Chances are that you've seen them, the earnest, young (and not-so-young) people peddling their company's supplies, equipment, and/or services around the department. You may have wondered what went wrong, how they--individuals who were, no doubt, once full of promise--came to be doing such seemingly thankless, unrewarding work. After all, salespeople typically rank much closer to politicians and rodents than to scientists and doctors when it comes to public (and scientific!) perceptions of their inherent value to society.
But hold on a second. ... Is a job in technical sales really that bad? Have you ever stopped to ask a salesperson how they got their job and what they get out of it? And what about their professional cousins, the men and women in sales support who answer your desperate phone calls and help demo, service, and repair the myriad instruments and devices that, these days, are essential for research?
Next Wave has. And we've found out that sales is not all about selling used cars held together with bondo and duct tape, although those jobs are certainly out there, if you want them. No ... with the same kinds of caveats that apply to just about all the professions we cover--long hours, constant pressure, and, in some instances, high turnover--the vast majority of advanced-degreed individuals pursuing careers in sales and sales support enjoy what they do. More than that, many of them find their work rewarding, intellectually and financially. They get to hone existing skills and acquire valuable new ones, as well as develop professional networks that help them advance their careers. To top it all off, although they're not running their own labs, they enjoy continued engagement with cutting-edge science and the scientists who are pushing the research envelope. In short, they get to make a difference.
We've also found that scientists can perform any of a range of jobs--or job functions--in the sales arena. There are the first-contact sales and tech-spec types who organize and run presales demonstrations of equipment. There are the after-sales types who help you get things set up and operating after your lab has purchased that expensive new gizmo. And then there are the after-sales troubleshooters who--in person or over the phone--try to fix things if they go wrong. Depending on the size of the company you're working for and the way in which it is organized, you might find yourself engaged in several of these activities or just one of them.
Assuming a career in sales is good for some people--and it seems to be--what makes some people good for sales? To do well in this line of work, you'll need the right mindset, as well as personal conviction, drive, excellent people skills, and (often) a hankering for the open road and sky. If you're thinking of going into technical support, you'll need all that plus the facility to use your detailed knowledge of how the equipment works to solve users' problems.
Like many careers, it's not always easy, a priori, to figure out whether you've got the right stuff. Indeed, as you'll find out if you follow the links below, some of our essayists moved into sales or after-sales support serendipitously after recognizing that they had the skills they needed to flourish in these positions. Others of our essayists determined early on that they wished to pursue this line of work.
So, what about those essayists?
Next Wave last covered technical services in a North America-only feature back in 1997, and the essays from that feature continue to offer useful perspectives on why and how scientists move into this line of work. Particularly valuable, perhaps, is Nicole Ruediger's interview with two technical sales hiring managers--the people who's job it is to determine whether or not a given applicant has actually got the skills, personality, and experiences they're looking for.
More recently, Next Wave has touched on sales and tech support, one way or another, in several one-off articles. Check out, for example, Phil Dee's column on sales from the perspective of a newly funded postdoc with cash to burn on equipment.
And then there's Dave Jensen's Tooling Up article about Dick Woodward, a man who Dave evidently respects but who's mother reportedly cried when he told her he was going into sales. ...
This week, though, as we will each week during August, we're bringing you fresh perspectives on sales and after-sales support from the United States, Canada, and much further afield.