THE BLOG
10/16/2014 12:53 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2014

Selling to Women... It's Time to Get Scientific and Serious

I am doing research on selling to women...and this means reading a big pile of academic journal articles on selling. In this post, I will provide a very scant summary of what I've read so far and offer brief conclusions on what needs to be done to better understand how to sell to women.

One article really captured my imagination -- an article by Moncrieff et al (2002). These authors make a number of very interesting points, including the fact that much of what we know about managing salespeople is based on research from the 1970s. Given the increased participation of women in the workforce, the authors suggest it is time to revisit and update our assumptions about gender differences among salespeople. Good.

I also came across an article from 1998 that captured my imagination. Jones et al. argue that many women and ethnic minorities are cut out of sales positions because they are not seen as credible. The authors found that first impressions do influence perceptions as to whether a sales person has expertise, is likeable and is attractive. Trustworthiness, however, is built over time. As an aside, part of the authors' findings found that female salespeople are seen as more trustworthy.

As I read Moncrief et al.'s article, another important finding jumped out at me: the dearth of academic research on how to sell to female customers. Most research on selling is on sales management and most originates from the business-to-business context and so focuses more on men selling to men. Very few studies focus on how to effectively sell to women -- either how men should sell to women or how women should sell to women. Now, that's interesting.

For those of you who are trained academically, I was also shocked to see the very small number of times that articles dealing with selling to or by women were cited. Without knowing any better, I concluded that academics who conduct research on sales (many of whom are men) are perhaps concerned about stepping into the gender "can of worms."

We already know that women influence around 85 percent of all purchase decisions and so you would think that the science behind selling to women would be more robust. How wrong are we.

What do we know? We know that, on average, men and women are different.

1. On average, girls have better verbal ability than boys [I use the term 'on average' because not all girls will have a superior verbal ability, etc.].
2. On average, boys have better visual-spatial ability than girls
3. On average, boys excel at math.
4. On average, boys are more aggressive than girls (Macoby and Jacklin, 1974).

We also know that stereotypes can influence research that results in conclusions such as those listed above. Stereotypes can distort studies -- for example, a mother might answer that her daughter is feminine simply because her daughter is a girl. If asked about the daughter's play, the mother might respond that the daughter plays rough (for a girl) but if she was commenting on her son, who played similarly, the mother might not consider the play to be rough at all (Hines 2004).

Stereotypes can also influence the way in which we expect people to behave in certain situations. For example, we expect women to cry when they are feeling hurt or sad; we expect women to be more verbal; and we expect women to place a greater emphasis on developing harmonious relationships.

When I read the few books written on selling to women, I see a heavy reliance on gender stereotypes. These books also fall into the same old trap of assuming that all women are the same -- and so recommend a worn out "one size fits all" approach.

To effectively sell to women means to embrace the fact that there are many differences between women. Given the changing role of women in society today, we also need to embrace the view that women (and men) adapt -- as more women participate in the workforce and in particular participate in positions of leadership, people will be less surprised when women excel in behaviors that were once seen as the domain of men: competitiveness, assertiveness, data analysis, talk less about feelings and more about activities, etc.

Selling to women is complicated. Implementing sales training programs that play to gender stereotypes is no longer good enough.

References

Hines, Melissa. (2004). Brain Gender. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jones, E., Moore, J.N., Stanaland, Andrea J.S., Wyatt, R.A.J. (1998). "Walsperson race and gender and the access and legitimacy of paradigm: Does difference make a difference?" Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, 18(4): 71-88

Macoby, E.E., & Jacklin, C.N. (1974). The psychology of sex differences. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Moncrief, William C., Babakus, Emin, Cravens, David W., & Johnston, Mark W. (2000). Examining Gender Differences in Field Sales Organizations. Journal of Business Research, 49, 245-257.