How to Become (or Hire) a Medical Sales Rep

medical sales

The healthcare industry exists to meet the health needs of our society. Globally, healthcare spending could reach over $10 trillion by 2022. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. spends twice what other countries do on healthcare due to a mostly privatized system.

Medical sales reps, therefore, are in high demand. These sales reps are often tasked with selling expensive equipment and resources, so there’s ample opportunity to strike it big. MedReps reports that a medical sales professional could expect to earn an average base salary of $95k. When you include the average bonus/commission of $61K, it’s clear that being a medical sales rep can be a financially rewarding career in a growing industry.

While the industry has been significantly affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, it remains stable as a whole. Some companies may have temporarily slowed down, but others are facing a higher demand than ever, meaning medical and pharmaceutical sales reps today are finding work quicker than ever.

This post will help you decide if becoming a medical sales rep is the right career for you and, if so, how to stand out from the competition. 

For sales managers in this industry, we’ll also cover what you should look out for to make sure your next hire is a success. 

Table of contents

What does a medical sales rep do?

Medical sales reps are tasked with selling pharmaceuticals, medical devices, medical equipment, or biotechnology to stakeholders in the healthcare industry.

When it comes to day-to-day operations, a medical sales rep’s activities look similar to any other salesperson’s. Medical sales reps must:

  • Identify potential new business
  • Set appointments with decision-makers
  • Travel to meet with potential customers
  • Attend sales meetings, jump on calls and attend conferences 
  • Assess their prospect’s needs in order to recommend the right products
  • Demonstrate products and explain their features/benefits
  • Negotiate contracts and close deals

Medical sales reps spend a lot of their time talking to prospects about the very latest cutting-edge products and industry trends. This involves carrying out substantial research, both into what’s currently available on the market as well as both the historical and latest medical legislation and requirements. You’ll need to know every single detail about the product you’re selling and how it fits into medical sales history so that you can effectively answer any possible question your prospect might have. 

Regardless of specialization, sales reps in the health industry often sell products that can change people’s lives in a very literal sense. Because of the nature of the products medical sales reps are tasked to sell, establishing trust with your prospects is absolutely vital; if they don’t trust you, they’re not going to risk buying from you. You need to prove that both you and the product you’re selling are reliable, helpful and ultimately worth the investment.

Advantages and disadvantages of a career in medical sales

An overwhelming majority of sales reps (90%) in a MedReps survey reported feeling satisfied with their medical sales job, a figure that has been steadily on the rise over the past few years. And 33% of respondents said the best part of their job was the ability to “make a difference”. 

As sales reps in the health industry are often selling potentially life- or industry-changing equipment, tools, services or medications, they truly are helping to make a difference in the lives of many. Feeling good about what you do for work is often a key indicator of happiness, and that is reflected in this high percentage of happy survey respondents.

Beyond that, there are other advantages that come with the role.

For those who don’t like to be tied to an office and follow the same routine every day, a medical sales rep job offers plenty of opportunities for travel. Depending on your chosen industry, you may be required to attend conferences and trade shows and travel to meet with several healthcare professionals to present your product or service. There is a wide variety of inside vs. outside sales opportunities in the medical sales field, which makes it easy for you to pick a role that aligns with your desires.

That said, it’s not always an easy job. While the idea of traveling around the country may be appealing it can also be draining. As reported in our State of Sales report 2019-2020, most sales professionals work long hours and often throughout the weekend, and the same is true in the medical sales profession.

According to the same MedReps survey, 28% of sales reps noted that “admin work” was the worst part of their jobs—ranking higher than stress and pressure (23%). While sales technology can help to decrease admin time, it’s still a big part of a medical sales rep’s job. 

On top of that, the constant stream of new medical devices and drugs (as well as new legislation and regulations) means medical sales reps have to study hard and constantly research the market to stay up-to-date. This can be a pro or a con depending on how passionate you feel about your chosen specialization and how rewarding your job is overall.

medical sales pros and cons

Who employs medical sales reps?

Medical sales reps are hired by medical healthcare and pharmaceutical companies. These might be manufacturers who are pioneering the latest advances in medical technology or distributors and wholesalers who sell on their behalf.

If you’re looking for an opportunity, the best approach is to find out who the top employers are and regularly check their vacancies. You can also set up relevant alerts on job search websites. 

