For Strategic Account Executive Eric Eckton, working at Cepheid is a chance to combine his passions for sales and science—and help not only customers and their patients, but his colleagues. Below, he explains the path that led him to the company and how he’s grown since, reflects on the recent wins and challenges in his role, and shares what he’s excited about in Cepheid’s future—and his future career.
My title is strategic account executive, which for me basically means laying out what we want to accomplish for our customers and then working with our local teams to help execute that strategy. I’m focused primarily on several large health systems in the Southeast U.S., talking with executives and medical directors about how our tests can help them treat patients more effectively and efficiently. Right now, most of those conversations are about our PCR test for COVID-19; there’s still a lot of need, and our product is the fastest and most accurate one on the market. But Cepheid also provides close to two dozen other critical tests, for everything from strep A to STDs.
Internally, I like to say my role allows me to “lead without authority,” meaning I do a lot of coaching and mentoring, but I don’t deal with things like expenses and performance reviews that come with having direct reports.
I also get to help out people I usually don’t work with directly—if a sales rep in a different area is facing a tricky situation, they might come to me for some advice on how to handle it.
I think I was always a salesperson at heart, but I was also interested in science. In college, I actually started out planning to be a physical therapist, which gave me a background in biology, chemistry, anatomy, and physiology. But ultimately, I decided that wasn’t a good fit for me, and after graduation I started working in marketing for a sports broadcasting company and bartending on the side. One of my customers at the bar happened to lead a company that did transcription and dictation services for hospitals, and he encouraged me to apply for a sales job.
After that, I spent some time selling to veterinary labs, and then I moved into the diagnostics space—including at a company called LABSCO, which at the time was Cepheid’s exclusive distributor. So I actually sold Cepheid products even before I worked here. I was impressed by the difference Cepheid’s use of the PCR method makes in patient care, and after a few years, I had the chance to join the team. I started out as an instrument specialist, which is essentially a subject matter expert who supports sales reps, and over the course of a couple years, I went from working with 3 reps to 12. Then in 2019, I was tapped on the shoulder for this new position, where I’m focused on the decisions being made at the health-system level.
One thing that’s great about Cepheid is there’s a true team approach to selling—and we have an amazing team. We have territory executives and field application specialists that really understand the intricacies of testing, and I’ve learned a lot from working with them. Before a presentation, it isn’t uncommon to have people in half a dozen different roles get on a call together to share what we know and discuss together how we can best help the customer.
I also learn a lot from our customers themselves. We have a saying in the lab industry: “If you’ve seen one lab, then you’ve seen one lab.” Each one really is run differently—with COVID-19, for example, every health system has its own protocol for testing. So it’s important to do what we at Danaher call “going to Gemba,” which in Japanese roughly means going to “the place where work is done.”
Talking to customers is really the best way to learn what they’re doing day-to-day, and to understand how we can help.
A recent win that comes to mind was helping a customer dramatically reduce their turnaround time for COVID tests. It’s so critical to get results as quickly as possible—if a patient comes to a freestanding ER with respiratory symptoms, for example, knowing whether they have COVID-19 or another condition can change how they’re transported to the main hospital. But the time required to run the actual test itself often isn’t the only factor; in this case, for example, the health system was using a courier to move samples from all of their locations to the main hospital. We were able to not only move them to a faster, more automated solution but also help them decentralize and set up products in each location, much closer to the patients. Now people can get results within 45 minutes, which has been invaluable.
COVID-19 created a lot of challenges. For us in sales, being remote was a big adjustment. Body language and other nonverbal cues are so important, and they’re hard to read when everyone’s on Zoom. We learned to pause more between questions and make sure to give people plenty of time to think. But in some ways, going remote has also opened up communication. There are customers I might have struggled to get in-person time with before, but meeting virtually was easier—and now we’re on texting terms. Some things, like presentations that involve a large group, might always be easier in person. But since we’re starting to do some limited travel again, we can prioritize those.
Another big COVID-related challenge was the high demand. It takes a lot to manufacture those little cartridges, and of course everyone wanted them—as well as our other tests, which are also very valuable. So we’ve had to make hard decisions about resource allocation.
But one thing I really like about Cepheid is that our leaders genuinely want to hear what the customers are experiencing, and we’re encouraged to share that feedback. Just recently, for example, we had slowed production of a non-COVID-19 test, but our customers asked to get it more quickly. So we pivoted to pump up inventory levels and make sure we’re meeting their needs.
I first got involved in the LatinX + Friends ARG. I’m a first-generation American—my mom was from Mexico—and I was raised in the Latin community and culture.
But before Cepheid, I never really embraced that at work, and at times had even been told I was too high-energy or too emotional. By the time I started here, I sort of hid that part of myself away. Then I got an email about the ARG, and I decided to join the call and just observe. The stories other associates shared really resonated with me, and as I got to share my own experiences—including with Cepheid’s leaders—I started to feel more comfortable being my authentic self.
Working here has helped me better understand other underrepresented groups, too. Not many weeks go by without at least getting an email that highlights someone’s experience, and I’ve been able to participate in other ARGs like Black + Friends, as well. I really appreciate that diversity is a focus, because if everyone is thinking and talking the same, how can we really grow? We still have a long way to go, especially in terms of diversity in leadership. But from the top levels of the company, I think there is a genuine understanding and interest in having those conversations. That’s very refreshing.
For Cepheid, it feels like the sky’s the limit. Our growth has allowed us to make huge investments in our testing—both expanding our portfolio and also improving the efficiency of our existing products. It’s also meant we need to keep building the plane while we’re flying it; in one division, for example, we’re more than doubling our sales force right now.
And for individual associates, myself included, growth comes with a lot of opportunities to develop and do more. Right now, I’m heading a “competitive intel” team that’s looking at what it takes to win within health systems, and I’m part of various leadership development programs. For one program, I was recently paired with a mentor who’s several levels above me, and he’s been helping me think beyond my comfort zone. I’ll tell him that in the next year or so I want to manage my own team, and he’ll ask, “Okay, and what do you want to do five years from now?” He’s also worked in various departments, including Marketing and Operations, so he’s helping me think beyond sales, too, and realize that seemingly different roles can have a lot in common. So much of it comes down to good communication. It’s been great, because he really understands and cares about what our customers are thinking—and what I’m thinking, too.