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From scrubs to downtown

June 1, 2002
A West Coast hygienist exchanges her scrubs for a career in the corporate world of dental product marketing.

by Cathleen Terhune Alty, RDH

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to exchange your scrubs for a taste of the corporate world? Tammie Tom, RDH, expanded her clinical experience by creating an interesting and successful career in dental product sales, management, training, and marketing. As the current director of marketing in Discus Dental's Oral Hygiene Division, she manages and creates promotions for the sales department.

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After attending Arizona State University, Tom completed her dental hygiene education at Phoenix College. Soon after graduation, she packed her bags and moved to Los Angeles to work in the Hollywood area, cleaning the teeth of the rich and often famous. Additionally, she started working as a part-time clinical instructor at the University of Southern California. Seeking a new challenge, she set her sights on the corporate world.

"I loved hygiene and wanted to do something related to hygiene, but I also wanted to challenge myself," shares Tom. "I began to apply for jobs in the sales area of some of the large dental companies. Unfortunately, most of them were looking for firm sales experience, not clinical experience."

Sales training in India
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Persistence paid off. A dental fluoride company hired her to be on their sales team. In a short time, the company was purchased by Colgate-Palmolive. Tom found herself in the big leagues at last.

copyright Mary Kate Denny
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"I had just gotten my foot in the sales door when the purchase happened," Tom explains, "and I was doing really well in sales. I was working indirectly for Colgate when I won my first sales award, Rookie of the Year. But with the merger of the two companies, there were now two sales forces, and personnel cuts began.

"I was worried, because I only had one year of experience, and many people with more seniority were losing their jobs. When my manager sat me down I thought, 'Oh boy, here it comes.' But instead of letting me go, he said they were keeping me and giving me a new territory. I later won the President's Award, which not only recognizes top sales, but teamwork, initiative, professionalism, and superior customer service."

The sales awards kept coming. She was in the Colgate Hall of Fame for five years in a row and was soon in the position of national sales trainer, traveling all over the country. During this time, she was part of the creation and development of a complete training curriculum. She also began training an international sales force located in Hong Kong and in Bombay, India.

"It was a very intense time," Tom says about her international travel. "In India, they knew nothing about dentistry, and there was a language barrier. I had to work intensively to gain their respect since I am a female. I learned so much about their culture and the people. It really makes you appreciate what you have when you come home to the United States."

Her next position required her to move from Los Angeles to San Francisco to take on a new role as Northwest district sales manager. There, she managed nine sales representatives covering five states. She traveled more than 80 percent of the time. The traveling took its toll on her, even as a single person. She wonders how married women with children do it.

"It takes a lot of dedication and time commitment to successfully balance a career and a personal life," Tom muses about this time in her life.

Now, with experience in sales, training, and management, she began her next position as product marketing manager for Colgate Oral Pharma ceuticals, necessitating a move to their corporate headquarters in Canton, Mass. While this new position did not require as much travel, product management consumed much more than a typical 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job. She sometimes spent more than 12 hours a day in the office.

"I worked long, hard hours, but dedication always pays off in the long run," she stresses.

Marketing was a dream for her because it allowed her develop new products and programs to benefit dental professionals, specifically dental hygienists.

After 10 years of employment at Colgate, Tom left the company in March 2000. She wanted to return to the Western United States.

"My family and friends are there, and I just like living on the West coast," she says.

She applied for a job with Discus Dental, Inc., in Los Angeles and was hired as a brand manager for the oral hygiene marketing department. Five months later, she was promoted to director of marketing.

"I really want to market innovative products that dental professionals want and can benefit from," she says. "Working for a large corporation usually takes longer to bring products to market.

"Now, I can work with my project team in a much closer capacity to get quality products out to dental professionals in a shorter time frame. Soliciting hygienists' feedback on product likes and dislikes is very important in product development with Discus Dental. Many people who have ideas related to oral hygiene therapy have come to us for our marketing expertise and dental reputation."

Tom says she is starting to get more hygienists involved in product development.

"Basically, I want to maintain my hygiene background - not just for my career, but to help dental hygiene become more effective with patient care and a more profitable entity in the dental practice. The end users of our products are our patients, who will benefit from these products in the long run."

For hygienists who are thinking of hanging up the scrubs for the corporate world, Tom offers some advice: "So many hygienists I meet would like to do what I do. But it is so much more than looking nice and handing out samples. You have to go into an office believing in your products, believing that you can consult and sell your products, and believing that you ultimately will help both the dental professional and the patient."

Many clinical hygienists aren't used to a corporate lifestyle. If you are interested in pursuing a career change in sales and marketing, you must consider all of the consequences associated with the change. Clinical hygiene is a very lucrative career - one in which you can choose your employer, your hours, and the locations you prefer to work. It definitely is not the same in a corporate environment.

But if you are interested in constant challenges and in developing professional relationships, and are self-motivated, disciplined, organized, and have a desire to climb the corporate ladder, then corporate sales may be your ticket out of those scrubs.

Cathleen Terhune Alty, RDH, is a frequent contributor. She is based in Clarkston, Mich.

If you are interested in a career change from clinical hygiene to sales, consider these tips:

1. Understand that sales is "consulting" and not sample-dropping. Sample-droppers are not true sales consultants. Most sales consultants who know and believe in their products usually are successful because their customers believe in them and will buy from them based upon their knowledge, trust, and relationship, not from samples left behind.

2. Believe in and use the company's products that you're interested in pursuing. This will give you credibility when you consult with other dental professionals. Think about it; would you give your patient something that you haven't used yourself?

3. Ask yourself: As a hygienist, do I sell to my patients (restorative procedures, crown and bridge work, aesthetics, hygiene products, etc)? If so, you are probably a good candidate for sales. If not, try selling to your patients. That's what you would being doing for a living as a sales consultant.

4. Are you self-motivated? Can you discipline yourself to wake up every morning without a specific time to be somewhere? Sales involves true self-motivation and discipline. If you don't possess these traits, you are doomed for failure in sales.

5. Be able to handle resistance and rejection. Don't take rejection personally. Most resistance is due to a misconception about a product or service. You'll eventually learn how to handle these situations, so don't think it has anything to do with you. You are not selling yourself; you are selling the products that you represent. Everyone will not jump on your bandwagon 100 percent of the time. Over time, you will build relationships and trust with your customers, and that will help you sell your products.