Recently I had a chance to interview Jill Konrath, author of SNAP Selling and Selling to Big Companies. She’s an internationally recognized speaker who helps companies increase new client acquisition and speed up their sales.
But she also has expertise in another area that doesn't get enough attention ... how women can be successful in sales roles.
Jill and I sat down together to go through some questions that were curated from the women in our own sales organization here at HubSpot; but I think you'll find some of the experiences and challenges familiar to you regardless of what role you play in your organization. Take a look at our conversation, and find some more resources at the end of this post that helps address the issues we discuss.
When we first talked, you mentioned that you never wanted to be in sales. Yet today you’re one of the world’s leading experts. How did that happen?
The only reason I got into sales was because I had an idea to start a company. When I went to SCORE for advice, they told me it was a great idea but said that it wouldn’t work unless I could sell. So I threw myself in and learned what it took to be successful.
In your opinion, what’s the #1 thing that makes a woman successful in sales?
The decision to be successful. You can’t “try” sales. It’s a challenging job that requires you to learn so many things. It takes you totally out of your comfort zone and you’ll screw up so many times before getting it right. Unfortunately, too many women do it for a short while and say, “I guess I’m just not cut out for sales.” It’s the wrong conclusion. They just haven’t figured it out yet.
Do women have any special strengths and skills that they bring to selling?
Absolutely! They’re more focused on helping customers achieve their objectives. They ask more questions and learn more. They typically invest more time prepping for sales calls and meetings with clients. All this contributes to their success.
And, they do a great job in getting business. It’s actually an ideal profession for a goal-oriented woman who wants to work hard, challenge herself and grow every day. Plus, you can earn an income that’s commensurate with the amount of effort you put in.
What are some of the challenges women face in a sales role? What are the best ways to address them?
Women typically downplay their expertise. Linguistic research shows that it’s because women focus more on “connecting” rather than strutting their stuff. This makes them appear less confident and knowledgeable to both their customers and their colleagues.
For example, in a meeting they may pose an idea by saying, “maybe we can do this” or “it might help if …” But, because of the tentative way their suggestion was proposed, it gets passed right over.
Instead, they need to boldly propose their ideas -- especially around guys -- and be prepared to state why they feel this way. Personally, it took me awhile to get the hang of this because it’s not my natural style.
This is more important today with customers than ever before. One of the primary strategies necessary for success is to disrupt a prospect’s perception of their status quo. This involves making strong statements and backing them with solid evidence. The only way I know to address this is to practice ahead of time.
Anything else that women do that impacts their career success?
Yes. Women also operate under the mistaken belief that their results speak for themselves. While success helps, it’s not enough. If you want to move up in your company, what matters even more is your colleagues' perception of you.
Management is looking for team players, strategic thinkers, creative problem solvers and leaders. Women in sales need to focus on getting involved in projects that demonstrate their strengths in these areas if they want to move ahead.
Sales has shifted more and more to an in-house model. Has that enabled more women to take on sales roles?
Yes, and I think inside sales is a great place for anyone to get involved in sales. It’s a wonderful career opportunity. Also, tons of women are starting their own businesses. Every single one of them is in sales, too. And best of all, when women see other women in sales they realize that it’s something they can do, too.
What kind of career growth options do you think women starting out in sales should know about?
Sales is an enabling skill; it's a foundation for your success in whatever your next position happens to be. Savvy business professionals will learn how to sell, because it's what makes companies grow.
Anyone who works in Sales should feel proud of their job. By doing their job, they’re helping customers achieve their goals as well as their own company. Plus, they’re learning what it takes to gain support and buy-in for any future ideas they want to implement or initiatives they want to launch.
Unfortunately, there's so much negative baggage that comes with the term “sales,” because people imagine the old product-pushing peddler. This perception is wrong, but it still exists.
Do women need mentors to get ahead? And if so, what do you suggest?
While it’s nice to have a mentor, it’s not always feasible nor is it necessary. However, every woman should identify at least one woman who’s a couple months/years ahead of them in their career -- and doing well. This person should be used as a benchmark and personal motivator. No conversation is even necessary, just the thought: “If Lisa can do it, I can do it.”
Also, I highly recommend forming your own consortium of women in business and have monthly meetings to talk about “stuff.” I personally got together with four other ladies for over five years. We practiced speaking. We gave each other feedback. And, we supported each other’s growth. It was invaluable.
Do you think gender diversity is important in sales & leadership? Should executives be making a push to fill a "gender quota"?
Great question -- and certainly controversial. Let me answer it from a personal perspective first. I was hired by Xerox because the federal government told them they had to hire women and minorities if they wanted to be awarded any contracts.
None of the men thought women could sell “technical” products like copiers. But, by the time I left, 8 of the top 10 reps in my region were women. We brought a whole new set of skills to the company and raised the bar for everyone.
So, while I don’t particularly love the idea of a “gender quota,” I also believe that people don’t know what they’re missing when they lack a diverse workforce. And, because there’s a naturally tendency to hire people like yourself, this exacerbates the problem even more.
But it’s not just me who’s saying things like that. For example, research proves that the more women there are on executive boards, the better the organization does.
Quite frankly, the best way to address women's issues is to talk about them as organizational issues -- which they truly are. Companies that don’t invest in finding and developing high potential women are really missing the boat.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to me about this topic of women in sales. HubSpotters are often passing around your content and advice -- do you have any resources on your website I can point our readers to?
Absolutely. Anyone in sales -- men and women alike -- need to stay in constant learning mode. I write a blog, Fresh Sales Strategies, that anyone in a sales role can benefit from. I've also carved out a home on my website full of sales resources to help people in our industry be successful.
What other questions do you have for Jill about how women can be successful in Sales roles? What challenges have you faced yourself in your sales or marketing career?