More Than a Pretty Face

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 salesbut 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.

20 thoughts on “More Than a Pretty Face

  1. This is n excellent piece. I sold heavy duty restaurant equipment…very male dominated industry. While I’m no beauty, I did use what I could to my advantage…my legs! Hahaha! But it was only a door opener and nothing more. Fact is, I had to be better than all my male counterparts put together to close the deal.It’s not a bad thing, being underestimated by men (who often assume a great looking woman has an empty head or a different agenda). Ofetn it’s a bit more fun if they’ve underestimated you and you can shock them with your knowledge and savvy.

    • Thanks Jacquie! I agree that we all use certain aspects of our “charm” to our advantage but those of us who are experienced know that it only gets you so far. If you’re selling over the phone it’s all personality and the new breed may think that means flirting but experience is the greatest teacher in those cases!

  2. I have been in sales all my life. I sold real estate for 25 years. My main goal is and always has been to be credible. When I was selling I did dress to the nines. I had to watch what I wear as I didn’t want to compete with the housewife who may not get dressed up everyday. When I started my own business in promotional products there were few women in the field. I was told I wouldn’t make it. They were wrong. I wasn’t selling looks I was selling to people that respected me for who I was, not how my face looked or my body. Those types of people are shallow and probably return what they buy anyway. I loved the post. It is so true and one we don’t think about, but it is a reality.

    • Thanks Arleen, it’s great to get the perspective of someone who is a business owner and has also been on the employee sales side. Interestingly, real estate is one of those industries that I still believe is “appearance dominated”, perhaps because they are often selling to the generally shallow public!
      I had someone that disagreed and said beauty is an attention grabber, my response is “it’s not an attention keeper”. Selling is more like aiming for marriage than a one night stand. When you want to get married you choose someone that holds your attention in so many more ways than just the physical with the understanding that at some point appearance just isn’t enough!

      • Good analogy: selling = marriage, not a one-night stand. I also like this insight of yours: people buy from those they identify with on many levels.

        I did sales for well over a decade. I was a self-employed artist, and sold my cards and journals to stores nationwide, including many Whole Foods accounts. I had some face to face relationships, but I made the majority of my sales by building relationships on the telephone. As you know, sales is hard work, and skilled work. And physical attractiveness clearly has nothing to do with sales success if you are not meeting face to face :).

      • And as someone who has worked to “crack the nut” that is Whole Foods, it’s not an easy sale f2f or over the phone. I always enjoyed selling over the phone even more than in person because of the psychological nuance in reading tone and being able to convey a level of empathy without visible expression of emotion. A phone salesperson that has been highly successful (to me) is a rockstar!

  3. If you really want to get down to it, we’re *all* in sales, in one way or another. And in a lot of cases, being very attractive can actually work against you because people won’t take you seriously. In some other cases, it might help you get a foot in the door, but then you have to back that up quickly. It can also detract from the job at hand, unless you’re selling – as you point out – cosmetics or fashion. In my work as an auto writer, I always try to be look professional and well groomed – and SMART. I think smart is more important than gorgeous!

    • Agreed Krystyna, one of the seminars that I conduct is about selling yourself in any regard (business, relationships, etc). You make great points. I have a section on here that I need to update more called “Sales Girl” and it’s about the products, clothing, accessories that I like and that are a part of my signature “look”. I never disagree with the idea of being well presented UNTIL it becomes more important than being well prepared! Thank you for reading.

  4. I couldn’t help but think about Tyra Banks saying, if the picture is for a men’s magazine your shoulders are out to show off your chest, for a women’s magazine you shoulders are in. She showed two of her photos like it and sure enough I liked the shoulders in and my husband liked it out. Of course, I don’t always think that a guy will take your advice, based on your looks. In some cases it may backfire and they will think there is no one upstairs.

    • There are definitely things that appeal to women differently than man and vice versa. I wore my favorite attention grabbing but professional dress to a meeting with a male business owner and I could see that he liked it, his assistant (who was also his girlfriend–not so much). The audience matters but at the end of the day the message better be as stellar as the personality and appearance.

      If you see those mag covers, feel free to come back and post them, I’m curious!

    • I hope that the up and coming saleswomen begin to understand that the percentage of successful women that made it off of good old “hustle” are higher than those that rely on appearance only.

