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.

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Dear Journal: I Used To Be A Salesgirl

lbg tumbler

Not me…but isn’t she a cutie?

I used to be a sales”girl”.  Way back in the early days of my career.  Youthful and eager.  Yup…eager to please, eager to be liked, and even eager to impress without expectations of ROI.  Youth, I’ve held on to (hence my Hello Kitty creative glasses) but I’ve learned to taper eager.

Am I enthusiastic? Yes!  Do I still embody the idea of bubbly? Absolutely! But the understanding of being more than a sales girl kicked in and I put my personal and professional need to succeed ahead of my need to please others!   As a matter of fact, I can clearly identify the things that I used to do when I was younger girl and what has changed:

1. I struggled with conversations about my paycheck or desired pay raises because my priority, in that area, was being grateful for my job.  My gratitude interfered with my desire to have frank conversations.

2.  I was hindered by FEAR.  The reason that I didn’t ask the questions about MY money is that I was afraid of the reaction and response.  I allowed the same level of fear to keep me from questioning prospects too firmly…maybe I was afraid of a “no”, maybe I was afraid of offending.  Who know’s.  The bottom line was I was afraid!

3.  I allowed things to happen TO and AROUND me.  When things were being changed in regard to process or procedure I would smile and keep silent.  Could the changes negatively affect my results?  Sure, but in my mind I would figure it out so I worked up a smile and kept silent.

4.  I let others determine my value to the company or team.  This is a fault of many women that I come across in the workplace.  I’m sure that it happens to some men as well but let’s focus on the women for this one.  At some point in our career we become happy with the praise that we are receiving and the feeling of being needed.  The companies need for me to produce and the occasional “thanks” was enough for me to keep doing what was necessary to please them and put my professional ambitions on the back burner.  For the people who fall into this trap you will find that they can’t clearly communicate their value when asked on the spot.

5. I gave away my one true power:  control over my career moves.  Early in my life, I believed other’s perception of me instead of understanding my true ability.  After a few disappointments and misdirection, I paired with the RIGHT mentors and became more introspective and honest about my desires and abilities.  I decided that I didn’t just want to be a saleswoman, I wanted to be THE saleswoman, the number one producer..and so I worked toward that.  When I accomplished that mission I didn’t allow it to make me stagnant, I changed course to move into another area of Sales that would use other aspects of my personality and skill set.  When I decided that professional mentoring, writing and sales leadership were also passions, I began my quest with this blog and other ventures.  The key to all of this:  I DECIDED, I MOVED, AND I TOOK RESPONSIBILITY.

6.  I did a lot while expecting very little in return.  My thought was that when you do well, people see it and reward you accordingly.  I learned the hard way that even in sales you must “tactfully toot your own horn”.  It doesn’t mean that you have to stand up in your cube wearing a tiara (I prefer a fascinator) and a I am woman, hear me roar sign, however, there’s nothing wrong with cataloging your successes and knowing when to use them strategically, whether it be to ask for a raise, a promotion, or a change in sales territory.  I often saw that men were allowed to beat their chests and howl at the moon upon closing a contract while women had to be gracious in their successes.  My belief there’s always a dignified yet direct way to howl at the moon!

7.  I bought into the myth of being misunderstood.  I didn’t want the perception of being ungrateful, angry or immature let alone the stereotype of the “angry black woman”–(I still don’t know where that came from) –so I was a notorious tongue biter.  After countless lost opportunities, I decided that I was less worried about being misunderstood and more concerned with being understood.  You would no longer have the opportunity to speak for me or mischaracterize me because I was going to say exactly what I needed to.  I picked my timing, place, tone and battles and moved forward accordingly.   This helped me tremendously.  If at that point a colleague or manager chose to misrepresent my intentions or expectations, I wouldn’t focus on it because it was out of my control.   The upside?  Misunderstandings happened a lot less when I spoke up for myself!

