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How to launch a seemingly impossible career change

In the April 19, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks how to get in the door for a seemingly impossible job change.

Question

leavingI want to make a big career change into medical device sales, but it’s going to be tricky. My experience is in teaching, primarily English as a second language. I don’t expect to get a sales job to start, so I want to start out in sales support. I’ve done tons of research on the company I’ve chosen, its technology and products, and I’ve even talked to some of the company’s customers — doctors and medical centers. I know that their salespeople’s time is worth a little over $1,000 an hour, so good sales support is key to profitability.

Two contacts — an old friend and her friend — work in the company where I want a job, and I’m using LinkedIn to find more contacts. I have read both your How Can I Make a Career Change? (I thoroughly enjoyed my library vacation) and Fearless Job Hunting books, and I am following your advice. But my execution might be a bit rocky. How can I parlay these contacts into more connections that might help me get in front of the right manager to talk about a seemingly impossible job change?

Nick’s Reply

You’re right — that’s a huge, daunting leap. Medical sales is a tough field to get into. Your odds aren’t good, but I don’t believe in odds or in luck. I believe in hard work. If you really want to do this, do all the hard work and don’t let anything deter you until you either get the job or exhaust every avenue.

But you didn’t ask my permission. You asked how to get in the door.

It’s going to require more than one or two contacts, so you need to leverage your two friends to meet more people in the company. I’m both a fan and an antagonist when it comes to LinkedIn. It’s the best online phonebook ever developed. On the other hand, it’s become just another job board after squandering its future as a true networking tool.

Leverage LinkedIn

Here’s how to use LinkedIn to help you with this. Ask your friends for one or two names of people who work in or near the department at the company where you want to work. Then search both LinkedIn and Google to find them, and then more people who are connected to the company’s product areas where you want to work. (I suggest you re-read “A Good Network Is a Circle of Friends,” pp. 27-32 in How Can I Change Careers?)

Search Google for the company name plus the product names and related technologies. Let me caution you here: Google Search and Google News are different. You’ll turn up different results. I prefer News because the results will surface names of specific people and stories about them — and that’s what you want. The more relevant names you can dig up this way, the better. Then look up each person on LinkedIn — and ask your friends if they know them.

When you contact someone you found this way, you don’t have to rely on that tenuous LinkedIn “connection” to get their attention. (I hate it when someone reaches out to me and says, “I found you on LinkedIn!” So what? They might as well have found me in the phone book!) You should refer to the news article you read about them. Talk shop, and mention the two people you know at the company:

How to Say It:
“I was just talking to Mary Smith, who works in the Blah-Blah department at your company, and I also just read this article in the Wall Street Journal about your role in your company’s…”

Talk shop!

You’ve clearly done your homework — Good for you! — so you can actually ask them a couple of intelligent questions about their work. This tells them you’re not some LinkedIn opportunist who ran a keyword search to “find” them. You actually know something about what they do. This puts you on a very different footing from someone who’s calling around for job leads via LinkedIn.

Having started a work-related — if very simple — discussion, you can move on to your objective:

How to Say It:
“I wonder if I could ask you for some advice. My background is… and I’m considering a job in sales support. I don’t just want to send in a resume, because I’d like to learn more about the support function in sales of XYZ devices. I know that a sales person’s time at your company is worth about $1,000 an hour, so sales support is an important lever for profitability. Is there someone you can recommend that I talk with in sales or sales support so I can learn more about the role?”

Isn’t that more powerful than saying, “Hey, do you know of any job leads at your company?” You will leave your competitors in the dust. Here’s another way to break the ice with such a contact:

How to Say It:
“I noticed in the article I read that you work with the Hannenframmis device line. Another company, X, makes a related device they call a Thingamajig. What do you think of their product?”

A question like that tells the person you’ve studied the company, its products and its competition. What LinkedIn query goes into such detail? Your request is out of the ordinary. You’re not asking for a job lead — you’re talking shop. When you ask someone for their opinion or advice about something relating to their work, I find they usually want to share their thoughts.

Once again, having established a bit of credibility, it’s easy to switch to:

“Hey, I wonder if I could ask you for some advice…” and use the How to Say It suggestion above.