  5. Good piece and you are absolutely right that intelligence is crucial. However, when selling to C-level or higher, being a woman is an advantage. They want to have a meeting with her because they see it as a break. It would be much more difficult for a man to get a meeting.

    If she turns out to be not only intelligent but beautiful chances of coming to an agreement is high. Much higher than if a man had gone to the meeting. Sure, it’s wrong and unfair. But that’s how the world has always worked and always will.

    • I have to disagree with you! I sold to C-level execs in two separate spaces (Executive Recruitment and Surg/Medical Sales) and regardless of appearance men in the U.S. tend to have an expectation of how a meeting will go–they can be entertained by good looks anytime but a meeting with man is immediately thought of as one where they will get the job done and that “break” they perceive they will get with the woman usually requires her to rope it in or strong arm the meeting a little more to gain their focus.

      I don’t deny that appearance is important but by the time you make it to a certain level or sell in a certain field, it’s about the specs, the product, the value add of the service more than anything else and savvy business people will ultimately buy from an educated, less attractive woman just as quickly as they would anyone else if she has proven the value of her product. Beauty is a dime a dozen any more (thanks to plastic surgery, enhancements, and the change of societal perspective) but intelligence is fascinating and harder to come by.

  6. Unfortunately, attractive people tend to do better in life. They are more likely to get a job, get a raise, get a promotion, make more money for their companies, be better regarded…sadly, I could go on. This is not my particular opinion, it’s been studied over and over again with the same disappointing results. Rice University did a study (Discrimination against facially stigmatized applicants in interviews: An eye-tracking and face-to-face investigation.) on this a few years ago and their conclusion was, looks do matter. Is it logical? Not particularly, but if you were a leader of an organization and you had two employees with similar skills, but only one could go out to make a critical sale, you would be wise to send the good looking one, whether they were male or female.

    I come out of the world of politics, very old white male dominated. I should have had an impossible time, but somehow I became the Vice-President of my organization and I never lacked job offers. I don’t doubt my own skills or insight, but I also know how I looked played a big part in how well I did. Does that mean that skill and ability don’t matter? Of course not, but we don’t operate in a fair world. We’ve done a terrific job of selling beauty to ourselves. We’ve ingrained it into our minds that it matters and somehow makes a person more valuable. Whether it’s now self-fulfilling prophesy or cultural bias is unclear, but as dumb as it is, it is.

    The upside is that our attitude has a lot to do with how we are perceived. When we carry ourselves with confidence and aplomb, (smiling, delivering a skilful or charming compliment, being witty etc.) are all interpreted as attractive. So in some respects, we’ve learned how to outwit one foolish bias with another. 🙂

    • Thanks Debra for the comment.

      I never doubt that being attractive, dressing well, being conscious of appearance isn’t beneficial (one reason that I felt that I should disclose my penchant for pretty, shiny baubles and accessories) but I do think it’s the wrong reason to decide that you would be a natural in the sales game or other professional roles–the reason behind my article.

      It’s interesting that my readers that find appearance to be most important are from outside of the states! We all want to believe that the shallow perspective of employers, people, etc are an American concept but it’s obvious that women all over the world are groomed to believe that appearance trumps all. I have a teenage daughter and while I reinforce the value of grooming, etc. I always remind her that as a woman she should be focused on grooming her mind and to be prepared to face challenges with intellect. In the corporate world, where the standard of beauty for the controlling majority (white males), is not brown skin or afro-centric features, I refuse to teach her to rely on it since, as pretty as she is, it may not pass muster for someone who prefers blondes with blue eyes. Her intellect, warm nature, ability to be direct, and natural sincerity are just as beautiful to me as her outside.

  7. Well said Steph. I may lay some strange things at the door of Americans, but thinking that people can’t make it on sheer will and hard work is NOT an American way of looking at life. 🙂

    • Thanks, it’s one of the best things about our country. There are some obvious examples of women that didn’t make it on the basis of movie star looks and there are some that we know did, but they didn’t go very far. The concept isn’t even sustainable (long term) in Hollywood!

  8. When I was in sales, I used my education and experience to help my customers. Sometimes your gender can play against you and this is true even for men. I believe that everyone puts their best forward.

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