Stereotypes about sellers and the sales profession are not changing for the better. After conducting extensive research with buyers about preferred seller behaviors, I’ve started thinking that B2B buyers – now more than ever – have an extremely negative perception about sellers in general.
I recently tested this theory with a group of 22 senior managers who represented all functional areas of an organization. Before we moved into the workshop topic of “unconscious bias,” I asked them to draw a picture of a typical salesperson. That’s all they got from me — no instructions at all about stereotypes or perceptions or what else to include in their drawings.
Over half of their pictures had prominent dollar signs (four showed dollar signs in the sellers’ eyes). Seven showed a dominant seller standing over a cowering buyer. All 22 pictures featured a man.
I didn’t expect that. The dollar signs and dominating personas weren’t a surprise. But the lack of female sellers gave me a jolt. I asked the group why they didn’t draw women. Their answers ranged from “There aren’t any women who call on me” to “Women are different. They don’t seem so pushy.”
You’ve probably seen some of the data that suggests women are more effective in selling because they listen better and empathize more with buyers. I’m an advocate for all sellers to step up their communication and connecting skills, and I don’t believe that all women are more effective in selling than all men. But maybe there’s something to this, something we can learn from these buyer perceptions about how sellers are showing up.
CSO Insights reported in “The Growing Buyer-Seller Gap” that 65.2% of buyers in their study found value in discussing their situations with sellers (vs. AI or DIY). In the research conducted for “Stop Selling & Start Leading,” buyers told us that the behavior they want to see most frequently in sellers include “the seller answers my questions in a timely and relevant manner” and “the seller engages me in two-way dialogue about my needs.” Taken together, there is ample evidence that buyers are very interested in working with sellers who listen, respond, and dignify what buyers are telling them.
Which begs the question. Are women better able to have the kinds of conversations that buyers want to have? Some would say that’s absolutely true.
I’m not so quick to draw this conclusion. I’m a field sales coach and a buyer. I observe sellers. I buy from sellers. I also conduct research with buyers. Aside from these hints about seller stereotypes, there isn’t complete and compelling data that proves women are “better” in any way or have inherent traits that better equip them to sell.
What’s more, I’ve yet to hear a buyer say that they would prefer to buy from a woman. What they say, instead, is that they prefer to buy from sellers who exhibit certain behaviors more frequently. I’m just not convinced that gender is the differentiator that leads to more sales.
This may be an unpopular position for a strong, successful woman in sales to take. Here’s why I’m sticking to my position.
First, I don’t believe there are any traits or characteristics or skills that are unique to women. If some women have certain tendencies to behave the way buyers prefer, then so do some men. I’ve seen people of every gender identity succeed in sales. I’ve also seen women fail in selling because they did not choose the behaviors that buyers prefer.
Second, based on research with buyers, we know that sellers of all genders succeed more when they choose to step into leadership. Buyers want sellers to guide them using The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® (an evidence-based framework of leadership developed by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner). Leadership behaviors require no special talent, skill, or traits. They simply require a choice. That’s accessible to anyone.
Finally, when it comes to comparing men and women in selling, we must acknowledge that the stereotypes are more attached to men because salesmen still hold the majority of sales roles. We don’t have “used car saleswoman” stereotypes because we don’t have movies about or experiences with used car saleswomen. This is patently unfair to men who are burdened with stereotypes they didn’t create and largely reject. The people in my test group drew pictures of men because they’re accustomed to seeing men doing the work of selling.
And that, in my opinion, is why women have an advantage when it comes to selling. Women aren’t saddled with these stereotypes. They don’t automatically compare themselves to or get compared by others to the “Wolf of Wall Street” and “Glengarry Glen Ross” characters. Women have a certain liberty in selling that men do not. Because there aren’t as many examples of women sellers, this generation of women sellers has a unique opportunity to make its mark.
Women can lead in our profession by putting a new face on sales. Women who choose careers in selling can reframe buyer perceptions. The more women who enter selling, the more the old stereotypes will fade away. This benefits everyone who wants to succeed in selling and is willing to put away those old sales-y behaviors and replace them with leadership behaviors that buyers prefer.
It starts with communicating in ways that buyers prefer. Every seller, regardless of gender, is capable of answering questions, engaging in two-way dialogue, and listening effectively. Every seller is capable of leading, and every buyer is waiting for the seller who will.