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Medical Sales Rep… Is it a Right Choice?

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Nobody does blame this man for a salesman; there is no rock bottom to the life. He don't put a bolt to a nut, he don't tell you the law or give you medicine. He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back-that's an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you're finished. Nobody does blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.

Charley, in Death of a Salesman, "Requiem"

Sellers are dreamers according to Arthur Miller's character; and dreamers, though never absolutely sure of their calling in life, are supremely confident in their own potential and future success. Salespeople are always wondering if another company might pay more for their skills, or if another product might be the wave of the future. Those in real estate wonder if, they might "make it big" selling securities. The chemical company representative ponders over the financial possibilities offered by the insurance industry. The vicious circle goes on with dreamers always searching for greener pastures.

The primary purpose of this book is to provide sales dreamers with accurate information to help clarify and focus their understanding of one of those green pastures-medical sales. When armed with a touch of reality, dreamers become opportunists, and certainly the field of medical sales offers rewarding career opportunities. Like any career, however, Medical Sales has both positive and negative aspects that must be reviewed before a career decision is made. Some of the advantages of a career in medical sales are discussed below.


Above Average Income

Salespeople in general are compensated more than their company counterparts in areas such as manufacturing or distribution.

Although many medical sales incomes have come down in the last few years because of increasing market pressures, a medical sales career still offers sales professionals the opportunity to achieve annual incomes exceeding those in many other professions. With smart planning and hard work, a low six-figure income is possible for many medical sales professionals.

Professional Education and Training

Medical companies are known for the amount of professional education and training provided to their sales employees. Medical professionals such as doctors, nurses, and administrators will not tolerate salespeople who "shoot from the hip" and know little about the products and their intended uses. Medical companies are fully aware that successful salespeople first must be well trained.

Initial training relative to customer needs, market environment, and product performance may last as long as one year before the company begins giving the representative specific sales objectives to reach. The training is usually a mix of headquarters classroom teaching, experienced sales rep mentoring, sales manager coaching, and private studying. The investment that companies make in a new rep's education is substantial since many companies have full-time training departments and are paying rep's salaries during that period before they become productive in selling new business.

They are looking for candidates who can demonstrate good study skills and comprehensive learning.

Training programs are very similar to college course work, and the representatives may be required to pass knowledge and skill tests before actually "selling" to their customers. May medical reps have even said that they will never leave their jobs because they do not want to go through training again with another company! The training period is intense and the expectations are high, but training is essential to long-term success. When interviewing with a company, it is important to know what the training is like and what expectations exist during the training period.

Long-Term Customer Base

Building trust is a must for any salesperson. The shorter the sales cycle, the more difficult trust-building becomes, since fewer customer contacts are made. Because of long sales cycles, most medical sales positions offer the opportunity to develop trust over an extended period of time through many customer contacts. Very little of the medical sales business involves the cold calling or one-time selling that exists in door-to-door or automobile sales, for example. Even capital equipment, which may be bought only once during a decade, requires a long-term record of customer contact.

The end result for the medical sales representative is that many customers also become very close partners in the business of providing health care. As a district sales manager once said, "We're just riding around visiting with our friends." Becoming a business partner (and friend) with the customer is a common expectation, and the customer wants to do business with a company and sales associate who knows everything about his or her challenges and needs. Health care providers are consistently turning to salespeople for help in managing their product needs, and the relationship-building that must take place is a wonderful opportunity for the sales rep to practice the art of managing products and people together.

Another factor that contributes to building a long sales cycle and, therefore, greater job security in medical sales is the aging population in the United States. The population aged eighty-five and over will grow about four times as fast as the total population between now and the year 2005. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, this will result in an increasing demand for health services. Health services also will continue to be one of the fastest growing industries in the economy with overall employment in the sector increasing from 9.6 to 13.8 million. Continued development of high technology health care devices along with the growth in health care services translates to a long-term need for medical sales professionals.

Professional Relationships

Generally, the primary decision makers for medical products are college-educated health care professionals. Typical customers are specialty physicians, department directors, nursing managers, office managers, facility administrators, financial officers, and committees made up of representatives from each of these groups. These management personnel usually will have a technical, nursing, or medical degree with additional training in health care administration. MBAs and MHAs are also becoming more and more popular among health care managers.

The working environment for medical salespeople is characterized by technological change, constant learning, and a spirit of humanitarianism. The sole purpose of medical practice is to help people, and although the ultimate purpose of the medical sales representative is to help a company make a profit, a rep also helps people help people. Building business relationships with health care providers can provide a sense of accomplishing company financial objectives while helping to improve the quality of life for patients. Knowing that a product is helping a medical professional provide quality care can provide a great deal of job satisfaction.


