Working as a pharmaceutical salesperson

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Sales is a career that often requires competitive drive, a silver tongue and elephant-thick skin to handle rejection. Pharmaceutical sales demands these qualities in spades. The occupation is known for having some of the most persistent (and highly paid) salespeople in any industry. These days, their sales skills are more important than ever given a grim employment outlook, tighter regulations and doctors who are less willing to listen to drug-sales pitches.

What they do:

Pharmaceutical salespeople spend much of their time on the road, arranging face-to-face meetings with physicians and other health care professionals. Their job is to tout the virtues of a wide array of drugs on behalf of manufacturers. As part of the process, salespeople often provide drug samples, a practice known as "detailing."

The standard industry practice is to pay salespeople based on the number of prescriptions written for the drugs they sell. However, there are exceptions: British drug-maker GlaxoSmithKline recently announced that it will now pay its U.S. sales reps based on several other factors, including overall business-unit performance and customer ratings.

The persistence (some might say aggressiveness) of pharmaceutical salespeople has been a contentious issue, with some politicians urging restraint in the amount of influence drug companies and their sales reps have over doctors.

In one recent example, the state of Vermont filed a lawsuit aiming to curb the aggressiveness of pharmaceutical salespeople by blocking their access to the history of prescriptions written by individual doctors. But the Supreme Court disagreed, finding in favor of the defendant, IMS Health, Inc., the research firm that mined the prescription data.

What they need:

It goes without saying that salespeople in this competitive industry need powers of persuasion. They also must clearly and accurately explain the drugs they're selling. A college degree is generally considered a minimum requirement, with some employers preferring an advanced degree. A background in biology, chemistry or another scientific subject is often helpful.

What they earn:

Selling pharmaceuticals is a lucrative business: the national average salary is $96,292, according to And those at the upper end of the pay range earn significantly more. The 75th percentile clocked in at $195,286, while the 25th percentile was still a respectable $69,122.

Job outlook:

The pharmaceutical industry overall is in good shape, with U.S. spending on medicines reaching 307.4 billion in 2010, according to research firm IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. However, the company points out that growth has been somewhat slower recently due to a mix of factors including the rise of generics and reduced demand in a down economy.

Drug sales are projected to soar in emerging markets like China. But the picture is less rosy for America's pharmaceutical sales force, which has been shrinking due to tighter government regulations, increased use of the Internet by consumers and a growing unwillingness on the part of doctors to meet with them. ZS Associates, a marketing consulting firm, reported last year that just 58 percent of physicians agreed to meet with 70 percent of the salespeople who visited, down 18 percent from the year before.

This translates into a slightly underwhelming employment picture for pharmaceutical salespeople: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects a 5.4 percent decline in employment between 2008 and 2018.


Last Updated: 17/04/2012 - 5:59 PM

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