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New job selling laboratory equipment, but have no lab/science experience
February 8, 2013 6:40 AM   Subscribe

I recently accepted a sales position within a company that sells laboratory equipment. (i.e. centrifuges, GC's, HPLC's, Thermal Cyclers, etc) I have no previous lab or science experience, so learning about a myriad of highly technical products/methods is a quite challenging. My main challenge comes from the fact that I need to engage in conversations with scientists, chemists, biologists on a daily basis. With no previous lab experience, I've been having a hard time talking to them on technical level.

My biggest fear is asking about their work, and then sounding like an idiot for not knowing what the heck goes into carbon testing or any other lab procedure. (my B.A. is in marketing), so the sales part is not an issue.

Most of the other salespeople here come from lab backgrounds, or have degrees in the sciences. There are a few who are in my age/background who are doing well without the science knowledge.

What I'm looking for is a resource to better understand the flow of a lab. For example, if a lab is doing blood work, how do I know what pieces of lab equipment they are already using, and to maybe help understand the bath that a sample takes. I know I'll never be able to learn what someone has learned in 4-8 years of school/lab work, but I know I have the intangibles and the drive needed to succeed by learning whatever is necessary.

To summarize, what is the best method for me to understand the inner-workings of a lab, in order to at least have an idea of what their equipment needs are. I've found that science types like to talk a lot about the work they do, instead of me just asking if they have any equipment needs.

Thank you so much for the help!
posted by AMWKE1984 to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Most medical research labs have the same equipment no matter what the topic. I would make the assumption that everyone requires the basics, like: microcentrifuge, larger centrifuge for 15/50 mol conical, thermal cycler, water bath, CO2 incubator, laminar hood, rocking/shaking table, refrigerator, -20, -80, pipettors, real-time PCR machine, liquid nitrogen. Starting with the basics, over time you will learn the special equipment needs.

Other more specialized, or possibly geared to biochemistry rather than cell biology, items include HPLC, GC.

When you make your rounds in the labs to drop off literature (if you indeed will be doing this), ask if you can take photos of the labs--that way you can compile a list of items you see regularly.

Most scientist don't like to be interrupted by sales people, but I view sales people as very valuable resource and have good relationships with quite a few who are quite helpful in tech support as well as providing discounts. Even if you don't know enough to provide tech support, which really isn't unusual with sales people in this field, have contact info for people in your company who do so that you can defer questions or access the information yourself and pass it on when needed. That's what I would do.
posted by waving at 7:06 AM on February 8, 2013

If you are serious, spend some time looking at the videos at The Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE). These are basically instructional videos showing how to physically do the experiment. You will see a lot of the equipment you sell in use, with context.
posted by 445supermag at 7:18 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the advice! Very helpful site (

Any suggestions on what are some good questions to ask in regards to getting to know more about their lab/research/results?
posted by AMWKE1984 at 7:40 AM on February 8, 2013

Hello, I am one of your customers.

Even your most senior sales reps don't know more about the equipment than I do, especially when it comes to my field of interest. It does help to have a general understanding of the lab and how it works, but there's going to be considerable variation from lab to lab anyway. We use a different prep method from someone else, which can mean a completely different set of equipment. Perhaps they use GLP and we follow EPA or ISO standards (you should know reasonably well the standard methods your customers use). What I want from you is to know your own product lines and be able to differentiate between why I would want to pick your more expensive vials, for example, over your cheaper house brand ones. I also expect you to know the catalogue of your major competitors to be able to explain why I should consider your product over theirs.

I do expect, further, that you are able to call in your support/development team to answer the technical questions I have. Knowing when to call in your experts and facilitating that is important to me.

However, the most valuable thing a salesperson can do for me is order management, especially when time is critical. There are times of the year when budgets must be spent, or in the middle of a rush job when a critical piece of hardware fails, or we find a standard near expiration. At that point, I need you to give priority to our orders, return quotes quickly and expedite purchasing and delivery. Particularly with larger suppliers who have separate sales, quotation and shipping departments, we've had issues where orders have fallen through the cracks and don't get attention for a couple of weeks. A sales rep who keeps track of those critical orders and ensures that they are fulfilled in these situations is invaluable and provides a key service to me. Communicating your deadlines and transparency with your timelines also helps me a lot. Know how your business processes work, how long things can take and how to help us. This is true to the extent that we favour those suppliers because we know that we can rely on them to ship promptly when time is short.

