Beyond sales

May 1, 2002
Pamela J. Holland

Pamela J. Holland, chief operating officer of Brody Communications Ltd., comes from a background of extensive sales, marketing and human resources involvement at one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. She serves on the board of directors for two Philadelphia-area educational institutions, is a co-author of the award-winning book “Help! Was That a Career Limiting Move?” and has appeared on several Philadelphia-area TV programs. Her expert commentary has been cited by a variety of print and online media, including The Chicago Tribune and Pam can be reached by phone at (800) 726-7936, or by e-mail at

Pharmaceutical Representative

The only way is up ... or is it?

When I became a pharmaceutical rep in the early 1980s, I was 25 years old and thrilled to be working for a well-respected company.

I was excited that I could brag, "I have a company car." I also looked forward to the financial rewards that come with success in sales.

Unlike many today, I stumbled on the opportunity to work in pharmaceuticals after reading an ad in a local paper. Individuals I have counseled since have told me that their career move to pharmaceuticals was far more calculated, and went well beyond being "a detail person" - they strategically chose to become a rep as a stepping stone to something more.

Grow in your rep role

I still remember the trainer assigned to me during my first week in the field. She had ridden with me for two and a half days, and we were having lunch when she asked, "So where would you like to go next in the company?" I was totally surprised by her question. How could she be asking me to think about anything beyond surviving my six details per day? (Yes, back in the '80s, our call goal was six, and it still seemed challenging!) The thought truly never occurred to me at the time to consider my career ladder in the company. My response was simple and heartfelt: "Oh, I just want to be the very best rep I can be!"

Whether you became a pharmaceutical rep out of serendipity, or from carefully thought-out career-planning, my advice to you for increased opportunities and growth is very much like my answer to my trainer 18 years ago: first and foremost, be the very best rep you can be.

When you demonstrate to your district manager and your fellow reps that you are knowledgeable, dedicated, creative and successful (your sales numbers and market share do count!), you've taken the first important step toward getting the recognition you need for increased opportunities.

Make a name for yourself

Next, you want to develop advocates. Your district manager is a great starting place. Offer to take on special assignments at regularly scheduled sales meetings. Not only will you put yourself in a leadership role in your district; you will increase your exposure to guests from headquarters.

If you've been innovative in your territory, found a way to work very effectively with counterparts, solved a common challenge or created something that might be considered a "best practice," don't keep it to yourself. Letting others know what you've done isn't bragging; it's sharing the wealth.

Once you have successfully proven that you are a top performer, a team player and someone who can be counted on to go the extra mile, career options will start to increase. Consider what aspects of the pharmaceutical world appeal to you most.

Look beyond the salesperson role

Many salespeople (and I once was one of them) think only in terms of vertical growth. What I mean by that is growth from being promoted within the sales department. This type of growth typically comes from promotion to a training position in-house, or from taking on a regional staff position, which then sets you up for the coveted DM role.

Unfortunately, many sales reps, and sometimes the companies they work for, limit their options for growth with a "silo" mentality, and this shortchanges the company and the employee. The importance of considering what a sales rep might offer in other areas of the company should not be overlooked or underestimated.

Many pharma organizations consider "in-building rotations" a central part of rep advancement. These temporary assignments expose individuals to departments such as marketing, sales support, finance and new product development.

The benefits are tremendous. In cases where the rep returns to the field, he or she re-enters a territory with a newfound appreciation and understanding of processes and decisions made at headquarters. In other cases, rotations may lead to new permanent job offers and require a move "inside."

To move or not to move

What do you do if you are offered a lateral move? On the surface, it may seem like a bad deal. You may find yourself resistant because the short-term payoff appears nonexistent. The risks involved with relocating, leaving the security of sales and trying something new may seem overwhelming. This is especially true if there's no great or immediate financial reward or prestigious title to go along with it.

However, if you bring the same talent and commitment to your new responsibilities as you did to your last, these lateral moves may be the first step in a path of "zigzag" advancement and rewards beyond what you ever considered possible.

Employees who trust in their abilities and their senior management know how valuable it can be to take advantage of increased exposure and to make contributions to the company beyond their sales orientation.

Once a salesperson, always a salesperson

There's an old expression: "People do best what they love doing most." If you are someone who truly loves sales, and only sales, that may be fine for you. The only potential downside is that your options may be limited. However, with patience and a commitment to excellence, your career aspirations can still be realized.

First, there is absolutely nothing wrong with dedicating yourself to an ongoing career as a representative. Many organizations have developed career ladders within that role. Rewards for outstanding performance may come in the form of recognition and promotion to "senior representative" or "executive representative" status. In some companies, responsibility as a hospital, specialty or managed-care rep is assigned to those individuals who are identified as the strongest in their district or region.

Finally, if you only have eyes for advancement in sales, hold true to that. Show that you can produce in tough times as well as easy times, be a leader among your peers, respect your management, actively seek feedback, get training to enhance your skills and make it clear to those you report to what your goals are.

You also may need to be a bit more patient. The competition is incredibly fierce – but then again, to your credit, you've succeeded before in times when you were competing to get into this industry in the first place!

Above all else, remember these four things: Be true to yourself, make excellence a personal core value, stay open to possibilities and enjoy the ride! PR

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