The Risk and Myth of the Good-Looking Sales Rep in Medical Sales

Pretty medical sales representatives
© Lsk | Dreamstime Stock Photos

People are often hired as medical and pharmaceutical salespeople because of their good looks. Most hiring authorities will deny this, but I’ve worked in these industries long enough to know better.  Multiple times I’ve walked into rooms to deliver a sales program to a healthcare sales force, thinking I was on the set of a soap opera—almost everyone in the room was model-handsome or model-pretty.  Too often, though, many lacked even rudimentary sales skills.

Why would someone preferentially hire a good-looking rep over one with just average looks?  First, there is a natural attraction to good-looking people.  If you’re going to be working with someone, easy-on-the-eyes is never a bad thing.  But the reason that is often bandied about to justify hiring a good looking rep is because he or she will have an easier time getting in the door.  In my experience, this is true, but it’s not necessarily good.

Over the last 30+ years I have worked and consulted with companies who sold mainly to physicians.  This is a male-dominated world, especially in the surgical specialties.  The doctors I knew well made no bones about allowing an attractive female rep into their office just to enjoy a momentary distraction during their day.  That first sales call, however, often positioned that sales rep forever.  I’ll explain.

A sales rep’s personality, demeanor, and level of professionalism define them, especially during a first meeting.  You have no doubt heard the saying, “You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression.”  This is especially true in medical sales, but even more so if your looks are what got you in the door.

There is an unfortunate bias against attractive people.  It stems from the belief that their looks allow them to glide through life and provides them with opportunities that average-looking people don’t have.  The doctors I knew were always curious when meeting a good-looking sales rep: Is there any substance behind the pretty face? In other words, is the person just eye candy or can she engage the doctor in a relevant conversation about his practice and his patients.  Whatever the doctor thinks about a sales rep at that first meeting, often sticks for the remainder of the relationship.  The sales rep is positioned in the customer’s mind forever.

Dr. C, an orthopedic surgeon I called on for years, always allowed attractive female sales reps through the door.  I asked if he ever gave any of his surgical business to them.  He said, “Only one.  She was all business from the moment I met her. I tried to flirt with her, but she just ignored me and stayed on point.  She knew her stuff and was an asset to my practice.  It seems like most pretty reps flirt or just act friendly, thinking that I’m going to use their products as a result.  I enjoy a pretty face as much as the next guy, but when it comes to my job and my patients, I’ll only work with a high-level of competency.”

Too often, managers allow sales representatives into the field before they’re ready for prime time.  This is a huge mistake, because sales reps position themselves in the customer’s mind during the first call or two.  Attractive sales reps are truly at a disadvantage if they try to rely on their looks and charm instead of projecting professionalism, expertise, and confidence.  The pervasive bias is that they won’t have these qualities and too often they only confirm the bias.

No one should be judged by their looks, either good or bad.  The reality is that bias exists.  It’s not fair that an attractive woman in sales might be judged more harshly than an average looking man, but in my experience, it happens.  The purpose of this article is not to take a shot at beautiful people, but to emphasize the importance of competency, regardless of one’s looks.  Pretty sales reps are a bit of a cliché in healthcare, and there is a belief among healthcare professionals that some reps are hired for their looks first and their abilities second.

The bottom line is that ALL medical and life sciences sales representatives need a high-level of, not only product knowledge, but especially professional selling skills to be taken seriously.  They must position themselves as knowledgeable resources, not as just pleasant distractions.  Good looks might get you in the door, but they won’t get you the business, at least not for long.