This article was first published on May 28, 2020 on the Harvard Business Review website.
Although women make up just over half of the college-educated workforce, they hold less than one-third of B-to-B sales jobs. According to 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, women are underrepresented in B-to-B sales in most industries, including wholesale and manufacturing (27%) and financial services (30%).
Yet research shows that women salespeople often outperform men. A 2019 study by incentive solution provider Xactly reported that 86% of women achieved quota, compared to 78% of men. The B-to-B sales landscape has been shifting in ways that favor women in sales roles. We think the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to a step change in this trend.
The changing sales environment favors women
Research by our consulting firm, ZS, shows women succeed in sales by excelling at different capabilities than men. The research looked at performance of 500-plus salespeople across several industries, including financial services, industrial services and healthcare. The assessment used a framework we developed that identifies seven capabilities that differentiate high-performing salespeople from average-performing salespeople.
Both high-performing women and high-performing men used all seven capabilities to some extent. But high-performing women were more likely to emphasize connecting, shaping solutions and collaborating, while high-performing men relied more on improving and driving outcomes. For analyzing and influencing, there was no measurable difference between the genders.
Today’s digitally savvy, self-sufficient, and more informed buyers have new expectations of salespeople. Buyers expect salespeople to add value beyond what digital tools provide. To do this, salespeople need capabilities for collaborating with customers and shaping solutions. These capabilities, focused on addressing customer needs, have become more important for sales success than persuasion capabilities, such as influencing customers and driving outcomes. And this plays to women’s strengths.
COVID-19 has put the deep freeze on many industries. As we emerge from the pandemic and commerce thrives again, the shift to remote selling using video and digital channels will have lasting impact on sales. This will boost the power of women, as capabilities at which women excel align perfectly with the morphing world of sales and the evolving needs of customers.
Consider the traditionally male-dominated industry of financial investment sales. Technology makes customers (investors) less reliant on financial advisors for many needs. “Robo-advisor” computer algorithms can analyze investments and make portfolio recommendations. Investors can execute their own financial transactions online. Yet even highly self-sufficient investors are likely to turn to advisors for help with longer-term financial and estate planning needs. Decisions about these issues are complex and emotional. Advisors create value by listening, empathizing, and sharing perspective to facilitate agreement among family members. The capabilities at which women excel—connecting, shaping solutions, and collaborating—have become increasingly important for success in a financial advisor role.
The skills of women are also becoming more relevant in the fast-growing, once male-dominated field of high-tech sales. Increasing proportions of business technology sales are subscription-based (such as SaaS products) or consumption-based (such as cloud services), rather than one-time purchases. Most value comes not with the initial sale, but rather over time as customers benefit from the purchase and expand purchasing. The trend has created growth in the number of customer success managers (CSMs)—salespeople who encourage customer loyalty and retention by helping customers realize ongoing value. CSMs succeed by connecting, collaborating and shaping solutions; once again, these are capabilities that are women’s strengths. Although women hold only a quarter of high-tech sales jobs, career data sources report that at least 50% and as high as 70% of CSMs are women. And as of April 2020, women were leading global customer success teams at some major tech companies, including Oracle and Salesforce.
Accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis, salespeople are traveling less and relying more on video and other digital communication channels. The shift to less travel aligns with the needs of both men and women who want to balance career and family needs.
Further, as more women take on business buying roles, female salespeople can build stronger relationships with the changing customer base.
Boosting the number of women in sales
Future sales success for many companies in the rebounding economy will hinge on attracting and retaining more women for sales roles. In traditionally male-dominated industries, this can require eliminating the perception of sales as an old boys’ club and creating a more female-friendly culture. Several programs are helping sales organizations attract and retain more women. Programs like these have helped our consulting firm, ZS, attract and retain more female professionals.
Diversity-focused recruiting: Many companies are making gender diversity an explicit goal of sales recruiting, committing to specific objectives for sourcing, selecting and attracting women. Companies are reaching out to sources of female job applicants, such as professional associations for women in sales. They are making job descriptions more attractive to women by toning down masculine language; for example, replacing words like “aggressive” and “compete” with gender-neutral language such as “customer-focused” and “succeed.” Job descriptions are also emphasizing problem-solving over client entertainment responsibilities. And by including more women sales leaders on job candidate interview panels, companies are getting diverse perspective about candidates’ qualifications while reinforcing a female-friendly culture that attracts women applicants.
Female mentorship programs: A financial service firm fostered community among women in its male-dominated sales organization by matching each new female salesperson with a female mentor in the sales organization. Mentors helped salespeople get acclimated and answered questions about topics females were reluctant to discuss with male colleagues (e.g., traveling alone, having dinner with male clients, maternity leave). The firm also hosted “lunch and learn” sessions where female salespeople talked openly about challenges and solutions. Women built relationships with others they looked up to and felt comfortable confiding in.
Better coaching: Companies are taking steps to improve coaching of female salespeople, especially by male mentors. This requires breaking down stigmas for male-female mentorship relationships and ensuring women get the same objective feedback their male colleagues would.
More promotions for women: In the Xactly insights study, female-led sales teams had roughly equal numbers of men and women, while male-led teams were more than three-quarters men. Promoting more women to sales management and leadership roles is a clear path to attracting and retaining more female salespeople. A good way to develop female leaders is to champion women for stretch roles and responsibilities that test and develop their managerial skills.
Gender diversity in sales is not just about social justice. In today’s world, it is about increased performance. The solutions here are a start, but there is more work to be done. One key challenge is addressing the perception that sales requires comfort with risk, such as rejection and income uncertainty, which discourages some women from pursuing sales careers. As customer expectations of salespeople continue to evolve, attracting and retaining more women for sales roles will be a key to future sales force success.