other side perhaps the first-class train-hostess, offering me another cappuccino with cake. Compare all this relaxing luxury of the train with me finally leaving a plane half-dead after another delayed flight!

Multiple meetings in or around the same town

It is efficient to visit more clients in or around the same town. I try to travel to that town at the beginning of the week and leave for home again a few days after. If there are no visits on a particular day, I use the time to make for instance the visit reports, prepare quotations and perhaps do a bit of sightseeing. In any case, I try to avoid travelling to several towns in different countries within the same week! Acknowledge that one can only be effective with a limited number of face-to-face meetings per day. The best scenario (for me) is two meetings per day. If possible, the first at 10 AM and the second at 2 PM. In this scenario I may also avoid traffic jams, especially in the morning. So, I have a higher chance of arriving at the client’s premises on time.


There is ‘sales-wisdom’ which says: “In order to be able to sell your company, you have to sell yourself first”, such as in a job-interview. Appearance is, indeed, definitely important. Be polite and friendly and dress correctly (‘business formal’), but do not overdo it. I am well aware that I should impress the client with knowledge, not with my after-shave. I use a practical hand luggage bag, with a shoulder-strap, so I have got my hands free if needed. I put (extra) underwear, medication (if any) and essential toiletries in it, so I am sure I have all this when my travel plan suddenly changes. Because I know I get bored by my own mobile-phone after some time, I also put a not too large and heavy book or an E-reader in my bag too. And I do not forget my power-bank.

Arrival at the client

I always try to arrive the day before the first client visit and ask the receptionist of the hotel how many minutes it will take to get to the (first) client. Only when it can be done really easily, I use public transport, otherwise I use a taxi. If I notice that unfortunately I will not arrive on time, I ask the taxi-driver how much time is still needed to arrive at the client’s premises. Especially larger companies have strict procedures for visitors at the entrance where the passport may be taken, and a visitor’s badge will be given. This will take extra time, the more so when more visitors arrive at the same time.

I am used to bring a small and ‘personal’ present, such as a little Amsterdam-guide, a small book which is easy to take with me as luggage. As a second present, the somewhat more expensive books on ‘Rembrandt’ or ‘Van Gogh’ are usually appreciated. Especially for Japanese clients, I pay attention to the wrapping paper as well. The total appearance counts, not just the present itself.

I never forget to be friendly and polite when I meet the receptionist in the entrance hall and the person who guides me to the meeting room. If I am in an elevator with this person, I ask for instance a practical question to ’break the ice’ as: “how many people work in this building”?

When meeting the client, I start with some small talk, preferably in the client’s native language. I rather ask questions than talk about myself. It is good to be clear about how long the meeting should last, especially when one needs to catch a plane. I always want to know how much time I would need to get to the airport in time, taking into account possible traffic jams. If I am not sure, I do not hesitate to ask the client how much time I need before the meeting starts.

If a presentation is useful or asked for by the client, I only show a few general slides. It is way better to ask questions and listen than to keep on conveying information to a possibly only partly interested audience. If the client asks for specific additional information, I can always show the slides containing such information. But only if these slides really support my ‘story’. While listening to the client, I make short and fast notes which will be the basis of the visit report.

Ask for business

Another ‘Sales Wisdom’ says that one should establish the need for business. For that reason, I do check on the type of business the client may have for me. I elaborate on the potential business. For instance, I ask how many Clinical Studies the client performs on average per year and what kinds of Clinical Studies these are. I also do not forget to ask about upcoming Clinical Studies. I cautiously figure out who the real decision-makers are. If I think I know who the real decision-makers are, I give these persons the most attention and deference. However, I do not forget to kindly address all other people in the meeting room. The people who are not the decision-makers may still be influencers!

I ask about the Contract Research Organisations (CROs) they are currently working with and ask whý they are working with these CROs. I also ask which qualities and properties they expect a CRO to have in order to become a business partner. Also, I ask them whether they could envisage themselves working with me and my company. If not, why not? What should I and my company do to qualify as a business partner for them? One should always ask for business! Even when the client has no business to give at this moment, the client may ask me to send a quotation for general comparison with my competitors.

