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My Medical Device Sales Career

Ask Linda: How to Break Into Pharmaceutical Sales

Hi Linda,

I saw your article on I wanted to pick your brain because I am not sure how to get into the pharmaceutical industry. I have managed plastic surgery offices for the last six years, and have always worked in healthcare. I'm currently getting my MBA while overseeing a facility worth $3M in Manhattan. My MBA is in executive management, but I always have a state medical board license from Ohio in massage therapy (so I know quite a bit of anatomy and physiology). Lastly, I am in charge of sales as well where I work and have increased sales dramatically over the last few years. Can you give me pointers on how to get into the pharmaceutical industry? I would really appreciate it!





Hello Erika,

Sometimes people outside the medical industry lump any type of medical sales as "pharmaceutical" sales.  So I want to make sure that indeed you want pharmaceutical sales.  Forgive me if you already know the difference between pharmaceutical sales and medical sales (i.e. device, disposable), but I like to start with the basics just to make sure you are targeting the type of sales you want to do.  I understand that with your background of managing plastic surgery offices you may be aware of the difference. 

Pharmaceutical sales is usually "detailing" to a doctor a pharmaceutical sales product that needs a prescription. So in other words, you are selling him on the drug and the advantages of using that drug for a certain application (as well as contraindications), and comparisons to other drug alternatives (competitive drugs, generics or etc.).  In some cases, you may be introducing a new drug therapy altogether with no competitive equivalent (rare, but does happen).  That is the activity known as drug detailing, you are detailing the pharmaceutical indications and hoping the doctor will remember and prescribe YOUR drug to his next patient when you walk out of the office.  No sales until he prescribes it.  You wait for sales reports and wait and see if you made a sale from your detailing efforts.  You are trying to gain a verbal commitment that he will prescribe a product.  

Selling a medical device product or similar is about selling a product that is used by the physician or his staff during a procedure with a patient and does not require a prescription.  This can be as sophisticated as selling the doctor a cardiac device bought by a hospital or clinic for his use in surgery or as simple as selling tongue suppressors to him in his office.  It is a product that you need to ask for a PO (purchase order); a price, a quantity and terms of purchase.  No hoping for him to write a prescription, you leave the hospital or his office with a written order.

So, if you still want to get into pharmaceutical sales understanding the difference between detailing a pharmaceutical vs. selling a medical product then this is what I suggest.  Your massage therapy background or running plastic surgery offices is usually not a valued background to have to transition into pharmaceutical sales or medical sales for that matter.  

This is what pharmaceutical companies' value in background training:

  • Outside sales position with a large company (business to business ADP, Paychex or etc.)
  • Formal sales training a large company provides
  • Someone who has stayed in that company for 3 years with top sales performance and no more than 5 years (don't get entrenched too long in B2B sales if you want to transition to pharma).
  • A physical positive presence, looking the part with a positive "can do attitude" that attracts people to them.  I call it the Fortune 500 look of success, with a dash of humbleness and approach-ability. 

Erika, you may be thinking at this point, "Oh great, I already have 6 years invested managing surgery offices, plus an undergrad degree and earning my MBA.  I don't want to start over."  If that is your thought, I understand.  So try to work from the springboard you are standing upon currently and see if you can work your way into the pharmaceutical industry from a different angle.  

Here are a couple of ideas for you to try (since you are in healthcare now):

  • Discreetly get a list of the pharmaceutical and I suggest also medical device reps. that are selling into your plastic surgery offices and approach them with your interest of doing what they are doing.  Ask them their background and how they broke into the business.
  • Ask who their sales manager is and if they could set up a call between the two of you.  Sometimes the manager is with them on a call; perfect!  Go up and introduce yourself and make sure they know of your interest and how they could advise you.
  • See if one of them (someone who bills a lot with your company) would allow you to shadow them for a day or part of a day as they make their sales calls to help you understand the business.
  • If you have a key decision maker doctor who you can trust and would support your efforts to expand beyond the confines of managing their business, see if he or she can leverage their vendor relationships to get you an interview with one of the companies they do business.  
  • Find out from your reps. if there are local, regional or national medical vendor fairs that are upcoming where they can get you a courtesy vendor pass from their company so you can walk the trade floor and solicit the companies present with resume and business card in hand.
  • Lastly, see if your MBA program has an affiliation with any of the medical companies for summer internships or entry level positions into their firms.  I understand that this may be difficult, since many are without pay or a stipend, but worth a look.
  • Go to Linkedin and see if someone from your MBA program or undergrad program is working in pharmaceutical sales and approach them as to how they did it and see if there are opportunities within their company; even if it is an inside position that could lead to an outside sales position.
  • Keep an eye out for local career trade shows, many pharmaceutical sales companies use these to find candidates and your MBA program may have a list of these trade shows as well.  Also, see if any of the pharma companies are listed as participants at your college's career center.

I am sure there are more ways to go about breaking into the pharmaceutical industry and remember, it only takes one contact that could get you where you want to go.  Hang in there and keep shaking hands and reaching out utilizing some, if not all the approaches above until you find that one person.  After all, that is what sales is about, banging on a lot of doors to get someone to buy or recommend your product. In this case, the product is you!  Good luck to you and stay in touch Erika, I would like to know what approach worked for you. You can do it!

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Tags: Ask Linda, B2B Sales, Break Into Pharmaceutical Sales


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Started by Devin Hanson in Ask Linda Jun 14, 2020. 0 Replies


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