Critical Mass: Nobody said it was easy

If they don’t recommend anyone, just say, “Thanks — it was good to meet you. Thanks for your time,” and move on. But my guess is they will offer you some help. One new contact and referral thus leads to another. You learn something new every step of the way, and you will build a critical mass of contacts and insight. Some of them will know one another — and that builds your credibility further as you navigate the company to find the right manager in sales.

One of your new friends will refer you to a manager who will recognize a highly motivated person who wants to work in sales support. Without applying for a job, you’ll be an insider. When you get near that manager, re-read Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3: Get in The Door (way ahead of your competition), “Share Experiences: The path to success,” pp. 12-14, and “Pest, or manager’s dream?” pp. 18-19.

I’ll caution you: This is not easy or quick, nor should it be. While your competition is sending keywords to HR managers, you’ll be talking to insiders — that requires dedication and focus. Managers tend to hire people they know, or people referred by trusted contacts. That’s what this approach gradually turns you into — an insider — if you invest the time to do the homework, to talk with people patiently, and to learn all you can about the company you want to work for so you can demonstrate why you’re the profitable hire.

How do you get in the door when the job you want is a big change from what you’ve been doing? Ever make a big career change? What would you suggest to this earnest reader?

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11 Comments
  1. Hi Nick,
    I took interest in this question as I have some HR experience in diagnostics and devices. More recently I needed to learn more about medical device sales teams, compensation models etc. You can probably expect some “disruptive innovation” in this area– not just the products themselves but how sale teams are structured as well. As hard as this field is to get into, it is possible changes could open a little more room…..

    Aside from knowing the products, it is also good to learn a little about the regulatory environment. Many of the actual products and surgeries themselves are avail to watch on You tube as well. I personally found it very interesting that this is a field with much nepotism. And, many of the salespeople actually are in the operating room with the Drs. During the actual operation, providing guidance on the product as necessary. in device companies the salesperson plays a MUCH more critical role than in pharma where salespeople more or less follow a script. The writer probably knows some of this. My sense is that a good way to get in might be to get to know sales community (maybe attend some association meetings) and learn as much as possible from them, to the point where they might recommend you for a entry sales role.

  2. Don’t quit your day job and seemingly impossible are the watch words. Changing careers is all about being at the right place at the right time and knowing the inside contacts. Especially these days. The big hurdle is to convince your next employer you are right one for the job and you can sell freezers to Eskimos in volume and can prove it in the face of him already having other more qualified experienced candidates.

  3. Dear OP,
    How good looking are you? How easy is it for you to put ethics behind you? I say this b/c medical and pharma salespeople are almost always “beautiful” young people in my state. Women working in 4 inch high heels and tight dresses, long hair. Men in fancy suits, expensive shoes. Doctors getting free perks from these companies like trips, etc . This industry has a reputation of driving up medical costs — like you said, it’s a high profit business. That’s a two edged sword when you are the one needing surgery and having to pay the cost, even with good insurance. While I am all for you changing careers, this field may have more regulation in the future as the high cost of medical care starts to cripple the US economy in greater ways than it is currently. Just some things to think about.

  4. Shortly after getting my engineering degree, I became interested in home inspection. I picked up the business card of a home inspector at a local bank, then called to ask if he would mind talking with me about it. He invited me to his home one evening and I was able to ask many questions. I learned the nature of the work, the training required, and more. As a result, I decided to stay with engineering as a career. Nearly 20 years later I finally took a 60 hour home inspection training course in Vienna, VA. I never made home inspection my career, but the knowledge has served me well as a home owner, and I have performed inspections (free) for friends and acquaintances over the years. (Got that itch scratched.) I am sure this approach is still valid and one would gain valuable information about the work and work environment.

  5. So much great practical and technical advice here for making a career hurdle less painful. The English teacher should also play up to their softer skills honed in the classroom – organization, leadership, instruction techniques introducing complex factors = equates to convincing others they need a product or service. Relaying their own interest and inner confidence of succeeding in the company and a new career should win them the job.

  6. @Lahra: Excellent suggestion about learning the regulatory ropes to any extent possible (because really getting that down isn’t easy). Thanks!