When a new rep joins one of our regular suppliers, we are often happy to have a short sit-down with them. We'll walk through our typical purchases and explain what we do with them. Don't expect more than 15 minutes, and I appreciate time flexibility---talking to a sales person is useful, but most other things have higher priority for me.

If you're a rep walking in from a company I don't usually deal with, again, I'm happy to take your literature and give you a brief rundown of our needs, but you need to have a compelling story to make me listen. Better prices, new technology, etc... Just dropping off a brochure or a catalogue isn't going to get my attention. Also, we will ask for free samples. We expect you to facilitate this for us as well. A follow-up call to see how we are doing is more than fair, but give us a month or two to look at your samples too.
posted by bonehead at 7:57 AM on February 8, 2013 [8 favorites]

> Knowing when to call in your experts and facilitating that is important to me.

I work in a completely different field, but the sales people who know when to do this are the best.
posted by scruss at 8:12 AM on February 8, 2013

You are not alone.

One really dire mistake that people new to science environments often make is trying to participate in conversations that are way out of their depth. It is really super obvious and no one who hears you doing it will ever trust you again for anything. However, don't worry, it is really totally and completely cool to just say that you just have no idea if these Keratin-free tubes are also RNAse free or if that would affect your customer's downstream titration assay they're wondering about. They may be annoyed that you don't know, but they won't dismiss anything you, or likely also any other representatives of your company, ever say ever again.

You will probably benefit from taking free online classes in the disciplines of the labs you service in your spare time so that you'll have some more underlying context for things, but really its much more important that you know how to be an effective sales rep. That is, you know your company's quote and shipping departments well and can troubleshoot problems with them or expedite things, you know what makes your products better (more reliable, cheaper, less time consuming, whatever), you have the exact phone number of the right technical person at your company for the specific question I have that I can talk shop to on hand, and you know when to stop wasting our time and move on gracefully.

Free cheap things for grad students also go a long way and, on preview, bonehead's answer is fantastic.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:27 AM on February 8, 2013

To see what lab tools your customers already own, take a look at the methods sections of their recent papers. They may supply the vender and item numbers (less likely for generic items like basic centrifuges, more likely for complex, customized tools like HPLCs). (Even if they don't supply the pdfs on their website, authors will generally be happy to supply a copy and describe in detail their oh-so-very-hard work in sample preparation.)

For example, I'm a research scientist in a bio lab, but I've never done PCR. If I wanted to know what tools to buy, I'd look at a few books of protocols to get the general idea of how the process works. Then I'd go deeper into the literature to see if someone's already doing the precise process or extracting the precise information I have in mind. I'd also check out online protocol forums, since posters may identify the exact tool they're using (and be willing to take time to answer questions since they're in need of assistance themselves). At this point, I'd be much better prepared to call or email a specific researcher with a specific question and sound reasonably conversant.

I think you'll do fine, even without the most technical background, by being interested in a researcher's work and by asking earnest questions prompted by published work. (I wouldn't ask to photograph a lab, though; I think that's very weird.)
posted by Mapes at 1:40 PM on February 8, 2013

My suggestion:

1. Stack rank your prospects according to whatever methodology you learned as a marketing major.
2. Estimate how much of the list you'll need to cover in order to meet your targets.
3. Pick a lab at or near the bottom of your target area on the list (to mitigate any downside risk from coming across as annoying or insincere) and dedicate yourself to learning as much as you can about what they do.
4. Repeat #3, working your way up your list. Once you feel more confident, repeat #3, but working down from the top of your list.

