There are some serious misconceptions surrounding the world of sales and so as a part of the “Journal of a Mad Saleswoman” series, I figured I’d tackle them one by one, because while I have lots of things going on in my life, I’m appointing myself keeper of the “sales concepts” keys. So here goes.
Being pretty, cute, stunning, beautiful, or any other synonym of externally attractive will never be the qualifier for great at your craft. This may seem like a rant but I find it belittling, as a woman and a salesperson, when I hear people equate the business of selling successfully to the conceptual format and qualification of being Miss Universe (former beauty queens need not write in attempting to justify that beauty isn’t the standard for winning in those environments). And, lest someone who knows me well calls me out, I’d like to say that this doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy dressing for success, purchasing cosmetics and knowledge of the latest trends, however, I’ve NEVER associated my ability to clothe myself or be “well turned out” with my success as a salesperson. As a matter of fact, I’ve had equal success with inside and outside sales or as I like to say “voice activated or manual”, often having zero face to face interaction with the intended buyer.
I thought the, “so funny”, “so pretty” you should go into sales thing was long over until I saw a tweet from an apparent 20-something stating that her beauty quotient was so high that she was considering a career in sales; the tweet was more like, OMG, I’m so pretty, I’m considering going into sales–but I thought I’d help with the intelligence part. My first thought, well you have enough misguided confidence to take the risk, so there’s that. My second thought? Do people really believe that’s what moves product these days?
In the sales world, originally door to door, since that was the means of mass communication, the sales force was identifiable by one word: salesmen. Ironically, while the buying population that these men were targeting were stay at home moms there was no expectation that “beef cake” was doing the promoting but that slick talking, quick-witted men who could handle the “woman of the house” and convince her to buy while the “Mr.” was at work would be the most viable candidate for the role. So whether it was encyclopedias, pots and pans, or even Kirby vacuums, men dominated the sales work force far longer than many other “office based” fields. The lopsided perspective of the sexes promoted the belief that an intellectually superior male could sell to a submissive house frau, never mind his appearance.
Based on the concept of male to female sales audience, I guess it’s not surprising that an attractive woman would have an easier time selling to a male buying population but the original saleswomen weren’t selling to men, they were selling to other women. So, how did the shallow, pretty lil salesgirl mantra, become relevant? My belief (it’s not a science but I think it makes sense), the original saleswomen were primarily hawking vanity commodities: makeup and hair products. Like most products, the best advertisement is from that of the end user so Madame C.J. Walker promoted the value of her pressing comb with the usage on her own coif, no different from Mary Kay Ash extolled the value of her beauty business with a full face. Rather than the assumption being that women could sell ANY product regardless of look, the beauty product saleswoman became the perception of what all saleswomen in any industry should be. Just imagine: the doorbell rings at 3pm and the man of the house happens to be home, meeting for the very first time, a saleswoman. Once he gets past the surprise of a beauty biz rep, he walks away with the original imagery…pretty. Years later as women began to break down the gender barriers and transition from the secretary role to apply for the Sales Assistant and then Account Executive position, the same man is the hiring authority with his fond memories of the successful, pretty, young, salesgirl, pitching cosmetics to his wife. As a matter of fact, the “spokesmodel” role, which is more marketing than sales, developed from a hybrid of this position (Clarion Girl circa ’75).
No offense to Mary Kay Ash (kudos to the Queen of MLM and her selling legions) but things have changed. Women are no longer (solely) selling gender-centric products with shallow intent and little skill. The divisional MK rep with the Pink Caddy, has to work hard to leverage her sales prowess in a crowded market where cosmetics is easily accessible, women have other means of skin care education (including YouTube) and product prices are competitive and often less expensive. Being pretty isn’t enough when you’re selling Analytical software to a Fortune 500 CFO or using general sales skills to obtain a job in an employer’s market. I’m not saying that Angelina Jolie isn’t gaining attention for her position as an Ambassador based on her looks as much as it may be her celebrity but let’s face it, that’s not the norm.
While I don’t doubt that being an attractive, “barn burner” (I’m using my ’50s Sinatra lingo here) is helpful in nabbing a position it’s not the modern-day platform for the average American women that wants to rise through the ranks of the professional workplace, sales or otherwise, where being female is often a hindrance among male counterparts. Batting eyelashes, pouty lips, and teased hair aren’t how the majority of serious sales professionals get ahead in the new era and if you get in on those coat tails, beware the glass ceiling it can create-albeit unfairly. The best of “our kind” have the communications skills that others (boys included) lack, the intelligence to engage an audience that may be lesser or better educated (depending on what you sell) and understand that people buy from those they identify with on many levels. Additionally, great saleswomen know that the buyer is rarely as shallow as the rookie sales mind would think (particularly when you work in a sales environment with a longer sales cycle and higher commissions).
Oh, and one other thing, if breaking into sales is your mission, before you begin practicing your pretty girl moves you may want to remember that the chances of selling to a woman that’s navigated the sales world on a lot more than the power of her YSL lipstick may not only be the buyer, she may be the hiring power, and gaining her respect is going to be even tougher than it would have been to gain that of her 1975 male counterpart.