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Pharma vs. Biotech: Which Do You Want to Sell?

Pharma vs. Biotech: Which Do You Want to Sell?

By Holly Larsen | Monster Contributing Writer

Pharmaceutical and biotech sales jobs are not created equal.

With a long history, the pharmaceutical industry tends to be formal and bureaucratic. Because pharma firms are large and well-established, the effect of a single sales professional on a company is minimal.

As part of a newer industry, biotech firms tend to be less formal and more adept at improvising processes. Sales reps in this industry have more freedom but are expected to thrive with less guidance. Ready access to management and few commercial products grant each rep the potential to shape a company’s future.

Pharmaceutical Sales: Secure and Clearly Defined

In addition to the perks associated with pharma sales, sales representatives in this industry are often motivated by the chance to promote products that extend and enhance life.

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Furthermore, pharma sales reps find solace in the fact that sales-call quotas and processes are made abundantly clear. Supported by a comprehensive team, these reps are offered extensive guidance.

Most pharmaceutical firms offer employees and their families a comprehensive menu of benefits. Beginning base salaries are typically more than fair; Monster’s Salary Wizard sets the median base at just over $55,700 for a pharma sales representative in Chicago. Add to this a company car, raises, commissions and bonuses, and the financial rewards can be substantial.

Biotech Sales: Bigger Risk, Bigger Reward

“When you get into biotech sales, you leave the safety net of big pharma behind,” explains Joe Regan, director of sales operations and training for Chiron BioPharmaceuticals. “In biotech, you might be joining a company before its product is approved. Then if it isn’t, you could be out of a job. You’re taking a financial risk, but you could be looking at great rewards if you’re successful.” Thus, financial rewards may be higher in biotech, more often through stock options than compensation.

Another major differentiator stems from biotech’s products. “In some cases, you’re selling a one-of-a-kind drug that requires a unique way of looking at treatment,” says Regan. “Educating physicians about use, dosage and toxicity can be very complex. It requires consultative selling, sometimes to many levels of hospital personnel.”

As a drug discovery HTS sales specialist at Molecular Devices, Bob Boice works in another branch of biotech sales, selling specialized equipment. “Because I’m not selling a commodity drug product, I’m really more of a consultant than a sales rep,” he says. “But the pressure is higher. If our equipment fails, our clients can lose $100,000 a day.”

Unlike the typical pharma rep, Boice generally doesn’t have trouble getting face time. “My clients are usually happy to see me, because I’m bringing cutting-edge technology. But I have to be comfortable dealing with high-level people.”

Biotech Reps Affect Company Success, Future

In another departure from pharma sales, the biotech industry allows sales reps to have a significant effect on their companies’ successes. Adding to the pressure, biotech firms provide less guidance, relying on each sales professional to chart an individual course to success.

Also, Boice points out that he plays a major role in shaping his company’s future. “I talk to clients and learn what they need and then take that information back to our leaders…to develop new equipment or explore new markets,” he says.

Given biotech sales’ complexity and the expertise needed, qualifications are generally higher for beginning reps in biotech than beginning reps in pharma. Whereas pharmaceutical companies require a college degree in any area and some sales experience, biotechs usually require a scientific degree and at least four to five years of successful pharma sales experience. “Successful sales experience is usually a higher criteria than a scientific background,” Regan says.

“Biotech sales can be very rewarding,” says Boice. “I’ve introduced people to lots of new technology that helps them do their job better. And it can be very lucrative. If you’re successful, you can chart your own destiny.”

So Which Is It?

Overall, pharmaceutical sales will appeal to people who want a safer ride with more defined processes, a larger support network and plenty of rewards. People who thrive with greater freedom may be happier in biotech, provided they understand the potential risks.

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