Pharmaceutical sales is a fast-paced, high-turnover business that rewards assertiveness, persistence, and knowledge. Pharmaceutical sales representatives spend most of their business time on the road, talking with pharmacists, hospital personnel, physicians, patient advocacy groups, and even retirement homes, increasing the visibility of their company’s products and the volume of their sales. “Sell sell sell learn learn learn sell sell sell,” wrote one sales rep, who included his business card with his survey, in case we wanted to purchase any pharmaceutical supplies. Many other sales reps agreed that the best reps follow any lead, making every possible effort to sell their product. A number attend meetings where contact with purchasing professionals is rich, such as an association of pharmacists or a convention of hospital administrators.
This territory-oriented business can be a hard life, particularly for those trying to maintain their family life as well. The need to sell extends to social functions and free time, and the already precious family moments can erode further to the point where many reps are forced to reevaluate their commitment to their profession. This difficult balancing act is complicated by the additional pressure of being in a commission-based occupation. For many, a significant portion of their income is riding on their ability to get the product into the hands of the consumer. So, why is this job so addictive? Perhaps because the excessive profit margins of many brand-name pharmaceutical products can mean enormous commissions. In addition, products are generally consumed fairly quickly and not stored, so old markets rarely disappear; they need regular servicing.
The second most attractive job feature that the sales reps mentioned was the intellectual challenge the job imposed. Education is the norm in this field; learning about a company’s product line is like taking an advanced course in pharmacology (which many do take during their initial years in the industry). They have to be familiar with data, statistics, and issues in the health community to be able to communicate successfully with businesspeople and doctors. Although this job has some aspects that are unquestionably grueling-one sales rep said he put in 184 days on the road in 1994-many love it, and “love” is the only term that accurately describes their zeal, dedication, and willingness to make sacrifices for their job.
Pharmaceutical sales representatives with a science background have an advantage in this profession, in terms of both their credibility and their ability to educate themselves about product lines. A college degree is standard for this job, with many employers looking favorably on graduate work. Useful courses include biology, chemistry, biochemistry, biophysics, organic chemistry, English, public speaking, finance, and negotiation techniques. Professional education is the norm for all sales representatives, both on their own products and on other companies’ product lines. The ability to read a scientific study and examine its assumptions is critical to a PSR’s success. Licensing is available through professional organizations, but it is not required to advance to managerial positions.
Pharmaceutical sales representatives go into sales positions in other professions-as systems marketers or service sales representatives, for example-where their selling skills are valued, but where scientific knowledge is less important. Some PSRs are willing to give up the scientific element of their job in order to go into a profession where it is easier to advance and easier to maintain a satisfying family life.