Before you can do that though, you need to decide what kind of medical sales rep you want to be.

Choosing a specialization

Medical sales covers a wide variety of products and services. You could focus on selling: 

  • Medical devices and equipment, from gloves and thermometers, pacemakers and diagnostic equipment to wearable technology 
  • Pharmaceuticals, covering drugs and medication used to treat patients
  • Biotechnology, the use of living organisms to create new medical products

Each of these areas has its own advantages and challenges, requiring different approaches and personalities.

It might be tempting to go for the high-ticket items that come with the highest commission, such as selling expensive pieces of medical equipment, but that may mean more competition and a longer sales cycle. You’ll likely have to go through multiple decision-makers before you can close the deal, from the medical staff who will be using the equipment to the executives that’ll sign off on the purchase.

On the other hand, selling low-ticket items like off-brand pharmaceuticals may equate to less competition, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a faster sales cycle. Like any modern sales role, you will still be required to build long-term relationships with your potential customers. You’ll need to create trust, establish yourself as a reliable source of information and become an asset to your prospects. 

Whichever field you choose, you’ll need to have a deep interest in what you’re selling. Remember, you’ll have to research your products thoroughly and explain how they work in detail to medical professionals. With complex products, such as those covered by biotechnology, that can mean a lot of work and possibly additional training. If you’re not personally interested in the specialization and passionate about what you’re selling, keeping up-to-date on the latest research and trends may end up feeling like a burden.

Developing the necessary skills

To be a successful sales rep, you’ll need a strong combination of both soft skills (your personal attributes and qualities that affect how you get on with others) and hard skills (specific abilities that will help you perform your job). The highest performing sales reps have a combination of both soft and hard skills in their wheelhouse, backed by the motivation to learn and consistently level up.

According to Zippia, the top medical and pharmaceutical sales representative skills are: 

  • Sales territory development. Reps have to be capable of managing local sales territories in order to build and nurture relationships and establish new business opportunities. 
  • Product knowledge. Your potential customers will have questions about your product and you’ll need to be able to answer thoroughly and with industry expertise. As new products are constantly being launched in the medical sales field, you’ll need to be able to understand and convey that knowledge succinctly.  
  • Strong relationships with hospital staff. Doctors and healthcare professionals are busy and don’t have tons of time to talk with sales reps, making your job even more challenging. By providing genuine value through training, education and assistance, you can build those essential relationships and be viewed as an asset rather than a nuisance. 
  • Setting sales goals. The best sales reps understand how to multitask and effectively manage their time. As many medical sales reps are consistently on the move, setting realistic sales goals will help you to stay on course and complete the sales activities necessary to move your prospects through your sales pipeline and close more deals. 

To complement these skills, you should also be a good communicator. You will be engaging with a wide variety of people, from receptionists to surgeons to board directors. You’ll have to be comfortable discussing potentially complex products and scenarios with many stakeholders.

Required experience and education

As there is tons of competition for medical sales roles, having relevant experience can help you stand out. 

This might mean taking on an internship with your local hospital, shadowing an active medical sales rep, or volunteering your time; anything that will demonstrate to future employers that you understand the complexities of the role. 

Where possible, look to your existing network to see if there’s anyone you already know that can get you an introduction, or who’d be willing to let you shadow them at work. View it as the first part of your job interview: if you can demonstrate that you’ve shown initiative to get relevant work experience, you can use that same initiative to get in front of decision-makers and make the sale.  

While experience in the healthcare industry will give you an advantage, sales experience and a great sales track record is even more important. Product-specific training will normally be given on the job, so recruiters like to see that you already know how to sell. 

The educational requirements vary between employers, but the good news is that you don’t have to go to medical school to qualify as a rep. In fact, medical and pharmaceutical sales reps are more likely to have majored in business than anything related to medicine. However, manufacturers of more complex and advanced products (such as those in the biotechnology field) will likely favor those with a medical or science-related qualification. 

When it comes to the level of education required, a high-school diploma may be all you need to get started selling the most basic products. However, many employees look for a bachelor’s degree, which is held by the majority of reps. If you want to sell anything more advanced, it’s likely to be a requirement. 

Remember, you’ll be dealing with highly qualified medical professionals on a regular basis, so it’s important you’re sufficiently knowledgeable to talk with confidence on medical subjects.

