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What’s in store for a Sales Rep?

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The most successful career must show a waste of strength that might have removed mountains, and the most unsuccessful is not that of the man who is taken unprepared, but of him who has prepared is never taken. On a tragedy of that kind our national morality is duly silent.

E. M. Forster

The road to job satisfaction begins with locating and securing the most desirable job. Long-term professional contentment, however, hinges upon developing a vision that includes a well-designed career plan. There are many career development options available to anyone who begins a career in medical sales. Some of these opportunities are in other sales positions, but many of them exist outside of the classic sales path. Advancement into positions beyond entry-level sales should be reviewed and planned for long before the actual placement opportunity arrives.

Entry-level sales positions can lead to virtually any corporate position that exists provided the salesperson has the right background and training. Sales employees generally do not gravitate toward the more exact technical positions such as manufacturing or research and development. Instead, they tend to remain on one of three primary advancement tracks. They are:
  • Sales track

  • Sales management track

  • Marketing track
Each track can be differentiated by the respective approach to the customer. The sales track keeps individuals in direct contact with the customer and in charge of all sales activities at the account level. Those on the sales management track interact with the customer indirectly by managing the sales activities of representatives. Finally, the marketing track requires that customer contact be initiated and maintained indirectly through the process of product development.

Outlined below are the basic career advancement tracks available to the entry-level medical sales representative. It is possible to change from one track to another, and many companies do encourage cross-tracking in order to develop employees that have a broad understanding of their businesses. Consider the tracks and positions that exist in each:
  • Sales Track:

  • Senior Sales Positions

  • National Accounts

  • Corporate Accounts

  • International Sales

  • Sales Management Track:

  • Management

  • OEM Management/Distributor Management

  • Training

  • Marketing Track:

  • Product Management

  • Market Research

  • New Business Development

  • Corporate Relations
For those who believe that selling is life, that competition is the key to progress, the sales track is the only one to consider. Every position in this track is responsible for sales results in some form or fashion. If you love the challenge of selling, make sure you know what advanced sales opportunities will exist for you later in your career with a company.


Senior Sales Positions

The larger medical supply companies (more than $100 million in annual sales) will have opportunities for their salespeople to advance without requiring them to move out of their existing territories. If you consider yourself a career sales representative, investigate what additional sales responsibilities can be assumed with the company. Reps with a history of strong sales performance are often given promotions to positions such as senior sales representative or senior account manager. The promotion will include an increase in base pay plus additional responsibilities, such as assisting with new product test markets or in field sales training.

A few companies will even have a third sales level such as executive account representative (or some similar title), which allows for additional pay and job responsibility. The position may require that the rep become a mentor for new reps and serve in the capacity of an assistant sales manager. Companies with such career options for those who want to remain salespeople always have higher retention rates than companies that do not.

National Accounts

The national account position is one that requires the rep to call on hospital group purchasing organizations, for-profit hospital chains, and/or retail and wholesale chains. More and more medical supply business is controlled through contacts negotiated by national account teams, and consequently the sales pressure in this position is immense. Individual contracts with GPOs, for example, range into the millions of dollars.

Companies have national account sales teams consisting of personnel who have been promoted to the position based on outstanding sales results in an individual territory. The number of total national account positions will range from 5 to 10 percent of the total number of sales positions. In the current market, product lines that are sold directly to or prescribed by physicians are least likely to be sold through national account contracts. Products that are purchased through hospitals or other health care facilities are highly likely to be affected by national agreements. If you have a desire to work in a high-impact sales area, look for those companies with existing national account positions, or at least products that lend themselves to national agreements.

National account managers are responsible for both contract negotiation and implementation. They must establish a long-term sales action plan for their accounts since many national agreements are negotiated only once every four to five years. They are also responsible for presenting product features and benefits, establishing the terms and conditions of contracts, developing a sales force action plan per contract, conducting timely business reviews, and managing GPO sales personnel. Positions in national accounts are the well-paid sales positions available because of the amount of business they generate with new contacts. Simply put, selling to national accounts is a high risk, high reward activity!

Corporate Accounts

The only significant difference between a national account and a corporate account position is the size of the customer. Corporate account sales positions are responsible for signing contracts with entities such as regional health care alliances and networks. These networks, which may also include health maintenance organizations, represent much smaller business opportunities for medical companies, but they do demand special attention from dedicated salespeople.

International Sales

The opportunity to move from an entry-level sales position to an international sales position is growing rapidly because U.S. companies continue to expand their presence in international markets. Obviously, multilingual reps have an edge over reps who speak only English, and many companies offer company-sponsored education that could be used to learn another language. International positions are highly sought after because the pay is excellent and in some cases nontaxable.


Ronald Reagan once said, "Surround Yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don't interfere." Sales management is primarily an exercise in finding good people and motivating them to do their jobs. Sales managers are like coaches in that they are ultimately responsible to the company for the performance of their sales teams.

