Sales success for women

The changing role of sales is well suited to women who offer valuable skills to complement those of their male colleagues, says Professor Lynette Ryals, pro-vice-chancellor of education at Cranfield University

Until recently, sales has been characterised by the language of “hunters and farmers”. Aggressive, testosterone-fuelled sales “hunters” tracked down their customer prey and browbeat them until they surrendered and made a purchase, while “farmers” toiled away in marketing and customer services at planting the seeds that would grow future relationships.

This rather unattractive view of selling has contributed to its reputation as a male-dominated profession. While 63 per cent of people working in sales and customer service are women, according to the Office for National Statistics in 2013, it is thought women are far more likely to choose customer service roles and less than 30 per cent of salespeople are women.

It’s time to recognise that this view of sales is outdated and to revisit the role of women in sales. In fact, as evidence has accumulated that it is much better for business to retain an existing customer than to win a new one, there has been a dramatic change in the sales role

Technology has accelerated this process, largely replacing the salesperson’s traditional function of providing information about products and services. Today, customers can access online sources to find most of the information they need. So, the salesperson’s role is evolving into relationship management, communication and problem-solving. Skills such as managing people, building teams and generating trust with the customer are increasingly prized.

While earlier research into what makes salespeople successful focused on masculine characteristics, such as drive and the will to win, recent research into sales success has identified two vital characteristics – enjoying problem-solving and being responsive to social cues from others. So would it pay companies to increase the proportion of women in their sales teams?

Skills such as managing people, building teams and generating trust with the customer are increasingly prized

Certainly, there are grounds to believe that women are generally better at social skills than men. This in turn may translate into sales success – a recent study of competing teams in an undergraduate business game found that mixed teams produced better sales and profits results than male-dominated teams. A gender-mixed team has access to a greater diversity of skills, which may contribute to higher performance. Other research has suggested that mixed teams have higher social sensitivity, which may increase responsiveness to cues from others and hence link to sales success.

At the moment there are relatively few saleswomen at the very top. According to the Female FTSE Board Report 2014, produced by the Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders, just 15.6 per cent of executive directors of FTSE 100 companies are female. Of those 160 women directors, only eight are in selling or commercial roles.

But there are some examples of women being outstandingly successful through a career in sales. The National Association of Professional Women’s Professional Woman of the Year 2014 is a saleswoman, Terri Brady. And Ginni Rometty, the first woman to lead IBM, the world’s largest IT and consulting services company, was global sales leader before taking over as chief executive in 2012. The message is – don’t rule out a career in sales if you are a woman.

Professor Ryals was previously professor of strategic sales and account management at Cranfield University, an exclusively postgraduate university.