Sales representatives v clinical specialists in medical devices

Ryan Luckman, Associate Director of the Medical & Science Technology team at FMC Global Talent.
Ryan Luckman, Associate Director of the Medical & Scientific Technology team at FMC Global Talent.

There is an ongoing debate in the medical sales world which is splitting the market. Do you hire a trained medical sales professional, do you hire a clinical specialist and deploy them in a soft sales role or do you hold out for a rare hybrid candidate?

Why hire a proven sales representative?

  • Comes to the business with sales training under their belt and with an understanding of the sales cycle, selling techniques and territory planning skills required to be successful
  • High energy levels, tenacious approach and commercially driven to close sales
  • Often easier to motivate with incentives, KPIs and bonuses

What are the concerns?

  • Their depth of clinical knowledge is often lacking and intense training is often required
  • Credibility issues can occur if the salesperson is unable to clinically justify the product amongst healthcare professionals
  • Sales representatives can be seen as being somewhat chaotic in their working practices, particularly concerning their administrative and compliance-related duties

Why hire a clinical specialist in a sales role?

  • Clinical specialists understand the therapy area from both the patient and clinician perspective; as such they can advise with confidence from a position of knowledge
  • They are likely to be excellent at engaging with other clinical staff during the sales process and help to drive real credibility
  • They often hold detailed product knowledge of both your products, but also the limitations of your competitors. This, when channelled correctly, can be very powerful in a sales role
  • They can apply their own, empirical product knowledge and elevate discussion through this – such as understanding trial results and potential limitations better than a sales representative
  • Clinical specialists often achieve increased engagement from patients whereby the recommended product is sensitive and intimate

What are the concerns?

  • With integrity comes the willingness to tell customers and patients when they don’t think the product is the right fit, something that conflicts with the fundamental role of a salesperson
  • Their commerciality is less honed than that of a sales representative – clinical specialists often struggle with time and revenue pressures due to their customer centricity
  • Skills linked to handling financial objections and holding sales negotiations can be lacking in clinical specialists; this can lead to ‘bad’ deals being made
  • They may be perceived as having a ‘hidden agenda’ as whilst they may be on hand to help with demonstration, training and provide empathy, they are, ultimately, still selling.

The illusive concept of ‘relevant experience’

Because selling effectiveness depends upon a company’s sales tasks, ‘experience’ is an inherently multidimensional attribute‘ (Harvard Business Review, 2015)

Ultimately, it all comes down to the idea of ‘relevant experience’. This term itself is open to interpretation.

Is relevant experience of sales more important, or the relative experience of having a clinical background?

The answer to this question can often be dependent upon the market in which you are selling. Feminine, incontinence or intimate care companies may be more inclined to opt for the clinical specialist route due to their empathy and training in patient care. On the other hand, a company selling non-clinical consumables or expensive capital equipment may choose to hire sales representatives as their directness would suit this context.

Is it all or nothing?

Simply, the answer is no.

Many companies may choose to have a salesforce of entirely clinical specialists or sales representatives. However, increasingly we are seeing hybrid teams whereby the clinical specialists offer pre- and post-sales support, dovetailing in to the sales teams.

Which way are you swaying?

If you’re interested in discussing our experience with different profiles of sales people, get in touch with me on +44 (0) 1522 812 248 or via email at