In addition to the benefits that come from a career in medical sales, consider also the requirements that deserve careful consideration before making the final decision to enter this field.


Forty-hour weeks are nonexistent in this field. Be prepared to consistently log sixty or more hours per week as a medical sales representative. Electronic media have made it much simpler for salespeople to communicate and also have made it possible for them to make many more contacts during the day. With e-mail, voice mail, computers, cellular phones, pagers, telephones, and fax machines available around the clock, there are many ways to work with customers that were not available just a few years ago. More customer contact also means more preparation, more presentations, and more follow-up.

The commitment required to meet customer needs and expectations means that time for personal hobbies and recreation is greatly diminished. Although customers may leave work at 3:00 P.M., the sales rep's job is far from over as work hours often run from 6:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M. or later. The rewards are great but the energy and time commitment necessary for success are also great.

Market Pressures


Many changes are happening in the health care market-place that have and will continue to challenge medical sales representatives. One change that affects where reps do business is the trend toward home health services. Home health care is the second-fastest growing industry in the economy. Interestingly, hospitals are growing more slowly than any other health service industry despite being the largest sector within health care. This means that companies must figure out how to get their products into the home health market for use on patients who would have been treated in a hospital in the past.


A second challenge for sales personnel in today's medical market is the ongoing process of medical company buyouts and mergers. This has both short-term and long-term effects. Short-term, it means that downsizing of sales forces is an immediate possibility whenever a buyout or merger occurs. Long-term, it means that larger companies emerge with more negotiating power than their smaller competitors. Many medical product companies have so many divergent businesses that they can bundle them together in package deals. Reps working for smaller companies may actually have a better product and/or a better price but not be given business opportunities by potential customers. This happens because the customer cannot afford to have prices go up on several product lines from the bigger company if they decide to buy one product line from the small competitor.

Making a career decision to work for a specific medical company should be based as much on knowledge of the competition as the company being considered. Most product categories have anywhere from two to five major national competitors and often face additional regional competitors as well. Understanding the type of products a company sells and the competing products is a must for future medical representatives.


A third challenge in today's market is the simple fact that certain types of products have little need for salespeople. For example, a company that sells only Band-Aids to hospitals will probably not have its own sales force because Band-Aids are considered a low-technology product bought and sold primarily on price. Band-Aids can be bought by non-nursing purchasing managers over the telephone without a need for any technical assistance from a salesperson. Many health care products have fallen into this same "commodity" product category over the years, and the more common a product is, the less need there is for an outside representative.

Health care products can be classified into one of three product categories: commodity, proprietary, or new technology. As previously mentioned, commodity products are products that are almost identically made by various manufacturers. For example, pillowcases for hospitals and nursing homes are manufactured and sold by several companies with little difference in their products. The most important criterion in this product category is price, since competing products are so similar. Going to work for a company that sells only commodity products probably means that the income potential is lower than it is in other health care sectors, because profit margins tend to be very low.

Proprietary products are those that perform the same job functions as competing products but go about it in a different way. Sales reps for proprietary-type products are needed because customers must be convinced that the "different" way of doing the same thing is the better way. For example, two companies may be competing for a customer's face-mask business with completely different face masks. Both products may perform the job of filtering airborne contaminants, but if one of the masks can be put on with one hand and the other mask takes two, the sales rep may be able to build a case for the "one hand" mask based on convenience or time savings. Typically, proprietary products will have a patent on product design or composition so that competitors cannot simply copy the better product and turn the product into a commodity item. It is always good to know what patent protection might stand behind a company's products.

The final type of product is the new technology product. New technology products introduce a new medical practice altogether. When lasers first began to be used for health care applications, new medical methods and procedures began being used for the very first time. Laparoscopic instruments are another great example of a new technology product because they allowed surgeons to perform surgical procedures in a new way that would greatly benefit their patients.

Companies selling new technology products will always need salespeople because customers must be taught the new practices after they have seen or experienced the corresponding benefits that the product offers. Generally, the income level generated from selling these products is the highest of the three, and a working knowledge of the company's products and competition will help tremendously in identifying those companies that have the most to offer in terms of both income and job security.


The field of medical sales is a wonderful place to dream. It offers the opportunity of a fantastic income while working with intelligent, caring people. Medical sales careers are characterized by professional growth through constant education and training while also providing the chance to develop business relationships into long-term friendships. The career is a consuming, challenging one, but one that has financial, professional, and personal rewards. Theodore Roosevelt once said, "Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." Ultimately, a career in medical sales is just that.
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