In a changing market, Penn Vet’s Melissa Parmer is committed to helping veterinarians with their pain points.
Melissa Parmer knew from a young age that she wanted to work in animal health. She grew up in rural Lancaster County and spent a lot of time on the local Old Order Mennonite farms. Her first job, at age 10, was working on the farm picking cantaloupes and harvesting tobacco and hay.
Her first aspiration was to become a horse jockey, but she quickly grew too tall for that. Parmer would make halters out of bailing twine and ride the horses in the pasture. “I was surrounded by all the farm animals and was always playing with the dogs and cats and hand milked the cows, too,” she said. “I was fascinated by the cycle of life and dreamed of becoming a veterinarian in Colorado.”
Hard work was something she relished. Parmer said she was fortunate enough to earn partial academic and athletic scholarships and self-financed the rest of her education to become the first person in her family to go to college. She earned her associate’s degree in Veterinary Science Technology, followed by a bachelor’s degree in Animal Bioscience.
Then, something unexpected happened on the way to becoming a veterinarian. To earn money to go to veterinary school, she started work as an inside sales representative with Penn Vet in 1991. “I found that I loved building relationships and helping accounts,” she said, “and decided not to go to veterinary school.”
Instead, she focused on a successful career on the business side of animal health. From 1991-1999, Parmer worked for Penn Vet as an inside account manager, and then a senior account manager. In 1999, she took a sales rep job with Schering-Plough, eventually becoming a regional trainer for the manufacturer. Parmer said the opportunity helped stretch her professionally. It took a lot of practice, time, and exposure to different people to enable her to be more comfortable speaking in large group settings and to varied audiences, she said. “I was painfully shy growing up, and this experience allowed me to expand my level of comfort in a multitude of ways.”
When Schering was bought by Merck, Parmer came back to Penn Vet as a territory business manager. “I had kept in contact with Penn Vet over the years and reached out to see what opportunities might be available,” she said. “I was comfortable with outside sales at this point and by chance, the local territory was open at Penn Vet. When one door closes, another one opens. I had been frustrated with the changes in the human pharmaceutical industry, particularly declining access to physicians. With my background in animal health and my sales experience and growth, it was like I was coming home.”
One of the things Parmer loves about working in sales is that there is always change. “I need that to stay engaged and challenged,” she said. “There has been a tremendous amount of change in our industry pre-COVID as well. The ability of Penn Vet and our reps to adapt and be there for our accounts has been key during this difficult time.”
While Parmer has always considered herself a relationship-based rep, it became more critical amid the pandemic. Parmer said she was fortunate enough to have developed relationships and earned trust before the pandemic, so she was able to get out earlier than a lot of other salespeople to see some of her clinics in person after the lockdown lifted in Pennsylvania. When the lockdown happened, Parmer already had experience connecting with customers remotely, and not just with her previous role as an inside sales rep. Four years ago in May of 2018, Parmer was diagnosed with breast cancer. She said throughout her treatment and recovery, Penn Vet was very supportive of her. “I was able to develop relationships on the phone because I wasn’t out in the field. So, it sort of prepared me for COVID.”
Meeting with accounts in the manner and time that worked for them and listening and responding to their needs was her primary goal. “I continue to want to excel at customer service and am known for quick responses to questions and issues,” she said. “Though I cannot help the veterinarians with staff shortages, I focus on helping with other pain points.”
Keeping accounts updated on supply chain issues and pricing changes has become even more critical, as well as finding service-oriented options to help with other challenges. Parmer also continued to deliver emergency items and equipment to her accounts, even if after hours or on weekends.
For reps to succeed in their territories today, Parmer said they must have a comfort level with technology, as the offerings continue to evolve. With online pharmacies expanding and further impacting the veterinarian, finding alternative options to help the practices she calls on to compete is important. “We focus on the independent, family-owned practices, and helping them succeed in this arena is important to me.”
The way accounts prefer to order has shifted as well, she said. Partnerships with inside reps and Penn Vet’s website have strengthened over the last few years. “I have always been about offering my accounts options and finding the one that best fits their wants and needs.” Communication in any way the account needs has changed even more in the last few years. Parmer said she takes orders via text and Facebook messenger now more than ever before.
As the nation went through the Omicron wave in late 2021 and early 2022, Parmer said clinics in her territory were often short staffed, dealing with turnover with techs, and struggling to find veterinarians to hire. “COVID has literally wiped out several of my clinics where they’ve had to close for a week,” she said. “Omicron has been worse in some ways than previous waves, because they’ve had to shut down this time. Especially some of my one-doctor clinics with less staff, it’s literally gone through and hit everyone.” In many cases, hours have been shortened. Some customers have gone back to curbside appointments and mask requirements, but others haven’t. “It goes back to doing what the customer needs me to do and listening to their needs and wants, and providing them options, and aligning myself to those.”
The way in which practices communicate with pet owners has changed and will continue to change, she said. “Some of the positives from COVID are pushing the industry towards texting and more social media involvement.” The stress on the front desk with the phones, the time taken with writing prescriptions for (online pharmacies), etc. has been an issue, but it really “blew up” the past few years. Parmer said more progressive practices are seeking out solutions to these challenges. “Listening to my accounts’ pain points and offering them options with our service partners and our website make me feel helpful and also helps to build the bond between them and Penn Vet.”
Attentive and involved
Outside of work, Parmer is the mother of two teenagers, so she is constantly on the go. Her son just turned 16 years old. Parmer loves volunteering with his Boy Scout Troop with Scouting for Food and Wreaths Across America. For Scouting for Food, every November, the scouts go out and put bags on doors across town, then collect them the following weekend for the food pantry. Their involvement with Wreaths Across America is a way to honor veterans in the community (Parmer’s family has a history of military service). “[My son’s] troop is very service-oriented, which is so important to me.” She also serves on the Boy Scout Committee and focuses on fundraising efforts.
Meanwhile, Parmer’s daughter is an athlete. Parmer has coached her daughter’s softball team and loves to attend her games and meets when she can.
Service is also a big part of their activities. Parmer said when she was younger, her family didn’t have a lot and relied on neighbors and the community to a degree. She wants her children to understand that some people go through rough times. “Particularly lately, with COVID and everything else going on in the world, it’s important to give back to the community and to be a part of that community.”
As a family, the Parmers attend many veterinary clinic open houses and rescue/shelter fundraisers. “I want my children to understand the importance of being involved in the community.”
With three cats from rescues and shelters, Parmer is teaching her children the responsibility of caring for an animal. “They know that I believe when you adopt an animal, it’s your responsibility for life,” she said. “It’s important to see just how many animals are out there that need homes.”
Parmer’s daughter has expressed interest in becoming a veterinarian. On days off from school, she’s ridden along to veterinary practices, watched surgeries, seen parasites removed, and how the veterinary practices operate. “She loves it, and it exposes her to what I’m doing.”
Words of wisdom
Parmer said she has been fortunate to have managers who have helped her grow in her career. “I think one of the things that has helped me through 31 years of working in pharmaceuticals is looking at the big picture,” she said. “We all want that sale, and we want that big sale, but things have changed. Over the years, less vets are buying heartworm or flea and tick medication for the whole year. I think looking at the big picture rather than the small picture is important. As people have heard me say a lot, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Never stop learning
To get better, Parmer said she frequently seeks out feedback from her accounts and managers on what she can do to improve. “I am also my harshest critic, always evaluating what I could have done better in a situation,” she said. “I love to read and participate in meetings and learn from my peers as well. My thought process is that if I stop learning, I start withering. I always want to be a resource for my accounts and their go-to when they have questions or concerns.”