As to how to learn as much as you reasonably can about what they do:
* If it is an research lab that publishes papers, look for "posters" giving overviews of their research posted in the halls outside their lab.
* Research labs will also often have a website for the lab, or the head of the lab, that gives an overview of their research interests and links to select papers they've published. Read some of those, particularly the abstracts and the materials & methods (because that's what you sell). If anyone in the lab has published any review articles, read those, because they tend to provide a better overview of the subject area.
* Once you've done a little homework, you can try engaging with people in the lab to learn more about their work. As suggested above, be genuine, earnest, and humble in your curiosity. You are probably best off being transparent about your intentions. I think saying: I was a marketing major and I'd really like to better understand how people use the product I'm selling would probably be well received by most people, and if it isn't, well, then you have a clue that you are dealing with an asshole.
* If it is a diagnostics lab, they probably don't have many/any publications, but the procedures they follow are probably standardized. If your employer doesn't have info compiled, they probably should.

Finally, in my experience, grad students seem to be easily swayed by free food. Bringing in pizza for all the grad students in a lab might be looked at with some suspicion, but offering to buy a grad student lunch in exchange for some explanation about the science and methods employed by the lab is probably a win/win.
posted by Good Brain at 7:50 PM on February 8, 2013

Does your company have an R&D department where they actually use and test the devices that you sell? Could you spend a few days hanging out there? Sometimes, it's helpful just to watch people using the equipment. For example, watch someone load the centrifuges and see which kind of tubes they use. Watch someone set up a PCR run and watch them burn through pipette tips. Note which kinds of gloves (latex, nitrile, etc.) people are wearing and how frequently they change them throughout the day. Details like that you'll never get by reading a protocol because they're sort of implied. If your company doesn't have the ability to facilitate this, perhaps you could ask an established sales rep if they could set you up with a lab who would be tolerant of you hanging out to observe for a few days.

JOVE is a fantastic resource, but not all videos are freely available unless you have a subscription. Some more general protocols (PCR, etc.) have videos on YouTube. You can also find written protocols online--look up the equipment you're trying to sell on sites like Protocol Online. (Note: not all protocols are particularly well written).

Although I agree with comments above that the way into grad students' hearts is through food, beware that many institutions in the US are now cracking down on accepting gifts from companies. If you show up unannounced with an armload of pizzas, you might find them taken away or even get yourself blacklisted if the correct administrators find out. Sad but true.

My experience might be biased because my entire institution is on NIH probation after ethical lapses by a few particular investigators (think: front page of the NY Times-level lapses), which means we are being closely scrutinized. Depending on who you ask, we're not even supposed to accept free pens at conferences because it might unduly bias our future purchasing decisions. But, from conversations with colleagues, my understanding is that institutions nationwide are starting to follow suit. You might want to check with your manager or your company's legal department before you start giving things away. Note that I am not talking about samples of products here. We expect free samples and demo units of products or we will never even consider buying from you. But gifts like food are not allowed at my university. That's not to say that grad students/postdocs won't gladly accept them and love you for it (for example, when we buy a crate of gloves, there's sometimes a bag of M&Ms in the top of the box. We're no fools. Those M&Ms don't go in the trash.) But, tread carefully in this arena.
posted by wondercow at 8:18 AM on February 9, 2013

many institutions in the US are now cracking down on accepting gifts from companies

This has been policy in my organization now for more than a decade. It's a good rule too, imo. We did have instances of individuals ordering more than they should have/ordering from a higher-priced items simply to get the dealer incentives. Now we're allowed things like coffee cups or such, but nothing more than $25 in nominal value total. No lunches, big gifts or what not.

Samples for work purposes are not included in this, just gifts that would be direct benefits to the individuals.
posted by bonehead at 9:44 AM on February 9, 2013

Oh yeah, upon rereading my comment, I should clarify my "sad but true". I agree with bonehead that these are good rules (even if I may have dipped into the free glove M&M kitty from time to time). I mean to say that it would be sad to see a well-intentioned gift thrown away, not that it's sad that these kinds of rules are in place. You would be well served to learn about your equipment through grad students and other researchers, but you need to be cautious about how you compensate them for their efforts.
posted by wondercow at 10:22 AM on February 9, 2013

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