By Beecher Tuttle
A man jumps off a bridge, expecting to hit water, but lands well short, striking a concrete embankment and shattering every bone from his pelvis to his heels. Clinging to life, the man is rushed to the hospital and swept into the operating room for immediate orthopedic surgery. Waiting for his arrival is a surgeon, a host of physician assistants, a surgical technologist and a salesperson. Yes, that's right, a salesperson.
As medical technology becomes more complex, the people selling medical devices -- disposable and implantable devices like screws, bolts and artificial hips or knees -- have become more critical to care. Sales reps for companies such as Arthrex, GE Healthcare, ConMed, and Smith & Nephew often work hand-in-hand with surgeons and hospitals to recommend the best use of their devices and see that surgeries go off without a hitch.
Training to become a medical device rep may not be as intense as medical school, but it's probably among the most comprehensive of any sales job. Fortunately, the economic benefits often match the high level of responsibility needed to succeed. Average total compensation for a rep can exceed $150,000, according to a recent survey from MedReps.com.
Working With Physicians
Medical device sales can be broken down into two main roles: selling to hospitals and selling directly to surgeons. In the latter role, reps sell pricey capital equipment as well as disposable and implantable devices.
In a typical surgery, reps will study the results of an x-ray alongside a surgeon and help recommend a course of action, says one orthopedic rep. They will then "scrub up" -- adorning full surgical gear sans gloves -- and answer any questions that may arise, ranging from inquiries on device calibration to advice on procedures.
While they never touch a patient, reps normally stand just a few feet from the surgeon, seeing most everything that they see, from torn-up shoulders to shattered legs.
Needless to say, the job isn't meant for those with a weak stomach, says Erik Grzan, sales manager at Gotham Surgical, one of the distributors serving med device manufacturer Arthrex. It's also not for those with problems absorbing knowledge. Arthrex sells roughly 6,000 products, each used for a specific pathology.
The med device salesperson's day starts early, with scheduled surgeries getting underway as soon as 7 a.m. Sales reps who specialize in trauma cases will often be on-call 24 hours a day, says Jerry Goodman, vice president of sales, orthopedics at medical equipment maker Smith & Nephew.
Nights are often spent preparing for the next day's surgeries. "Medical device reps don't count their hours," says Goodman.
Medical device sales is a hybrid position of sorts. Required are the attributes needed to succeed at any other sales job: aggression, confidence and strong people skills. The med device sales rep must also have the intelligence and training to deal regularly with physicians, who themselves are highly educated. Reps must have a strong understanding of human anatomy; they're routinely tested on their product line.
At Gotham Surgical, sales reps attend seminars where they are given hands-on training on procedures that involve their product line. They will then help surgeons learn the ropes using cadavers in their wet labs.
GE Healthcare operates a 24-month Experienced Commercial Leadership Program (ECLP) that trains recent college graduates on product specifications, sales operations and even the soft skills needed to succeed in the medical device industry, says Jay Moore, general manager for commercial learning for the U.S. and Canada at GE Healthcare and head of the ECLP program.
The final eight months of the program are spent in the field -- and in the operating room -- with a mentor, earning base salary while learning the ropes. The 90% of participants who graduate from the program are offered full time sales positions with GE Healthcare, say Moore.
"Medical device companies are known for their fantastic product training," said Mark Cannistraro, president of Apex Executive Recruiting Inc., a California-based recruiting firm that specializes in health care. It regularly takes six months to develop a reasonable knowledge base to sell and 18 months until sales reps become fluent, says Lisa McCallister, a sales and marketing recruiter at ConMed, a New York-based medical technology company.
Although a healthy living can be made in year one, it can take a lengthy period of time for a sales rep to near their earnings ceiling. Base salaries tend to be lower than other sales positions, ranging from $30,000 to $50,000 depending on the experience level, but total annual compensation can top out at $300,000 for the best reps, said Steven Raz, co-founder and managing partner of Cornerstone Search Group, a New Jersey-based pharmaceutical and biotechnology executive search firm.
Due to the consultative nature of the position, most medical device companies and distributors only consider candidates with college degrees, unless they have a proven track record in the field.
But perhaps most importantly, companies are looking for candidates with a strong business-to-business sales background, no matter what the industry. "We are looking for people who have done cold calling, particularly on a shorter sales cycle," said McCallister. "People who have performed well against their peers and increased the growth percentage in their territory."
Candidates should be willing to provide so-called "brag books," which document their sales numbers, performance reviews and the awards they have won, McCallister said.
Sales reps also need to be able to understand the market dynamics of the ever-evolving health-care system, said Goodman. "Candidates need to be technically proficient on the clinical level, but also versatile enough to deal with hospital administrators and economic buyers. Med device requires a well-rounded salesperson."
In terms of soft skills, prospective salespeople must be competitive but also outwardly calming in situations that often become intense, said Goodman.
A stable work history is also crucial, says McCallister, proving a willingness to stick with a lengthy training program. However, people with more than seven years of sales experience in a different industry tend to transition poorly to the industry, both because of their generally high base salary demands and the wide learning curve of the med device sales profession.
The medical device industry is in a transitional period. The business exited the 2009 recession with strong momentum but growth has slowed in the last year, due mostly to the 2.3% excise tax on medical device companies included in the Affordable Care Act -- a measure that was recently upheld by the Supreme Court. Product approvals have also slowed and insurance companies are paying less for procedures, Grzan said.
But with 30 million customers soon to enter the health-care economy through the individual insurance mandate, companies like GE Healthcare, ConMed, Smith & Nephew and Gotham Surgical are still on the look for promising young sales folks who aren't afraid of a little blood and gore.
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