The Modern Sales Force: Too Male to Fail?


Share on LinkedIn

Companies vanquish competitors by having superior products, and by providing outstanding buyer experiences. But a company I worked for in the 1980’s had neither, and still won a key deal. Serendipitously, a competing salesman committed a mistake by assuming a buyer he was working with did not have authority to make a purchase. His assumption backfired, miserably.

The account was a large, family-owned retail lumber company near Washington, DC. The company needed a distributed IT system, with a full suite of integrated accounting, sales, and distribution software. A purchase worth well over $100,000. “We were almost ready to sign the order. But their salesman regarded me as just a secretary, and that basically, I wasn’t worth his time,” the buyer later told me. “That ended it. I wouldn’t meet with him again.”

In fact, the buyer, a woman named Georgie, managed the lumberyard, and there was a reason she was in charge of this purchase: she knew the company’s ins and outs – down to the tiniest nail and shortest 2×4 – better than anyone. The CEO fully entrusted this all-important purchase to his soft-spoken employee, who wasn’t ensconced with an impressive job title.

The competitor’s arrogance cost him more than this sale. While it provided my company an immediate opportunity to win the order and to assuage the buyer’s pain, we reaped large revenue dividends later when Georgie became a steady advocate, nudging prospects to buy through recounting many happy experiences as a customer.

In the 1980’s, it was rare to find women running operations at a retail lumber yard. Men predominated in management. And those men hired more men to work for them. Underlings who operated forklifts and supervised millwork production before moving into higher-paying sales positions. Eventually, they changed jobs, hopping from retailer to supplier, from supplier to supplier, and from supplier back to retailer. Lumber, doors, windows, roof trusses, construction hardware, and supplies. Call it industry incest: everyone knew everyone. Coddled in professional comfort, men – most of them white – sold to the same demographic. Against that backdrop, a woman-in-charge at a lumberyard spelled doom for the clumsy competitor. Had he been female, would the outcome have been different? In the same situation, would a saleswoman have brought a nuanced perspective – in this case, one less dismissive and more empathetic?

Those questions bubble at the center of a recent firestorm in which Sam’s Club CEO Rosalind Brewer answered a question during an interview with CNN’s Poppy Harlow, who asked, “You are a rarity in the corner office in America, and it is something that so many people want to see change. Not only are you a female CEO, you’re a minority CEO. Where do you fall on who has to make the change and how is it going to happen so that there are more women like you represented in the top echelons of corporate America?”

Ms. Brewer shared that she encourages diversity not only with her staff, but with her business partners. “My executive team is very diverse, and I make that a priority. Every now and then you have to nudge your partners. You have to speak up and speak out. And I try to use my platform for that. I try to set an example,” she said, adding, “Just today we met with a supplier, and the entire other side of the table was all Caucasian males. That was interesting. I decided not to talk about it directly with [the supplier’s] folks in the room because there were actually no females, like, levels down. So I’m going to place a call to him.”

When the interview aired, social media exploded with ardent support for Ms. Brewer, along with vociferous complaint. Some customers used the hashtag, #BoycottRacistSamsClub, accusing Brewer of racism toward white men. (Should those customers defect to rival Costco, they won’t find any different attitude. Costco has an equally-firm policy regarding diversity.) Walmart, which owns Sam’s Club, weighed in with a statement from CEO Doug McMillon. “For years, we’ve asked our suppliers to prioritize the talent and diversity of their sales teams calling on our company,” he wrote. “Roz was simply trying to reiterate that we believe diverse and inclusive teams make for a stronger business. That’s all there is to it, and I support that important ideal.”

Sales managers should heed his message. In nearly every industry today, salespeople can regularly expect to find women managing a major purchase, or participating on a buying committee. Not to mention finding people of many races and ethnicities. So cavalierly marching in a group of white salesmen to talk with them might not be considered the best marketing tactic. “Having a more eclectic workforce, and thus a greater range of perspectives, is actually a very promising way to make money. Prioritizing diversity is not just compatible with maximizing profits; it may be the key to doing so,” Catherine Rampell wrote in The Washington Post (Yes, Corporate America: Diversity Pays, July 31, 2015).

The diversity problem extends beyond sales forces into the constellation of service providers that support them. “Tech companies are experiencing growing pressure to diversify their workforce which is predominantly white, Asian, and male,” according to an article in Forbes, Lack of Diversity in Tech is a Cultural Issue (August 12, 2015). That includes CRM systems, where the Chief Technology Officer’s worldview and problem-solving approaches are deeply etched into the processes that govern a large portion of the world’s customer relationships.

Large sales training companies suffer from a similar problem: a preponderance of men in senior leadership positions. In a group of sales training organizations listed on a training industry website, I found only two out of 20 that had women CEO’s. These realities portend the stubborn persistence of sales calls like the one Ms. Brewer described in her CNN interview.

Aspirations of newcomers to the workforce. I interviewed a woman engineering student, Hannah, for this article (disclosure: Hannah is my daughter). Hannah will graduate college next year, entering a field in which female mentors are not common. She was recently selected for an entrepreneurship fellowship her university offers engineers during the summer. Hannah described what she was asked during the vetting interview with the faculty panel. “There are many white males in upper management levels who consider themselves feminists who would like to support women in their workplaces. What would you say to them?” Hannah cited a statistic: “women comprise about 50% of middle managers at US companies, but only 10% of senior managers. I would encourage men to ask themselves why that is.”

It’s also important to discover what that is costing those companies, as well as our society.


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here