What do you associate with “sales”? Bell ringing? Being interrupted from an important experiment by a sales rep who wants to present the newest type of eppi or petri dish to you when you just have no time at all?
In my view, sales has quite some negative connotations and if you ask a soon-to-graduate PhD “What do you want to do as your first job?”, even if he or she wants to leave academia, going towards sales does not really seem to be among the most favourite options. And in fact, only 3 % of natural scientists in Germany directly work in sales (Statistics by “Bundesagentur für Arbeit”). What are the reasons for the scepticism? And why could choosing this path be much more interesting and versatile than you might think? This is a biased report on different routes in sales from somebody who really likes his profession.
What do others think about sales?
First of all, I have to say that the abovementioned scepticism might be my subjective impression. Here is one example: I talked to a friend about this topic recently and she said that she associates sales with unsolicited phone calls, and since she really dislikes talking on the phone, she could never imagine such a job. She also said that she could rather imagine working in tech support because in this case the people call her and actually request her help and advice. For sales, she thinks, it is the other way round: The sales person wants to persuade the client into buying something he or she does not really need. So, your counterpart might actually be ungracious and you need to be thick-skinned for a job in sales. But is it really that black and white?
Let’s investigate the possibilities, also taking into consideration that sales-associated positions, like pharmaceutical representative, are often suitable entry-level job positions.
Jobs differ significantly whether you work in inside sales or in the field, if you are responsible for consumables or large specialised equipment such as fluorescence microscopes or mass spectrometers. Quite a substantial amount of jobs can be found for pharmaceutical representatives, which is again quite different and opens the field to medical science liaison management.
How does my job look like?
So maybe I should start by telling you what I actually do since, as described above, sales-related jobs span quite a large sector.
I work as an application scientist in the sales team of a mid-sized biotech company which is specialized in instrumentation for macromolecular characterization. This means that I am at the interface of science and sales. I am not a regional account manager responsible for the turnover within a certain region and I do not negotiate offers. I support sales projects scientifically by discussing the application and technical aspects, I perform test measurements in our lab and I also visit customers to perform measurements there, discuss results or present our technology and applications. From time to time, I also attend conferences or trade shows to give presentations there and keep in touch with our customers and prospects. Further, I train customers on how to use our equipment.
Why I enjoy what I do
I have to admit that I was also prejudiced when I saw the job offer “Application Scientist Sales” and wanted to figure out what the sales part meant and if that was the right fit. For me, the key part really is that the company I work for produces highly sophisticated equipment for biophysical characterisation of biomolecules and polymers. No-one can just take such a machine, browse through five pages of manual and operate the machine understanding what he or she is doing. It is very specialised equipment which needs a lot of application discussion to figure out the right setup and experimental conditions. This actually results in a situation quite different from described above. By no means am I going to people who are annoyed by my presence, on the contrary: I only visit customers with a high interest in spending some 30,000-400,000 euros to solve an analytical problem. This means that people listen very carefully and I have intense and detailed discussions about samples and applications. And in contrast to support, my counterparts are not facing problems with the equipment (maybe due to an annoying software bug which is giving you a hard time), so they are generally in a positive and expecting mood. My main task is to exactly understand the key points which are important for a specific project and focus on meeting the customer’s needs. Therefore, I actually have to use precisely the skills which I learnt during my PhD: analytical thinking and structuring a project. Additionally, understanding people personally is key. I have to figure out a person’s mindset and what is decisive in this particular situation.
As an application scientist, combining my scientific and technical expertise with communication skills, working closely together with many different people is what I like most about my job, besides the regular travelling (see the blog article: Are you ready for business travel?).
When I talked to a friend, who is a regional account manager, about this topic he replied: “People sometimes see me as evil. I am sort of the bad guy who in the end wants to get money from them.” But in his opinion, “University Professors have to sell even more: their ideas to get funding for the next project.” And I have to say, I agree with him. Who does not know the situation when a paper is desperately needed to secure the next round of funding? And the resulting pressure on good results can be quite painful. So, selling – be it a product, a vision or a research proposal – is indeed much more common than you might think.
I also want to bring up one more thought: If you assume that the research department in a company is much closer to “pure” science and the field sales reps are just doing the unbeloved work, consider that private research is only possible if the company produces products or services which are actually being sold and provide revenue. Thus, one key part enabling research and development – be it in big pharma companies or a biotech company – is the fact the products are finally sold and keep the company running. The best idea cannot run a private company, if it is not communicated to prospective customers.
Why and when you should consider sales for yourself?
I hope I could illustrate why I really like my job as an application scientist in the sales team. For others, the reasons to move into the sales direction might be different. In case you are responsible for a less technically advanced product, the challenges might rather be in presenting key features and differences to a similar product in very limited time and catch the interest for a product, which might seem rather boring at first.
What unites all successful sales staff in my opinion is that you are open-minded, flexible and enjoy working with people. If you are introverted, prefer working by yourself and do not really like to present or discuss ideas with others, sales might not be the right choice for you.
I tried to open your eyes to why sales can offer a very fulfilling and exciting career path. Starting in sales is beneficial since you get to know the products and understand the customer’s requirements directly. It can also be a fantastic first step into industry. It opens the route to product management and marketing which allows you to combine your direct customer experience and product knowledge. And starting from a field representative, you can develop to a key account manager to envision new sales strategies and responsibility for a revenue of millions of euros (for sure, not an entry position anymore). If you want to learn more about the diverse options in sales, also visit this informative Jobvector page (in German) and the links at the end of the article.
To end this article on a positive note, as you should do in sales: I am happy for your comments and questions, let’s keep in touch!
Author: Christian Sieg
- Overview presentation on alternatives to academic jobs: https://www.sciencemag.org/sites/default/files/business_documents/careers-away-from-the-bench.pdf
- Entertaining article dealing with different job choices after a science degree: http://thegradstudentway.com/blog/?p=2153
- Working as a sales rep: https://www.the-scientist.com/pulse-oximeter/going-from-science-to-sales-46763