Updated on 19 February 2014
Mr M A Mukund, HR head, XCyton Diagnostics, Bangalore - Technical Selling is a career option in the shadow
Whenever I hear a conversation around career tracks in the life sciences, the topics that seem to gravitate around research, product development, quality, computational biology or chemistry among others. Such discussions seem to lean towards technology and associated technical aspects, as well as the intellectual halo that surrounds such streams. I also hear statements being made around how our country must invest a lot more into R&D and also nurture a scientific mindset in our students through our much maligned education system. Echoes of these themes are often the centerpieces of presentations and debates in career fairs, biotechnology expositions and student-counseling events.
While I certainly concur with the above thought tracks, a concern that gnaws the corners of my mind is around the almost forgotten discipline of sales in this industry. Selling, often mistakenly perceived as the poorer cousin of marketing, may well turn out to be a camouflaged career option for students in the life science domain.
To a budding life science student, who may be pursuing an undergraduate or post graduate degree in biochemistry, microbiology or biotechnology, the radar of his mind will most likely place research and other technical streams high on the agenda in terms of career options. In all probability, sales may either not figure in his list of priorities or at best will be regarded as the last resort option.
At this point, let's digress for a moment to differentiate between sales and marketing. Simplistically said, while sales focuses on the actual contact with a prospect or customer to fulfill a corresponding transaction of exchange (of goods and/or services with financial returns), marketing relates to the build-up of all the elements to draw attention to the value offered by such goods or services provided and thereby facilitate the transaction. Our formal university education system does offer post graduate courses in pharmaceutical marketing (M Pharm or MBA).
However, the domain of life-sciences in the real-world spans more than just pharma or biotechnology industries (though these are predominant), for example, medical devices, diagnostics and instrumentation, apart from other medical, or agri-based services or products. Subtle but definite distinctions exist between these sub-domains. Such products and services offered by such industries have had their genesis through innovation at some point in time. Their value is not realized commercially until they are brought to market and reach customers who need them. This is easier said than done, of course. Here is where the sales function in such organizations plays a vital role. In a life science driven enterprise, especially for a start-up with an innovation-rich product or service can be quite an invigorating challenge to deal with.
Selling a concept or an innovation
For starters, sales personnel in life science organizations are not dealing with simple commodities. They have to be able to comprehend the underlying science behind the product or service. They have to be able to frame coherent talk-tracks highlighting the value proposition for the customer, where the features and benefits are aligned to the customer's most pressing needs. Customers, in this context, would be scientists, technical or medical professionals. A salesperson in this field needs to deploy a range of cognitive and interpersonal skills while relating them to nuances of the sales process and buying behaviors of technical or medical customers.