The best prescription drugs in the world can't do any good if doctors
don't know about them. Enter pharmaceutical sales representatives.
These sales professionals educate medical professionals about the
latest offerings from pharmaceutical companies. They visit physicians, dentists,
veterinarians, hospitals and drugstores to share information and get product
It's a high-paying and prestigious area of the sales profession. This makes
the job market competitive. Pharmaceutical companies can be choosy about who
Adding to the competitiveness is a tough economy and consolidation within
the industry. Large drug companies have been buying smaller ones in recent
years. This has led to layoffs.
Pharma Sales Differ from Other Kinds of Sales
Jerry Clor has worked in the pharmaceutical industry for more than 30 years
in various roles, including as a sales rep. He's now a pharmaceutical sales
"I worked in a hospital for around nine years before I came to pharmaceuticals,"
says Clor. "It was great because I had a good, strong clinical background
and I could converse with the physicians and I really liked it. I thought
it was fun."
Clor says that pharmaceutical sales are different from other kinds of sales.
"One of the skills that you need is certainly the capacity to sell in a
standard sense, but this is very consultative, this is not like selling phones,"
explains Clor. "It's about trying to understand the needs of the doctor as
they are trying to fix the patients' needs, and then aligning your products
"It's a little more complicated of a sale than traditional sales, but it's
less contentious, for sure," Clor adds. "It's very engaging and, contrary
to what you hear on the street, doctors do... like sales reps. The doctors
count on sales representatives for pharmaceutical information, they really
Doctors will even call up reps sometimes and ask them to visit their medical
office to explain a product. Talking to highly educated and sometimes skeptical
doctors isn't easy, but it can be enjoyable.
"It's a very good job and fun, actually," says Clor. "I find it to be quite
educational. You're dealing with people who are very smart and they challenge
you -- 'How can you help me with this situation?'"
Drug Companies Spend Big Money
Drug companies have a lot at stake when they hire salespeople. They invest
a huge amount of time and money to develop a new prescription drug. And once
it's developed, they need a professional sales force to get the word out to
How much time and money are invested in a successful new medicine? An average
of 10 to 15 years and about $1.2 billion. This is according to the Pharmaceutical
Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).
It's possible for a pharmaceutical salesperson to earn more than $100,000
in their first year. Their earnings are normally a combination of a base salary
and a bonus structure based on how much they sell. The larger employers often
offer a company car and stock options as well.
"You can make $100,000 the first year because the average starting base
is about $55,000 to $60,000, based on experience," says Frank Melfa. "Then
you get a bonus structure which averages $5,000 a quarter, or $20,000 a year."
Melfa has been a sales rep, district manager and national sales director
for two major pharmaceutical companies. He also started a company that provides
sales reps on contract to drug companies.
Sales Reps Need a Degree
Aspiring sales reps should plan on attending college or university. "You
definitely need a bachelor's degree, without a doubt," says Melfa.
Pharmaceutical sales reps often have degrees in marketing, business, biology
or pharmacy. But Melfa says it doesn't matter what kind of degree a sales
"I've hired hundreds of people," says Melfa. "I don't care what their background
"Companies used to care. They liked to see some kind of science background.
Now we don't care. As a sales manager, as a sales director, all I cared about
was, 'Can someone go out and sell?' That's it. 'Are they professional? Can
they connect with people? Are they going to go to work every day?'"
Clor says it's good for a sales rep to know something about business as
well as science.
"I think there's a balance between what you need on the business acumen
side and what you need on the life sciences side," says Clor. "Certainly a
life science background is a plus because you need to understand the technical
ramifications of a pharmaceutical product and have the ability to learn [about]
More Reps Working as Contractors
The economic downturn and recent consolidations among drug companies have
affected the job market for pharmaceutical sales reps.
"There's definitely been some downsizing of pharmaceutical reps," says
Nicki Weiss agrees. She's a sales trainer who works with many salespeople
in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries.
"Pharma is going through such difficulties right now," says Weiss. "They're
laying off people left, right and center."
Another change in the industry is that drug companies are moving away from
hiring salespeople as permanent employees.
"The shift has moved from company reps, like a Pfizer rep or a Merck rep,
to a contract sales force rep," says Melfa.
"So for people who want to get into the industry that have some sales experience
but not pharmaceutical sales experience, the opportunity for them is to start
with a contract sales company."
Get Some Sales Experience
If you want to break into pharmaceutical sales, it's probably best to get
some sales experience in another industry first. Otherwise you'll be facing
an uphill battle to get hired.
"The challenge for people who don't have pharmaceutical sales experience
is that there's a lot of talent out there that's out of a job," says Melfa.
The copier industry and the payroll services industry provide especially
good training to salespeople, says Melfa. As with pharmaceutical sales, both
involve selling services to businesses (B to B, as opposed to B to C -- business
Weiss recommends that aspiring pharmaceutical sales reps get sales experience
as early as possible.
"Sales experience is really helpful, so I think you should always be thinking
about getting a sales kind of job... in the summer or a part-time job throughout
the school year," says Weiss.
On-the-job sales experience is essential because you probably won't learn
what sales is really like any other way.
"You can't learn it in high school, you can't learn it in university, you
can't learn it in graduate school... and yet it's what creates our economic
engine," explains Weiss. "People don't think of sales as a career because
it's not taught, and yet it's a great career."
You can get sales training from independent sales trainers such as Weiss.
There are also courses offered by professional sales associations.
The pharmaceutical sales industry should remain strong as the population
ages. Elderly people are huge users of prescription drugs. They are at higher
risk for a wide range of ailments such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes,
and diseases of the central nervous system. Drugs that treat such conditions
will remain hot commodities.
"Certainly the graying of America is creating a huge demand in this space,"
says Clor. "We're seeing a lot of changes in medicine just based on the baby
boomers and I think that's driving a lot of market changes and probably the
demand within pharma will not go away."
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American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy
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