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Pursuing a career in medical sales


The demands of the job and the customer mean that it is important to choose a career in medical sales for the correct reasons.


“Selling is the highest paid hard work and the lowest paid easy work that I could find,” wrote Tom Hopkins, in How To Master The Art Of Selling. And, as Hopkins writes, the best part is that it is all down to you. You work on your own, organizing your time and appointments, so you get out as much as you put in to the job.

So, if you're the type of person who doesn't enjoy being stuck in a lab or an office, who enjoys the business end of science, and who feels that their personality is more suited to medical sales, then you'll probably be reading these first two paragraphs with interest. Perks, such as bonuses and a nice company car, help to make the decision-making process more persuasive.

But if you are thinking about doing medical sales for the money, or you are fed up with science but can't think of an alternative career, then this is probably not the move for you, because the business is still science. Doctors generally see one or two sales reps a day and spend only a few minutes with each one. And what doctors want from reps is enough information to empower them with the confidence to prescribe a product to a suitable patient. This means that a salesperson should not just know positive aspects about products, but also have in-depth knowledge of clinical data, indications and contra-indications, efficacy and adverse reactions. A lack of passion for the science behind the product will translate into a lack of passion for selling the product.

In general, doctors rarely feel that the information that they get from reps is 100% accurate. And stereotypes of slick salespeople and their dubious or pushy sales practices do exist. The validity of these stereotypes among physicians is neither here nor there, but such a perception can become damaging for a salesperson and their company — doctors rarely complain about 'bad' salespeople, they just reduce accessibility.

But a successful salesperson becomes part of the process of getting important products to patients who need them, which is a rewarding task. In addition, a successful salesperson creates a strong relationship with doctors and nurses. This is a far cry from the “A-B-C — Always Be Closing” mentality of the salesmen in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross; a stronger relationship provides a doctor with more information and consequently helps the salesperson to increase product awareness in the marketplace.

So, how do you get into medical sales? A degree, or increasingly a postgraduate qualification, in life or medical sciences is favoured. The majority of sales jobs in countries such as the United Kingdom are obtained through specialist recruitment agencies. Sales positions are available in companies and specialist healthcare sales and marketing organizations, such as Innovex. Some of the bigger pharmaceutical companies only recruit through certain agencies, so it pays to do your research.

Once started, the new salesperson goes through training courses in sales, products and the company, and has training time to gain an understanding of their territory and customers. A myth that needs to be dispelled at this stage is that of the 'natural-born seller'. All great salespersons work hard on their techniques and are constantly learning. For example, one of the most important skills learned and developed early on is how to get past the secretary and secure an appointment with a doctor. Be prepared to travel a great deal, sometimes work long hours and receive knockbacks, as not everyone will have the time or inclination to see you.

Like other sectors of the pharmaceutical industry, sales is highly regulated. For example, in the United Kingdom the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry has an ethical code of conduct to which companies are expected to adhere, and medical sales reps have to pass an examination of this code within two years to pursue their career in sales (Box 1).

Success in sales can lead to promotion along the sales chain all the way to regional manager or regional/national account manager, or into marketing, which deals with the strategy behind selling a product. What you achieve in your selling career is up to you — in sales you have the freedom to become as successful as you want to be.

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Frantz, S. Pursuing a career in medical sales. Nat Rev Drug Discov 3, 97 (2004).

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