Kelvin Lee used to visit the doctor as part of his daily routine —n ot as a patient seeking help, but as a pharmaceutical sales representative for Abbott Laboratories. He brought not only updates in pharmaceuticals development to medical professionals, but also new hope for better treatment of suffering patients.
"The commodity we sell is like no other. For instance, if a piece of chocolate tastes funny, it's no real drama. However, it would be a serious health issue if a medicine was not up to standard," says Mr Lee, now country manager of Abbott International Hong Kong. He embarked on his career in pharmacy as a frontline sales representative in 1992 and was promoted to his current position three years ago.
Just like other established managers, Mr Lee often has a hectic working day, replete with tight schedules. Apart from overseeing daily operations, Mr Lee liaises with Abbott's regional office in Singapore and the Chicago-based headquarters. In addition to these cross-border meetings, presiding at internal meetings is also of vital importance to guide and encourage colleagues to work as a team.
Despite his busy schedule, Mr Lee insists on making time for customer liaisons. "You cannot come up with innovative problem solving strategies without the involvement of the stakeholders. Only people who truly make an effort to go and listen to clients will find success." He keeps several banners from training workshops, one of which reads: "There is no one right answer". The slogan serves as a reminder of Abbott's unique management style which embraces multiple perspectives.
Mr Lee emphasises that he initially decided to work at Abbott, a reputable multinational healthcare company, because of the health improvements Abbott products bring about. Naturally, pharmaceutical clients are usually highly educated professionals, such as doctors and pharmacists. The company provides professional support to frontline staff and sells only clinically approved medicine. Comprehensive training and the extensive range of quality products contribute to the overall success of Abbott's pharmaceutical sales.
Acting as a bridge between healthcare professionals and the pharmaceutical developer, Abbott's professional salespeople pass on doctors' concerns to the research and development department. Job satisfaction, in the eyes of Mr Lee, comes from helping patients enjoy quality life. Apart from the measurable satisfaction from contributing to others' improved health, working in this profession ensures sales teams are au fait with the latest medical developments and develop life-long relationship with doctors. This in turn benefits both their own health and future career.
"There is no one right answer"
Due to the special nature of products, pharmaceutical salespeople are usually tertiary educated. Those with a medical background have an advantage when joining the profession, but Mr Lee points out that a degree in a science-related discipline is not essential. Abbott provides comprehensive support and training to newcomers. Sociability, innovation and a good listening ear are all key attributes for potential recruits.
With Abbott, becoming a sales representative is the first crucial career step because frontline experience enables vendors to understand and therefore meet client expectations. After roughly three years of exposure, there comes a choice of staying in the sales management team by advancing to senior salesperson and subsequently sales manager.
Alternatively, salespeople can opt to join the marketing management team, working on product positioning, pricing and marketing. A position in product management is then possible, followed by senior management. However, Mr Lee notes that both sales and marketing are so intertwined that for particular products, the two teams make one.
He reveals that Abbott's expansion plans include many career opportunities. The company is investing in the development of OTC (over the counter) consumer health products as the market is fast expanding. Since the 2003 SARS pandemic, consumers have become much more aware of personal health issues and the sales of health supplements is on the rise. Therefore, marketing professionals with knowledge of the FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) sector to plan and execute promotional strategies through the mass media are in high demand.
Concerning medical reforms in Hong Kong, Mr Lee is positive. The reforms educate the public to plan ahead for long-term well-being and save for future health expenses. "With more resources, patients can afford better quality medicine," Mr Lee concludes.