Featured Insights & Trends

The Difference Between Specialty Pharmaceutical and Pharmaceutical Sales

Pharmaceutical sales casts a wide net in the medical community. There are various forms of medication, types of facilities reps sell to, and target audiences. With all the variables, this medical sales category breaks down into subcategories: pharmaceutical and specialty pharmaceutical. 

As you’re determining the right career path, it’s critical to understand the slight but important differences between them. Let’s start with the greatest similarities. 

The majority of both work for medium- to large-sized manufacturers. Additionally, a small portion of pharmaceutical (20%) and specialty pharmaceutical (25%) sales reps hold a master’s degree. This year, these two groups brace themselves for the unknown impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, like everyone else. 

When asked if they expect to earn more in 2020 than they did in 2019, 57% of specialty pharmaceutical sales reps said yes, yet 77% fear COVID-19 will hurt their sales goals in 2020. Pharmaceutical sales reps are experiencing the same mixed emotions as 60% are confident they’ll earn more in 2020 than they did in 2019, but an even greater percentage (80%) expect a negative impact on their 2020 goals from the global pandemic. 

It’s inspiring that sales reps in both categories are ready and willing to charge into the future — no matter what it holds. That type of career dedication is inspiring. 

To help you determine the kind of sales rep you’d like to be in the pharmaceutical industry, we broke down the differences between specialty pharmaceutical and pharmaceutical sales: 

Product types

All pharmaceutical sales representatives are experts on their company’s product lines and their target audiences’ needs. They start by meeting with physicians in clinics or hospitals to discuss product details, field any questions, and compare their product to others on the market. 

To represent your future company and its products properly, you must find a passion for the products you’re selling. Here are the types of products you’ll sell in both categories: 

Pharmaceutical sales 

Pharmaceutical sales reps sell the value of various products to primary care providers. This can range from opioids to family planning products, vaccines, bowel issues, and much more. 

Specialty pharmaceutical sales 

Specialty pharmaceutical reps serve a narrower range of specialists trained in a specific field, rather than primary care providers. Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceuticals, for example, is developing products for cardiovascular and metabolism, immunology, neuroscience, oncology, and pulmonary hypertension, all of which fall under specialty categories. 

To sell unique products, specialty pharmaceutical sales reps must have a deeper understanding of pharmacology and, often, a stronger grasp on medical concepts and conditions. 

Earning potential 

Our 2020 Pharmaceutical Sales Salary Report revealed that pharmaceutical sales reps in both categories saw impressive increases in total average compensation year-after-year. 

Specialty pharmaceutical reps, for example, reported an impressive jump in base salaries. In last year’s findings, they noted $108,948 average base salaries. This year, they rose drastically to $119,544, a $10,500 increase. The rise in base salaries bumped their total average income from $151,005 to $164,499. 

Pharmaceutical sales reps saw a steadier rise in both base and commission/bonuses. They reported base salaries at $99,157 in last year’s survey, and this year it was up to $100,155. As a result, their average total compensation rose from $135,902 to $139,482. 

Factors impacting income

Various factors impact every medical sales category. The economy, evolving products, management, and more determines how much reps earn each year. In the pharmaceutical industry, our pharmaceutical sales salary survey revealed a few key differences in what’s impacting specialty pharmaceutical and pharmaceutical sales reps’ incomes: 

Pharmaceutical sales

The majority of pharmaceutical sales reps (74%) say base pay increases had a positive impact on their 2019 compensation. Pay raises could point to appreciation from leadership or even the company’s attempt at keeping reps satisfied in a competitive job market. 

To the same point, another 45% of pharmaceutical sales reps said bigger bonuses had a positive impact on their 2019 compensation. Some reps (34%), took a chance on a new job with a new company and it paid off by raising their compensation last year. 

Of course, not everything was positive in 2019. Here are a few negative factors that impacted pharmaceutical sales reps: 

  • Change in commission (50%)
  • Started a new job at a new company (20%)
  • Product change (15%)

Specialty pharmaceutical sales

Approximately the same number of specialty pharmaceutical sales reps (72%) saw a positive impact on their 2019 salaries thanks to base pay increases. However, slightly more in this category (57%) said that being rewarded bigger bonuses impacted their income more than those in general pharmaceutical sales. Similarly, 30% started a new job with a new company, which positively influenced their 2019 pay. 

While starting a new job with a new company worked in favor for some and not for others in both pharmaceutical categories, specialty pharmaceutical reps experienced other negative pay factors: 

  • Market change (50%)
  • Change in commission structure (32%)
  • Started a new job with a new company (29%) 

As you determine which pharmaceutical sales route is best for you, it’s critical to review specific companies. Research their products, mission, company culture, and leaders’ backgrounds to assess where your passions and career goals align. 

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