Medical sales companies average one sales manager for every eight to ten representatives, or 10 to 12 percent of the total sales force, and there may be another management layer that each frontline manager must report to under a national sales manager or vice president of sales. There are also some additional management positions available in this track. A sales organizational chart would look something like this:

Each sales management position has distinct responsibilities.


Field training and classroom training are the locations where training takes place in a sales organization. Field trainers do exactly what the name implies. They travel to a specific representative's territory and offer specialized training without the rep having to miss valuable sales time in the field. These trainers may report directly to the VP of sales or, in some cases, each manager under the VP may have a dedicated field sales trainer for all of the reps in the area. Trainers do not have direct sales responsibility (commission earnings may be limited because of this), and companies usually use the trainer position in order to groom a person for their first management job.

Classroom training in a company's corporate office is coordinated by a training manager and completed by full-time trainers and guest trainers from the sales and sales management team. Training for new reps is always necessary due to the annual turnover that occurs as a result of promotion, termination, or voluntary exit. Classroom training is much like schoolwork, so if you enjoy teaching, training may be an avenue you should pursue.

Training can be categorized into either sales training or product training and both are vital to medical sales. Sales training emphasizes listening skills, handling objections, communication skills, persuasive selling, and so on without regard to specific products or services. This type of training seeks simply to improve one's ability to initiate buying activities, and it is helpful throughout a salesperson's career even if they leave the company where the training was given.

Product training is designed to educate salespeople on all of the functional and technical properties of the company's products. This training provides analyses of competitive products and, most importantly, an understanding of the market in which specific products are sold. While sales strategy training is more philosophical in its approach, product training is much more technical because it requires precise handling of product application and medical indications. There are not many training positions available relative to the entire sales population, but because the length of time people spend in such positions is short (two years or fewer), the opportunity to move into training is good.


Sales manager positions in medical sales are challenging due to the fact that your subordinates and superiors ultimately become your customers and both must be satisfied. This demanding position is responsible for these key areas:
  • sales coaching

  • recruiting

  • performance appraisal

  • administration
High performance in each area is critical to the long-term success of the company.


Sales Coaching represents the biggest demand on a manager's time. Because it involves working with reps in their own territories, manager positions are high-travel jobs requiring as many as four to five overnights per week. The coaching function is designed to provide sales direction and sales correction. In order to determine whether a sales strategy is working, every rep has to be presenting the same vision of the company. The manager must make sure that reps are presenting a consistent perspective.


The recruiting function can monopolize a manager whenever an opening exists, so the best approach to recruiting is to make sure that Sales coaching is so effective that no one wants to leave and the company is pleased with every rep's performance. Recruiting involves working with headhunters, corporate recruiters, employee referrals, and hundreds of letters and resumes. Interviewing, background checks, and implementation of human resource policies are just a few of the recruiting activities that a sales manager must complete. A bad hiring decision can cost a company hundreds of thousands of dollars when you consider the investment a company makes in a rep's salary and training plus the loss of new sales during the training period. Recruiting the right people affects the ability to achieve sales results and control expenses more than any other management activity.


The prospect of a performance appraisal usually strikes fear in the hearts of those undergoing the review, but it creates just as much conflict for the manager responsible for completing the review. In the best case, managers will work with one rep thirty-five to forty days annually. They must accurately assess the rep's performance even though they spend less than 10 percent of their work hours with that rep. Each work session with the rep becomes very important and the manager must be able to develop an effective review based on the observations made during each coaching session. The paperwork involved with a review is tedious because each criteria reviewed must include examples of specific activities being performed as well as a complete accounting of a rep's sales versus objective.


Administrative duties include reviewing all paperwork completed at the rep level, assisting reps with career development plans, reporting coaching results to superiors and reps, and reporting team sales activities and results. The paperwork of a manager is usually a function of the paperwork required of one rep times the number of reps a manager is responsible for. Unfortunately, since most normal working hours are spent coaching, managers spend many weeknight and weekend hours doing paperwork and completing other administrative duties.

Managing requires the effective deployment of all available company resources. Expenses are incurred daily for entertainment, travel, company cars, sales training, computers, and so forth, and managers are responsible for how company dollars are spent on those items. The most expensive resource a company has, however, is its people, and sales managers have the responsibility to produce sales results with this invaluable resource.

OEM/Distributor Management

Medical supply companies sell such a large percentage of their products through original equipment manufacturers and distributors that full-time positions exist to manage these businesses. These are sales management positions since a primary job activity is to assist OEM and distributor companies in managing their sales efforts. Additional responsibilities include developing sales incentive programs, managing sales samples and literature, coordinating sales efforts between two sales forces, establishing price concessions, and eliminating competition. OEM managers, for example, must wear the hats of sales and management. They must reach pre-established sales targets to the OEM and then help the OEM manage the sale of the company's products to the end user.


Marshall McLuhan, the well known Canadian communications theorist, said that "Advertising is the greatest art form of the twentieth century." Advertising is only a part of marketing, but McLuhan alludes to the idea that marketing is certainly not an exact science, it is art! Advertising is really nothing more than the process of making a promise believable, while marketing is involved with deciding what promise needs to be made and how to go about fulfilling it.