Transitioning in from another career

If you choose to transition to medical sales from another sales role it’s likely you’ll have to start in an entry-level position. Even if you have an impressive record of selling in a different industry, the medical sales role comes with its own unique challenges, as we’ve discussed throughout this article. 

It takes time to build up your required knowledge base without industry experience, so you’ll likely need to do some legwork and may not be able to laterally transition from a sales leader in one industry to a medical sales leader straight away.

Still, it’s not impossible. If you have your heart set on a career change and can prove your value and the ability to learn quickly on the job, it can be done.

Building your network 

Building a strong network is crucial in the medical sales field. Not only will you need to rely on a robust network to build social proof as you advance in the medical sales field, but you also need to prove to your employer that you’re capable of forming and maintaining lasting professional relationships. As lasting relationships with prospects is key in most sales roles in the medical industry, you must be able to develop a trusted network, both with other medical sales professionals as well as your prospects. 

Before you apply for your first medical sales job, you should be working to grow your network. As you’re getting the experience you need, make an effort to get to know the people you work with. Connect with sales reps and medical companies on LinkedIn and engage with their content to build authority in your space. Having a strong online presence will help you not only help to expand your network, but attract the attention of recruiters who are looking for new hires.

After you land a job in this sales field, keep growing your network throughout your career. You never know who in your network may make the introduction to your next big prospect, or move to another company and unlock new opportunities for you.

medical sales rep interview

Preparing for the interview

Having the right skills, experience and qualifications are important, but it’s not enough to guarantee you the job. Now you have to convince a hiring manager that you’ve got what it takes. 

The first step is making sure your sales resume is up to standard. It’s not just a matter of having the right information, but making sure that information is properly presented. If you want to convince someone you’re a reliable professional, you should make sure your resume is properly formatted, with no spelling mistakes or grammatical errors. 

Your resume isn’t the place to be humble; if you want to stand out from the competition, you need to give them a reason to hire you instead of them. What have you achieved in sales? What special knowledge and skills do you have that will benefit your new employer?

Once you get the interview, keep up the professional appearance. Always remember that this isn’t just about impressing your potential new boss. You may be thinking about getting the job, but they’re thinking about how you’ll look in front of potential customers. How do you present yourself? Do you look professional? Can you hold a conversation? 

Ebony Mattox, Sr. Recruiter at Avion Pharmaceuticals, pays special attention to confidence and communication skills during the interview. “I’m impressed by the candidate’s personality. Someone that doesn’t have “cookie-cutter” answers, but makes it conversational. If applicants can do that with me, they will have no problem in the field.”

How can sales managers hire the best candidates? 

Sales managers face a different challenge. How can they tell who will make a great medical sales rep during the hiring process?

With any sales role, it’s important to have a sales recruitment strategy in place. This includes knowing what qualities you’re looking for in a job seeker, particularly the soft skills that are so essential in medical sales. Remember, actions speak louder than words. Rather than simply asking questions and waiting for their answers, observe how they act during the interview. What are their most obvious communication skills? Are they confident and professional? Can they convey complex ideas in an easy to understand manner? 

There are also a number of other criteria to consider when assessing a potential candidate. What experience have they had? What qualifications do they have? Keep your expectations realistic: while it would be great to find a candidate with years of experience in medical sales and a Ph.D. in biology, you’re unlikely to find many people like that applying for your rep position. Instead, focus on their relevant skills.

It’s in everyone’s best interest to clearly explain the job requirements. As we know, medical sales can be a challenging career. Be transparent about the work involved. Ask them how they would intend to keep up-to-date with the latest advances in medical tech. Find out whether they are sufficiently self-motivated to carry out their own research, rather than relying on others to do the work for them. 

If you’re still struggling to find the right candidate profile, take a look at your current top performers. What do they have in common? By looking for more candidates that are like those who are already thriving in the role, it’s more likely your new hires will be a good fit for your company. 

Final thoughts

A career in medical or pharmaceutical sales is a popular choice and it’s easy to see why. You have the opportunity to make a genuine difference in people’s lives, while still having the potential to earn a substantial amount of money. 

By choosing a specialization that matches your skills and interests, then building the necessary experience to stand out to employers, you can set yourself up for a long and rewarding career in medical sales.

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