Are You Considering a Career in Distribution Lab Sales?

Are You Considering a Career in Distribution Lab Sales?

So you think you have what it takes to sell lab supplies for one of the large distributors?

In this blog post we will explore what really is the “right stuff” to be successful in this industry.

Qualifications for the job.

Today it takes at least a college degree to apply for a job at one of the two main distributors, Thermo Fisher or VWR International. You will probably need a bachelor’s degree as these are typically first-job-out-of-college or first-job-after-leaving-the-lab positions. These companies spend a lot of money on recruiting, and human resources are looking for the “perfect” rep. The field may be quite crowded, especially if the opening is a field or inside sales position in a major metropolitan area.

What type of college degree is preferred?

There has been running debate about this. Do distributors look for someone who knows the science or someone who knows “business”? Many successful sales people have had degrees in either science or business. However, the most common degree possessed by big distributor sales hires is in Philosophy! Why? Success in this business depends in a large part on the rep's ability to establish and maintain a good relationship with the customer: A people person. And the people you will interview with are going to be looking for that trait more than the discipline you studied in school.

What does it take it to succeed in this business?

If you are to be successful in this business and still be working for the same company ten or twenty years later, you will know that you have been both very lucky, and in rare cases you may even have gotten there because you are just good at the job.

What are the keys to success?

Pedigree – it really helps if you are closesly related to someone who is in the business, especially if that someone has either an important title and/or a stellar record of success. Another big plus is if one of your close relatives is a decision maker at a major customer. Many of the hires were members of fraternities or sororities in college. And officers in the armed services have a leg up. Since we are being honest, and even though this observation may be politically incorrect, how attractive you are plays a big role regardless of gender.

Luck – Being in the right place at the right time is huge. If you are lucky enough to be assigned a sales territory that has been historically covered by a good rep, and is located in an area where big science is THE industry (e.g., the Bay Area of California, northern New Jersey, or the Research Triangle area in North Carolina), where new labs are being built frequently and the economy is in good shape, you’ve hit the jackpot! If you’ve been assigned to a sales territory in Eastern Montana where you have to drive hundreds of miles between customers and your predecessor left the territory in shambles, you have just rolled snake eyes and you should really consider finding another game to play.

Having friends in high places – If you can “get discovered” early in the game and catch the eye of someone in management, you now have at least a few cards in your hand to play with. Bluffing in poker can sometimes win the game! Riding the coattails of a manager who is headed up the ladder is a tried-and-true formula. Who cares if your fellow reps think you are a brown noser? All’s fair…well you know that story.

Getting off to a fast start – You will be under the microscope the minute you report for work. You will be given little if any training. You will feel as if you have been thrown to the wolves. These feelings are all normal. If you sit around and wait for someone to train you how to do the job, it will be too late. There is a 6-month weed-out clock that started on your first day at work. If you aren’t in one of those gold-star territories mentioned earlier (and in all likelihood you won’t be), then your only chance for success is to spend every waking minute eating, breathing and sleeping your new job. Forget about taking a day off for the first six months. It is a survival of the fittest mentality in this business and only the strong will survive. Always remember, there is a line at the door waiting to take your job.

Know your customers – The one chance at survival in the first six months is to GROW YOUR TERRITORY. The only way you will do that is if you are IN your territory and you find out as quickly as possible who is a friend with money to spend. Excuses won’t be accepted. If the company loses a big corporate contract soon after you start and one of your major customers leaves for the competition, this is your cue to look for the exits. Unless, of course, you have the right pedigree.

Play like a star athlete – this sounds counterintuitive. Maybe a better way to say this is to just be overconfident to the point of not worrying about the odds and just believe you are the best and plow forward no matter what the odds are against you. This is a gambler’s move. It’s betting all your chips and it really helps if you’ve got a bankroll stashed somewhere (e.g., rich parents) just in case this strategy doesn’t pan out.

So why do so many people still seek these jobs?

I’ve painted a pretty bleak picture so far. And if you are considering one of these positions for the first time, you’ve got to be asking yourself why so many people seek out these jobs and if this is right for you? Here are the upsides.

It is an OK entry level job. The pay for a rep with no prior experience is going in the range of $35 - $50,000. You may get a car allowance, benefits and even an expense account. You will work your tail end off and if you are an outside sales rep, you will put a lot of miles on your car. In some territories you may spend a lot of time away from home. But you get a business card, a cool title and if you believe what you are told by the recruiters, the sky is the limit.

With experience under your belt, you can move on to something better. Few companies today want to take a chance on someone with no experience. They want and expect results and aren’t in a position to hire 20 people and count on one of that group being a success. Big lab distributors are willing to take that risk and can afford to do so. There are plenty of companies within the industry as a whole that are looking for experienced reps and particularly those with a science background. For those without a science background, there are plenty of other sales positions in other industries. The good news is you will make a lot of contacts with customers and suppliers to help broaden your network. There are over 9,500 manufacturers in the U.S. alone. Many of these companies hire people who came from a distribution sales background.