Several areas exist in the medical field for those interested in the marketing track.

Product Management

Most marketers in the medical field are known as product managers because they are completely responsible for a single product or product line from the point of inception to the point of sale. Product managers are responsible for bringing a product to life. This involves listening to customer needs to determine product development opportunities. Additionally, the manager must assist in designing a product that will do what the customer wants at a price that is beneficial to both the company's profit objectives and the customer's financial constraints.

Product managers interface with research and development, accounting and finance, purchasing, shipping and distribution, outside vendors, and manufacturing in order to design, manufacture, and sell the product. They must manage products in much the same way sales managers handle people. The average product in the United States has an approximate life span of seven years. Medical products change even faster because medical procedures and technologies change so rapidly. The introduction of a new product is the result of efforts from many different departments and the use of various company resources. A marketing product manager is in charge of a product's design, development, and deployment with the express purpose of meeting a market need while returning a profit to the company.

Market Research

Market research is different from marketing research. Marketing research is usually a responsibility of a product manager, and it is the process of determining how to best present a product to the marketplace in order to maximize sales. Market research, however, is more customer focused because all of the research that is done is for the purpose of understanding the conditions of the market exactly as they are now and how they will be in the future. Market researchers work closely with customer focus groups, which are panels consisting of nurses, physicians, and health care technicians. If you are a great listener, creative, and really enjoy problem solving, market research positions are for you.

New Business Development

Marketers specializing in new business development are the sleuths of marketing because their primary efforts are aimed at finding new markets for existing products, creating subtle changes in existing products so they can be used in a different application, or uncovering new products that can be made with existing manufacturing technologies. Listening skills again are very important in these positions. The decision to alter an existing product to meet the needs of a different market (i.e., changing the case count of a hospital product so that it can be sold in the home health market) can result in stagnant inventory if the research is incomplete or inaccurate.

Some of the most successful products ever invented ended up being used for an application other than the one for which they were originally intended. Market researchers look for those unusual applications and spend most of their time trying to understand the market so that they can communicate needs to product developers and design engineers.

Corporate Relations

A person in corporate relations is responsible for seeing the forest instead of the trees and must communicate that vision to potential customers and stockholders. Large corporations have community relations experts, media specialists, and company spokespersons that are all responsible for marketing the company, not a product. The position also is responsible for internal communications such as newsletters and financial reports.


The three career advancement tracks discussed are not the only careers available in a medical company. There are others such as regulatory affairs and human resources that have not even been discussed. Most people who begin with a medical company in sales, however, tend to pursue advancement in sales, sales management, or marketing. Deciding on a career path before you begin interviewing is an excellent idea because it allows you to be more precise when answering questions regarding long-term career objectives.

During the interview process, find out what really drives the business of the company. Companies make product, sales strategy, and marketing decisions based on whether the company is manufacturing driven, marketing driven, or sales driven, and the driving force behind the company can enhance or diminish your career plans depending upon what that force is.

Manufacturing-driven companies are driven by their existing expertise and manufacturing facilities. If they have large amounts of capital tied up in machines that are being underutilized, you can bet that they will spend all of their product development time trying to find a way to make other products on that machine. This approach tends to have a backward view of the market, and the challenge is to keep from being left behind by market changes.

Marketing-driven companies are pushed by what customers will need in the future. These companies are constantly trying to be innovative by keeping new products in the R&D pipeline that meet the changing needs of customers brought on by new medical techniques. A marketing focus means that a company is trying to develop products that will put them ahead of existing technologies and competition. This approach tends to have a forward view of the market, and the challenge here is to resist selling something that does not yet exist.

Sale-driven companies usually ask, "What does the customer need today?" They are run under the philosophy that, "Whatever the customer is buying is what we should be selling." Companies with this focus tend to buy other businesses or product lines whenever their customers need something that they do not have. Although it is nice to be that responsive, this approach looks only at the here and now, and the challenge is to avoid buying companies and products that will be outdated very shortly.

Each focus has advantages and disadvantages. Ideally, the best company to work for is one that integrates all three approaches into its business. As a future employee, your job is to decide whether your career plans can coexist with the focus of the company. If you want to pursue the marketing track, you will not be happy with a manufacturing-driven company because your analysis of the market will be limited to what the company can already do. If you want to stay in sales your entire career, a marketing-driven company may drive you crazy with too many changes in sales approaches and product development. If you prefer the steady environment found with a manufacturing focus, a sales-driven company will give you nightmares because everyone else always wants something different.

Deciding on a specific company or a particular field to specialize in is difficult for sales professionals because little information exists regarding many of the sales careers that are available. Salespeople are always interested in selling something that is fun to sell and that pays that highly sought after six-figure income. The field of medical sales provides the opportunity to sell high-tech, life-saving products to some of the most intelligent and demanding people on the planet. This field also affords representatives many different career advancement possibilities. The positions are there for those whose action matches their ambition. Carl Kell, a former communications professor and author, once said, "Do what you want to do in life, and someone is bound to pay you for it!"
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