    @Eddie: I think it’s about far more than being in the right place at the right time. Career changers often think it’s all about “convincing” an employer. In fact, a lot of it is about education, training, and heavy-duty investment and preparation. No one’s going to hire a career changer who isn’t clearly ready to do the work.

    @Katby: You’re opening a can of worms that everyone needs to look inside of – including consumers.

  7. MAKE SURE YOU HAVE PEOPLE YOU CAN CHECK IN WITH DURING YOUR SEARCH THAT GIVE SUPPORT.
    —FIND SHARED INTERESTS, OR COMONALATIES WITH THE NEW CROWD.
    GOOD LUCK& KEEP NICKS PROTOCOL IN MIND.

  8. I wish you good luck in this process. I changed from law enforcement to, of all things, finance & banking. But that was 30 yrs ago when we were less rigid and more thoughtful as employers/hr workers.

  9. I’ve “retooled” or been retooled a # of times. As noted luck and circumstance has had much to do with it. A good summary would be that I’ve put myself or have been put into situations that were radical changes and then I made it work. The best example I can offer is when I turned myself into a recruiter. That was a deliberate target, but even there I could offer a lot of common ground.
    Nick’s point is well put. It’s not easy, Career changing is heavy lifting. You’re primary ammunition is going to be soft skills and your personal qualities as you can’t offer the hard skills. Hence the advice about meeting the players where it’s understood you aren’t offering experience, but great potential is well put. The good news is good managers have a strong talent scout streak in them. It’s very gratifying to find rough diamonds and development. And also usually no one is offended by being asked for advice e.g. how to break into the business.
    More to the point, the discussion thus far primary aimed at a frontal assault. Katby gave a good clue, in that direction. The training programs in pharmas are designed to take someone who knows absolutely squat about their products and sales and take you by the hand through their training regimen & spit you out the other end, with your sales kit in the trunk of your car, a list of potential accounts and off you go. You than make it or not.
    What we are talking about is sliding into sales from a side door, not a direct attack. Meds aren’t devices, but you’ve got your foot in the industry, and selling, and a customer base that may also buy devices. You want a good contact to get to a sales manager, get a working relationship with his/her customer base. Having a customer tell a sales manager they should really know you is music to their ears. Refer to earlier subjects in this blog on pro-active referrals, where your referral contacts the hiring manager on your behalf, not the other way round.
    2nd approach to consider is manufacturing and particularly quality control. Get your feet inside the plant where they are built. Sales Managers love technical sales people. By technical I mean you helped build them and know them like the back of your hand. If your goal is sales or sales support mfg is a stepping stone. And I suggested QC because medical devices is a high regulated domain and in the mfg side of it, QC rules. There’s tons of regulatory hoops to jump through before that stuff can be shipped. So working there will equip you well to sell them, and a sales manager will know that. and appreciate the high value because when a customer senses you REALLY know what you’re talking about, you’re golden.
    By all means deploy every direct means suggested, but also look for the side doors. And by the way, you may also consider tech support. In my world sales support mean providing technical expertise that a sales team or person needs when they’ve hit the point where they don’t know answers. Tech support deals with product malfunction, i.e. customer support. That too can take you into sales.
    Good luck

  10. Excellent Q&A this week.

    I’ve retooled a number of times (retail to libraries to law to insurance to academic administration), and now have come almost full circle to the profession I left 20 years ago.

    I think Nick is right, that today, for career changers (and even for job changers), it is about education, training, credentialing. No employer is going to be willing to take a chance on you unless you’re willing to put in the time, energy, money, etc. to learn what you need to know in order to do the job (even more important since employers aren’t doing as much/any on the job training). Being willing to change careers isn’t enough–have you done what you need to do to make it easy to be hired (get the education and credentialing necessary).

    But I also think that being in the right place at the right time with the right prospective employer is also important. If the employer isn’t open to hiring someone who has never done the job before, let alone a career changer, then keep looking and find someone who will give a newbie a chance (but you also have to do your part).

  11. Also, as you meet people in the company and in the industry, connect with them on LinkedIn. When other people in the company look you up on LI (some will, some won’t), they’ll see that you’re connected to other people they know and you’ll seem like less of an outsider to them.

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