Some people make it big in this business. Every company needs a core group of competent, experienced sales reps to handle the big, important accounts. Approximately 20 – 25% of a large sale force will consist of “tenured” reps. These are typically the reps who management can point to as success stories. And there are the really high ranking executives who love to parade in front of the troops at national meetings with titles that include “global” and “senior VP” in them. And yes there IS a chance that you might ascend to their position one day. But this is a pyramid and you will stand little chance if you don’t have a stellar pedigree, haven’t bonded with a rising manager somewhere in your career or reside somewhere close to the corporate offices.

That’s a pretty bleak picture! If it’s that bad, why should I even try?

A lot of people have entered this business, moved on to careers with other companies and entered retirement not riding in yachts but living comfortable lives. I am one of them. I consider my career to have been very rewarding, overall. I have experienced the “dark side” of this business and I could (and probably should) write a book about bosses I have worked for who give incompetence the reputation it so richly deserves. The important thing was that I never gave up either believing in myself or in this industry as a good place to earn a living. Doing this job may require you to endure some pretty unimaginable bosses.

Inside vs. Outside Sales

Wondering how you will be spending your time in this job? You are being paid to find some way to have a conversation with a customer. That conversation can either be initiated by you or by the customer. As you can imagine, in today’s world getting someone to sit down and have a meaningful discussion with someone who wants to sell something is difficult. It’s a lot easier if the customer already has a need and reaches out to you, as their assigned rep, to have that discussion.

Inside sales reps used to be called telesales reps. That’s still the job but it’s been renamed to attract more people to the job. You are assigned typically 500 or more customers. You report to an office and you sit in a cubicle with a lot of other telesales reps being constantly monitored to see if you are being productive. The majority of your calls will be inbound and you can expect that a lot of your outbound calls will get the same reception as you would give sales people who call you at inopportune times.

Outside sales reps have the distinct advantage that they aren’t being monitored all day. The freedom is both the joy and the curse. If you aren’t a self-starter, you won’t make it. But there is another larger problem. Distributors don’t want you wasting your time on customers who don’t buy enough to pay for you. So you will be assigned a set of customers to call on who already buy from the company. You get paid handsomely for growth but if you drive by a lab that you think may have a good growth potential but don’t buy enough to be assigned to you (i.e., they are assigned to telesales) then you just keep on driving. There is no incentive for an outside rep to prospect for new customers!

The reality is that distributor sales today involves precious little selling; you spend 95% of your time doing customer service. The good news is you get paid more than someone who actually has that title and the job isn’t all that stressful until your boss comes to town and wants to ride along with you on sales calls!

Distributor Sales Pay Plans

Distributor pay plans are very much like casinos: They are set up so the house will win. But there are people that play and win a big jackpot! A pay plan has a base salary which is typically 50% of your “anticipated” total compensation. The other 50% is commissionable. There are cases in which new reps assume a poor territory and are placed on a “guarantee” plan, typically for 90 days. But these guarantees aren’t doled out frequently and they ALWAYS have a short shelf life.

The target (quota) you are aiming at is a sales and margin goal that is set each year by management. I can’t recall anyone ever thinking their quota was fair and often these targets aren’t set until after April, giving management time to see who is off to a good start and load up their quota. It starts by the CEO saying to investors that they are going to grow by X% this year and it rolls downhill from there. I’ve never seen it set based on the realities of what’s actually going on in a territory (or marketplace) with the possible exception of those who have curried favor with their boss.

There is an “accelerator” for going over your monthly goal. And there is a penalty for not hitting the goal. The trick is the accelerator is a fraction of the amount of the decelerator. And the really sad part of this whole scheme is if you have a REALLY big year where you hit the jackpot, your target next year will be set based on that number. It doesn’t matter if this was just a big one-time sale (e.g., a new lab startup.) Sadly, many people are starved out by the pay plan the year AFTER they collect the big check. The “winners” at this game tend to be the people who are never too successful, nor those with “up and down” territories.

Chances for Promotion

What are your potential chances for promotion in Distribution Sales? The next step on the ladder is most likely Region Manager or Category Manager. Typically a region manager will have 5 – 10 years with the company. Category Manager is a marketing position; you deal with vendors and are required to relocate to corporate headquarters. Category Managers are often very young people with as little as 3 – 5 years with the company.

Since region managers are tenured people who have typically 8 – 12 people reporting to them, the competition for these jobs is stiff. If you are reluctant to relocate, you may have to wait for YOUR boss to quit, get fired or promoted before the position you seek will open up.

Category manager positions, for whatever reason, have a much higher turnover rate. Your chances of landing one of these slots is pretty good if 1) you live near the corporate headquarters already, 2) you have a close relationship with a manager in marketing or 3) you earned an MBA somewhere along the way.

If you are looking to rise up the corporate ladder quickly, a distribution management position is a long shot.


Science for those of us who love science is not just THE place to be, it’s the ONLY place to be. You just never get enough of it. Doing this job takes a passion for science and lifelong learning, and it affords everyone involved a front row seat to witness some amazing science being done.

All of the above has been a lot of words leading up to this conclusion: The secret to success in this (or any) business lies in your ability to become symbiotic with your customer. You may be paid by your employer but you work for your customer. If you are devoted to your customer, if you understand your customer (which is predicated on listening) then you will be successful.

I’ve had the pleasure of coaching many new sales reps in my career. Many of these have gone on to great things in this industry. If you think you have what it takes, go for it!

At LPS, each member of our team is 100% customer focused and committed. As we grow, that is the type of individual we will seek.