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Alumni Advice: John Ohrn on Building a Strong and Lasting Sales Career

John Ohrn

Waltzing into a job interview unprepared or with a sense of entitlement is a major red flag for sales executive John Ohrn.

“Either one is a deal killer,” says Ohrn, a UVM alumnus who is the managing director of sales at Medidata, a global healthcare technology company. “Attitude is key.”

We talked to Ohrn, who graduated in 1989 with a dual degree in economics and political science, about working in healthcare sales, and the challenges and rewards that come with the territory.

First, tell us what you do as the managing director of sales at Medidata.

I currently manage a team of seven salespeople and spend as much time as possible with customers in face-to-face interaction. Medidata’s customers are pharmaceutical, medical device, clinical, academic and government research organizations. We focus on delivering state-of-the-art technology and services required to efficiently run clinical trials and bring life-changing, lifesaving new therapeutics to market.

You’ve been working in sales for more than 20 years, and so much has changed with technology in that time. How much has technology affected the way salespeople do their jobs?

Technology allows information to be exchanged more quickly and for the sales process to be collaborative and efficient through the use of customer relationship management technology and other collaboration tools. It also gives me visibility into team performance and business forecasting to spot trends and issues rapidly.

The pervasive nature of information and access allows my team to respond, delegate and manage more efficiently than ever. I operate globally, so technology allows for tasks to be coordinated, the impact of time zones to be minimized and customer satisfaction to increase.

What’s the downside of all this technology?

The downside is an always-on mentality, as I have all type-A personalities on my team. I have to mandate time away from e-mail, cellphones, and the office to allow them to invest in their personal lives and family. 

Technology also doesn't replace the trust and relationships that are built through in-person interaction; it is a common and easy mistake to “drop” an e-mail rather than show up. I believe it was Woody Allen who said, “80 percent of success is showing up."

What kind of business sense do you need to be successful as a salesperson?

My team and I focus on being trusted advisers, identifying a business need or needs, defining a solution, negotiating contract terms and delivering the solution. It’s important to have an understanding of our industry. But just as important is leadership, curiosity and problem-solving skills. 

What kind of background and skills does your particular industry look for in a salesperson?

The ideal would be a proven technology salesperson with an understanding of the healthcare landscape and how technology is driving health 2.0. That said, we have a tiered sales team that allows for a variety of skill sets and experience levels. New graduates can join and gain the essential mentorship, industry, sales, and corporate skills that are required. This, combined with very senior sales roles, allows for advancement, increased earning capability and responsibility.

When you’re interviewing a job candidate, what do you want to see and hear?

Attitude, team fit and fun is the first screen we use. I want people who are excited and ready to change the world. Secondarily, we look for industry knowledge and a plan for how a candidate would be productive in the first 30-60-90 days. The more knowledge of Medidata, the better, which goes back to attitude: Be prepared, be enthusiastic and have a plan.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

As a sales manager, it’s balancing the needs of my team, Medidata and our customers. As a salesperson, it’s crossing over from being a vendor to a trusted adviser. 

What advice would you give someone who wants to go into sales?

Sell what you love and ensure that you would buy it yourself. This is the advice my first boss, Ross Anderson, gave to me years ago, and it has served me well. Look for the number one in a market or the disruptor in a market, or find both.

What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned in your career?

Do the right thing for your customers, company and peers. I know this because it’s very hard, and I’ve not always done the right thing. Those are my only regrets, but they are also painful lessons from which I have learned so much.

What advice do you wish someone had given you 20 years ago?

If you have a passion, follow that as closely as you can and still provide for yourself. If not, which is most of us, become passionate about what you do every day and make a difference, because that’s the real payday.