8.  I cried publicly because I was holding in my frustrations.  There is nothing worse than crying at work.  I hate it….but I’ve done (and will again) do it.  I’m emotional and it’s not because I have lady bits.  I’m emotional because I’m competitive, a bit of a sore loser–although I keep it to myself and congratulate others well, passionate about my clients and their needs, and I have an expectation of parity.  When I was younger, and not nearly as wise, “that’s okay” was my favorite phrase.  This was a personal trait that seeped into my professional life.    Commission short by a couple hundred dollars:  that’s okay.  An account that I worked on and developed closes and a slimy sales guy creeps in to fight for the spoils: that’s okay.  Use that phrase often enough and you become a volcano of dissatisfaction sure to burst into tears at the most inopportune moments.  Times have changed, now I address what I need to WHEN I need to.  The occasional tears spring up in frustration but I’m usually balling my fists up prepared for the fight of my life by then and I WILL get what I want.

9.  I allowed someone else to sell me on their intentions where I was concerned.  For a native New Yorker, I was one of the least cynical people I knew.  I had an innate desire to believe that when someone said they wanted the best for me that they truly did.  Unfortunately, there were a few mishaps before I learned that not everyone wants to see you succeed and the sales world can be full of “Mr. Mean #1 Salesreps”.  The nature of an individual sales territory is that you are focused on your results, your money, and your growth.  If you’re not first, someone else will be is usually the name of the game so many salespeople find it hard to encourage each other.  After my experience, I was determined not to be insecure in my wins or losses.  This allowed me to become a salesperson that wanted to help others grow because I knew that their success didn’t have an impact on my own.  There was enough money for all of us!

10.  I didn’t focus on the three things:  Who I spoke to, What I said, and How often I said it.  Sales is a number game, no matter how you look at it.  Instead of dialing as often as I could, asking the proper qualifying questions to get to the decision makers and moving quickly past the “no’s”, I became consumed by contracts that didn’t come in or missed opportunities.  I was a mess.  One of the first sales mentors that I had, Paul, told me “you can’t lose what you don’t have” and it was a lightbulb or Oprah Aha! moment.  I was wasting time putting thought into why I didn’t get the contract when I could pick up the phone and say “NEXT”.  Gratefully, it didn’t take me long to learn to focus on what I could control, say next and rebound quickly from failures…this has been a great key to my success throughout my career.

That’s right, I was in sales”girl” city.  Because of my reluctance to rock the boat, things happened to and around me, not for me.  While others touted the “smarter not harder” mentality, I worked hard with the understanding that it was the only smart way to achieve the results, yet I didn’t get the results that would matter in the long term.  I readily committed to working after hours both for myself and to impress leadership with my commitment, which is exactly what an eager little sales girl would do.

As I gained time and experience, I realized that I wasn’t managing my career, I was allowing others to do it for me.  I met metrics that satisfied the immediate goals for the company and my own small, personal gain but I didn’t set up metrics that would allow me to move beyond the cubicle.  I knew that I wanted to lead but I didn’t let the “powers that be” in on the secret.  I just figured that my hard work, tenacity, obvious commitment, and pace setting would be enough to earn the ultimate reward.

Little did I know that being a sales “girl” didn’t allow me the ability to use production as a means to an end the way that the boys did.  I had to do more.  I had to do things that would be risky.  Instead of producing and silently returning to my cube for the next dial, I had to smoothly announce and celebrate my wins.  Yes, I had to bring them to the attention of the boys that ran the club.

I had to take advantage of my positioning by making it clear that not only was I money motivated, as many great sales people are, but that I had career ambition and aspirations that reached far beyond the gray cloth walls that I lived in.  In one position a CEO told me that he wasn’t sure if “I was ready to lead a team of salespeople”, but acknowledged that colleagues were already coming to me for education and mentorship.  When I referenced the promotion of a freshly minted college graduate with no experience but a collegial affiliation with him, he ignored that statement but noted that if I “just stick around, you know that (sales management role) is a revolving door”.  Just stick around?  That might have worked when I was a salesgirls.

Growing out of a sales girl role required that I determined what role I would fill within a company and what strengths I brought to the table.  I understood after years of being agreeable that I would have to take the risk of politely reminding bosses of the accomplishments and achievements that should have earned me a higher standard.  Sales in a good environment is a perk laden world. It’s the only industry where discussing money isn’t taboo but actually is public measurement of achievement.  Even the most humble individual is looking for a little “scratch” on various levels.  A mentor once told me that the best ways to reward salespeople was “time and money”.  I figure the best reward myself is to make the best use of my career (time) and identify ways to have more resources (money).