Managing expectations

I never promise ‘heaven’ but rather manage the client’s expectations well. I am very clear on one hand about what I and my company cán do – and in which time-frame – and on the other hand I am very clear about what is nót possible. If the client asks questions which I cannot answer on the spot, I make sure I answer them fast after the visit. If I am dependent on information from colleagues, I tell the client my company is working on the answers. In any case, I avoid procrastinating on the answers and letting the client in limbo. If I do not have all answers or all information yet, I send the client what I already have. The remaining answers and/or ‘perfect’ information can always be sent later in another email. If I am given the opportunity to send a quotation, I make sure the client receives it before the agreed date. If I cannot make the quotation myself, then I put pressure on the costing department to deliver the quotation on time. If they did, I obviously thank them. The odds are that my colleagues are also waiting for quotations!

I try to finish the meeting again with some small talk, again preferably in the client’s native language if I can. Also, I rather ask questions than talk about myself. It may not always be possible, but I often try to figure out what the client’s hobbies are. People tend to talk enthusiastically about their pastimes. This is of course easier during a lunch. Apart from talking about hobbies, I then often have opportunities to talk about other aspects of private life. I do have specific hobbies myself, so I make sure to mention them. The odds are that this way I will be remembered better. There are so many CRO Business Development Managers (BDs) around and this gives me a possibility to stand out from the crowd.

After the meeting

I am always friendly and polite to the person who guides me back to the entrance hall, or when I pass the receptionist again. When I am back in the taxi after the visit and it is a long ride because of traffic jams for instance, I try to already write the visit report on my mobile phone or iPad. By the time I reach my hotel, my report will already be done! When I am back in the hotel, I use my time effectively and answer my emails and make the visit reports (telegram style!) before dinner. I try to relax after dinner, and I make sure I have a clear head for the next day’s meetings.

I always send a concise email shortly after the client meeting, thanking all attendants of the meeting for their time and information and for lunch if this was offered to me. After sending the quotation to the client, I always call a few days later to check whether it was received well and if there are questions about it. After some ‘reasonable’ time, I call again to ask if a decision about the quotation has been taken. In case no decision has been taken yet, I ask when they expect to take the decision. If a quotation was awarded to a competitor, I do ask to whích competitor and whý; this is very useful information! If my quotation is accepted and business (e.g. a Clinical Study) is awarded to me, I monitor the interaction between the client and my company. I need to be cautious however to not stand in the way of my colleagues from ‘Operations’. Finally, I do a follow-up check with the client after the services rendered by my company have been executed. And of course, I check whether there is room for improvement.

Some general Tips and DOs & DONTs

  • Cold calling is one of the most challenging aspects of Business Development. When you call a company, ask directly for the highest person responsible for the product and/or service you wish to sell. If you are lucky to be put through to this person or get his/her telephone number, start the conversation with an observation which is specific for this person’s company. Therefore, study that company thoroughly. However, if a ‘goalkeeper’ asks you to send an email, then also start your email with an observation which is specific for the addressee’s company. Only after this prospect-specific beginning, your email should mention the benefits of working with yóur company.
  • July and August are not good months for client visits in Europe, mainly because of holidays and often it is too warm in Southern- and Eastern Europe.
  • Over time you may become a ‘source’: the in-depth knowledge about your specific type of business and market will give you an extra edge and as a result (potential) clients will contact you for information.
  • Writing Christmas cards is important, and it is preferable to write a few lines yourself. Use the company Christmas card or buy them yourself. Company Christmas E-cards can be used too. However, for the key-accounts and for Japanese clients, it is best to continue to send paper ones.

The art of asking questions

The Art of Business Development is in fact The Art of Asking Questions! Not having the habit of asking questions may have many reasons such as lack of curiosity, shyness or a cultural aspect, but the good news is that it can be learned. Moreover, it will be helpful in private life too. Therefore, start practising right now. Most importantly because asking questions is the key to success in Business Development!

Thank you Peter-Jan for sharing your tips on this topic within the pharmaceutical industry! 

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