Thursday, August 18, 2011

Alternative careers in chemistry: sales and marketing

This week's chapter in "Nontraditional Careers in Chemistry"* is on sales and marketing people. It's a fairly interesting set of profiles in this one, including an Aldrich technical sales representative, a managing director for a scientific equipment firm and an executive director for Accelrys. An interesting quote from the chapter on the demographics of sales types:
Many chemical manufacturing companies hire as many BS chemist for sales positions as they do for laboratory positions (about 60% of all chemical-sales people have a degree in chemistry), and for someone of them the first time they consider sales as a career is when the position is offered to them. An advanced degree is often an advantage, especially for more complex products, as it provides instant credibility with potential customers.
What might you be doing as a scientific salesperson? Try this on for size:
According to Ted, "A typical sales call goes like this: Meet the customer. Small talk. Discuss current and previous projects. Update database if any information has changes, especially new hires and changes to personnel. Ask what is the company doing. What projects are being worked on, and what problems are they having? Is there something we have that may solve their problem? Can we talk to the engineer who is designing the project and get him to specify our equipment in the plans? That means that when it come time for the contractor to actually bid the job, he has to buy our products. These days most engineers are reluctant to specify one vendor exclusively, but it is always good to make sure you are at least on the list of possibilities." 
 As a dedicated introvert, I have no interest in meeting new people and asking if they might be willing to do business. But my thoughts have always been: more power to them -- if the sales people at my company eat well, I eat well.

*As always, CJ's copy of the book helpfully provided by the author, Dr. Lisa Balbes.


  1. As someone who is quite extroverted, and chose a remarkable profession surrounded by introverts. I guess, my pride still feels that "networking" is not work. It's show boating. To put on a nice suit and wander around smiling, shaking hands, and being pleasant to business with, sounds more like recreation to me. Going out and meeting people is my personal reward for doing "real work" and to get paid for showing up and being my sunny self, just ... doesn't seem right. If I wanted to get paid for my charming personality and swagger, I would have gone to wall street. My blue collar roots has a hard time wrapping my head around the notion of getting paid to be personable.

    But I guess that's the world we live in.

    1. If that was your experience with a chemical salesperson then they probably weren't degreed or trained properly in true technical selling. I have worked as a process engineer and technical sales with a degree in chemical engineering. While in sales, I behaved and acted as if I were still in process engineering. The only difference being that I was a process engineer at many different companies. I enjoy helping my customers get more from their supplier in terms of value. They may have an extensive knowledge of their process yet do not know the extent to which they can optimize their chemicals to achieve greater productivity, quality, efficiency, environmental and occupational safety, etc.

  2. I don't dismiss the notion that we need sales people, just the idea that that is an actual job, just feels strange to me.

  3. Sounds like you have a long-term career change to consider, Anon.

  4. Although certainly an advantage I am not sure just being personable translates automatically to good salesperson. For technical type products or services you want and need people who can both comprehend their products and be able to speak and connect to likely customers and tolerate a few negatives (life on the road, difficulties for family life, lots of rejection/failure [well maybe bench work already good experience for that]). To my knowledge often such sales staff do get higher salary with definitely more perks (company cars, best lap tops, premium travel, expense accounts/high end restaurants) and more open career ladder than equivalent lab workers so can foster distrust/jealousy towards the scientist turned product detailers.

  5. I moved from a bench/mid management position into sales, then into a field based marketing (think demonstrations, running pilots etc) position. Or, more accurately, I got removed from a bench position and found salvation from long term unemployment in the latter.

    But I do actually love it. The travel sucks, the money isn't as good as you may feel. But, the results are a little less capricious - it really does feel like hard work translates to success. And being closer to the bottom line is different but pleasant - makes people a lot more focused. Finally, much as I loved chemistry, some chemists do really need to learn how to work with other people sometimes, we aren't the most social of animals sometimes.

    Sales is all about being a good listener, partly about having good credibility, and totally about the accounts they give you. Marketing is about credibility and domain knowledge. I wouldn't dissuade anyone from either, you may be surprised at how well you do.

  6. "just the idea that that is an actual job, just feels strange to me"


    Not only is it a job (one I do not have the skills to do), but it's the most important job in any company. Best drug in the world needs someone to sell it, otherwise chemists are wasting their time.

  7. "most important job in any company" is the over inflated attitude that has largely damaged focus of pharma in past few decades. I don't discount the role and necessity (and difficulty) of sales & marketing functions but without new influx drug products those groups are "wasting their time" (unless content to go work for generics). Its a bit of Chicken vs Egg argument however in pharma attributing success should not be based on sales/profits.

  8. "pharma attributing success should not be based on sales/profit."

    Huh? I assume you're joking?

    sales/profits are ALL that count, in ANY business.

  9. If sales and profits were all that mattered, then screw this chump research, I'm going on the road selling some snake oil!

    Seriously, I guess that's the ethical dilemma one has about sales reps. Am I do a great service to the company, or am I so high on the rancid kool-aide I'm destroying the companies credibility on a quarterly basis. Sales is necessary and quite important, but overselling isn't doing anyone anyone else any favors, especially in the long term.

  10. bbooooooya I was not joking and again repeat it is just such this type of philosophy that has damaged pharma (frankly I would cast wider net to apply to US as a whole since has predominated post-90s).

    Henry Ford Quote: A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business.

  11. Really? Wow. I'm curious, outside of profits, what else do you think matters?

    I can say for certain that all Wall st cares about is profits (though I do mean real sustainable EPS, not accounting BS EPS), and that it does not care how hard you try.

  12. boobooya Bingo! you have connected to the attitude and corruption of "greed is good" that undermines the value of everything in the name of profit. There are (or at least should be) many things other that just making money that do matter in businesses however your MBA tainted mind can't seem to look up from the bottom line to see anything else.

  13. "There are (or at least should be) many things other that just making money that do matter in businesses"

    Specifically what? And please note, I include ethical behavior in 'sustainable EPS': absent it there can a risk to future cash flows.

    But yes, I do believe greed is good (though not if it foments illicit behavior, again, risk to future cash flows, and I think that those idiots from GAlleon and Frontpoint who are in jail got what they deserved). Investing, whether it's by asset management of by forming a drug company to find a cure for horrible diseases IS about greed. I'm sure there may be an example of a drug that was fully developed by a charitable organization, but I can't think of it. If you have an example, I'd be pleased to here it.

    I assume you have a job and receive a salary? I would suggest that this is an example of greed, and that were you truly selfless you would work for free to provide drugs or whatnot to the poor. Even less extreme, you could donate any portion of your salary above the national average to charity: it sounds like you're not greedy, so you really shouldn't need it. Do you do this?

    So yes, I think greed is good, but not unbridled greed that leads to corruption.

  14. YOU don't have a JOB until someone - a sales professional sells something. I find it hilarious from some of your comments - I graduated Magna Cum Laude in Chemistry and I've had engineers tell me that they want an 'easy' job and want to come work for me. They last a month because they can't stand the 'rejection'. I must KNOW a lot about alot be able to communicate and not run and hide in a corner. But the fact is - none of you would even have a job if nothing got sold.