Did I Hear You Correctly?

NPH Hear

My formative years were spent in two states: New York and New Jersey, both of which are known for their straight talk, mind your business, but keep it business attitudes, so admittedly, the fact that I was STARING at two people while they were deep in conversation is an absolute “no ma’am”!  Yes, I was staring as they conversed.  I, who have judged staring as a southern trait–believe me, here in the south it’s seen as showing interest not being nosy–picked up the dirty little habit for 15 whole minutes (give or take 3 seconds).

What’s interesting about me staring?  Not so much the part about me being a Northerner and finding it rude but the fact that I didn’t understand a word that was being said.  The two people were speaking another language…sign language.  Their hands moved as swiftly as hummingbirds and the conversation was obviously fluid.

I wasn’t eavesdropping in the traditional sense because I couldn’t translate but I was absolutely engrossed in the way that they listened to one another: There was no digital interruption.  While one “spoke” the other “listened”.  Now, I don’t need a hearing impairment to say that I know one thing for sure…they are people with one difference, they can’t hear.  They aren’t saints so I’m sure arguments occur and I just happened to be watching a normal engagement  expressed the way two hearing people would–calm words and shared dialogue.  The noticeable behavior was that they actually were hearing the others words.  They were being present for the message.  Not being able to hear physically, enhanced their listening sense!

This is the greatest disadvantage that we often have in business.  Our mouths get in the way of our ability to listen.  The other person is speaking and we are waiting to speak instead of listening:  When she stops, I’m going to say “blah, blah, blah”…yep, we’re prepping our retort, response, or statement.  Even when having polite discourse, people are rarely listening.

Why my big focus on listening?  First of all, it’s an important SKILL.  It requires developing.  Listening for the purpose of doing business (selling), accomplishing a task or understanding others is a skill that takes time and effort.  The reason that most people stop listening, I believe, is that they didn’t hear anything that interested or impacted to them and so they stop waiting for it.  They ask a question and the answer isn’t heading where they want it to, so they begin prepping their next question or a different way to get the answer they want.  What I’ve found is that usually there is another question that can be asked based on what you HEAR, if you are just patient enough to listen.

Another reason that I’m focused on listening is because of the simple message that it conveys to others, when you don’t.  You don’t have to roll your eyes and yawn to convey disinterest, as a matter of fact, it’s rarely signs this overt that people pick up on.  It’s often the lack of response to what was actually said.  For example, I’ve had the unfortunate position of being required to speak to someone who isn’t a cognizant listener.   This is how our conversations typically went:

Bob (name changed to protect the ignorant):  So, Steph, how are things in your universe?

Me:  Well, great actually, I made contact with XYZ company and things…

Bob:  (interrupting) I had an interesting experience with XYZ years ago (begins long-winded story that brings little impact and less value to the original question).

I hated conversations with Bob because often it was like verbal jousting and left me feeling rude while he was oblivious or consciously ignoring his own behavior AND because I couldn’t willfully avoid them.  There’s nothing worse than being forced to engage with a disinterested person–well, there are some things but doesn’t it sound selfish?  Maybe so, or maybe it’s the musings of an experienced professional with a personal history of being a good listener.

Why do I sell well?  I’d like to think it’s because people just like me.  They do, but that’s a result of being a great listener.  Paying attention to what someone says and demonstrating it via good feedback or related responses is a building block to relationship development.  A client that says, “I’m busy” will feel heard if you say “I know how busy things get, when is a better time to call you back: as opposed to “Yeah, I’ve had a busy day myself”.  You may even ask the client/your boss if there is anything you can take off their plate, although you know there may not be.  The simple sign of concern, demonstrating that you heard is sometimes enough.  When I’ve done this the payoff has been greater.  In the world of risk/reward there is NO RISK TO LISTENING but the reward is immense.

Listening to hear always pays off.  Put your active listening skills to use and see how much more developed your professional and personal conversations become!