For Immediate Release

How do pharmaceutical companies choose sales representatives?
By MedZilla Staff Writer

Marysville, WA - September 17, 2004--If you are in the market for a job and have heard that pharmaceutical sales is a lucrative field, there are a few things you should know before completing that first online application or sending your resume.

“Pharmaceutical sales is a tough, but not impossible, area to break into. What you need to know is that there are different categories of sales reps in the pharmaceutical arena, and each category tends to carry different requirements,” says Frank Heasley, PhD, president and CEO of, ( a leading Internet recruitment and professional community that serves biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, healthcare and science. “Even without prior pharmaceutical sales experience, you can get your feet in pharma company doors, but you have to know what hiring managers are looking for.”

An inside perspective

John McCabe, senior director, Ventiv Recruitment Services, has a broad view of what major pharmaceutical companies look for when hiring their sales forces. Ventiv filled some 1,500 pharmaceutical sales positions last year and have filled about 1,000 such jobs so far this year.

According to McCabe, there are three general categories of reps in pharmaceutical sales: primary sales or mass-market representatives; specialty pharmaceutical sales reps; and hospital or institutional reps.

Entry level? Look for the primary sales position

Pharmaceutical sales positions, called primary care or mass-market representatives, typically include those entry-level positions where hiring managers are willing to look at recent graduates or people without a lot of previous sales experience.

These types of sales reps, according to McCabe, usually call on primary care physicians, such as family practitioners, promoting mass-market products. These products include first-line allergy, hypertension and other medications that these gatekeepers would commonly prescribe.

Experience needed: Specialty representatives

The next tier of pharmaceutical sales representative is the specialty representative, who specializes in a therapeutic area. One such representative might sell a women’s pharmaceutical product geared for OB-Gyn prescribing, according to McCabe.

Usually, you are promoted from within the company to become a specialty sales representative. “So, generally the mass market or primary care sales representative is promoted into a specialty sales team,” he says.

However, if a pharmaceutical employer is launching a new sales team, obviously it cannot promote their whole primary care sales team. In this scenario, the company might go outside the traditional thinking and look for others who are have related experience. If, for example, you have been selling a product that lowers cholesterol to the primary care market, a company looking for a specialty sales rep in cardiology might be interested in hiring you.

A general expectation among hiring managers who are looking for specialty pharmaceutical sales representatives is that job candidates bring a “brag book” to the interview, McCabe says. That book includes information about any products you’ve sold, sales reports that show you were a leader in your district or sales region, and more to depict your sales success.

A tier somewhere in between: Institutional or hospital reps

Institutional or hospital representatives call university and other medical centers.

“They might sell the higher levels products that usually get sold to hospitals directly, like IV drugs, emergency medicine drugs, some of the HIV drugs,” McCabe says. “We have specialists calling on oncologists in their offices, but if a specialist is selling radioactive materials for chemotherapy, then that person is usually calling on an institution or a hospital.”

Employers look for sales experience in this category of sales representative—often specialty experience. If you’ve made calls on hospitals before, that will also look good on your resume.

“Usually at the hospital level, [employers look for someone who knows decision-makers at those institutions,” McCabe says.

Thinking like the employers think

Ventiv works with more than 36 pharmaceutical companies. According to McCabe, while each company has its own hiring profiles, generally speaking, they look for a blend of experience when hiring their sales forces.

“When we’re helping build sales forces for those clients, the mix is usually something along the lines (and, again, this is generalized) of 30% to 40% of the sales force will have health care-related sales experience,” he says.

By health-care related experience, McCabe means that you might have been selling pharmaceutical products, in the biotech arena, medical devices or consumer goods that are promoted in doctors’ offices, such as over-the-counter antacids. In a broad sense, you would have experience selling to or calling on doctors, he says.

Another 30% to 40% of sales reps in a typical pharmaceutical company sales force are outside sales, or business-to-business sales candidates. Those are the people working for copier and other companies, which are not necessarily tied to health care.

“They have outside sales experience where they’re calling on accounts; they have sales territories; they drive to their appointments; they’re trying to build business for an organization; but they’re not in pharmaceutical or health care sales,” McCabe says. “The last tier, which is 10% to 30%, will have no sales experience. Those are recent college graduates; sometimes teachers; sometimes nurses and others with no sales experience.

“That’s the typical distribution in most clients we see.”

What are the odds?

For someone who has no or little sales experience coming into the industry, their only real chance is to get into those primary care-mass market areas, McCabe says. “For someone who has been in the industry and is looking for a step up, then they’re usually qualified for the specialty or hospital sales type positions.”

If you have no sales experience, there are certain standout traits that call the attention of hiring managers and recruiters, according to McCabe.

Your first step will be to get through the resume screening. In that phase of hiring, employers and recruiters typically look at education and work history.

All pharmaceutical employers look for at least a four-year college degree for entry-level positions, McCabe says. The other important element is a consistent work history.

If you have a resume where with either work history gaps or multiple employers, make sure to explain those snafus in your cover letter or resume, he says. “If there’s a legitimate explanation, it’s usually not an issue.”

The next level of scrutiny is having some sales experience.

“Most companies have found that people who are successful selling other products can be successful selling pharmaceutical products,” McCabe says.

The truth is that from 70% to 90% of the pharmaceutical sales force of any given company will have sales experience upon hiring, he says. “Then, [employers will take a chance on some recent grads who have a 4.0 GPA and maybe they worked their way through school or held offices at school or were leaders on sports teams. They’ll usually take a chance on a small percentage … of people with a nursing background who know doctors in the area.”

The bottom line

If you ask any manager what they’re trying to hire, the answer is-- they’re trying to hire their next number one sales rep, McCabe says. “So, most of them will make the assumption that the only way that they’re going to be the number one sales rep in a short period of time is if they know how to sell.”

Still, according to , Medzilla’s director of marketing, there is hope for those with no sales experience but who know the roles. “We’ve seen people with no direct sales experience land jobs as pharmaceutical sales representatives,” she says. “Nurses and others in health care have the benefit of their knowledge; teachers know how to educate. What those people have to do is highlight those aspects of their careers in which they’ve worked to ‘sell’ people on ideas or motivate people. They then have to come across with key sales characteristics in the interview.”

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