Are Women Better At Sales?


Peacock Strategy
In our recent article on The Mating Mind, we described how “romantically primed” men were much more likely to spend lots of money than men who were not so primed, and than women in either condition. Separately, we’ve also noted that female salespeople seem to dominate some areas, and that these women seem to skew toward the attractive end of the spectrum. One example is the pharmaceutical sales rep, who prototypically is an attractive female who spends much of her time calling on a predominantly male physician customer base. That’s an overgeneralization, of course – there are lots of female docs, and lots of male drug reps. Still, the stereotype is sufficiently valid that a physician acquaintance of mine expressed mock shock at seeing a middle-aged male drug rep, quipping, “I don’t think I’ve seen one of those before.”

Getting in the door? Some might think that the reason for the dominance of female reps in some areas is their “get in the door” factor. Here’s how that theory might work: if a busy male executive has a new salesperson waiting in the lobby, is he more likely to make the time to see a paunchy middle-aged guy or an attractive twenty-something blonde woman? That might seem like a no-brainer to some, but we don’t have any actual data on that.

People Skills? Another reason for the success of female salespeople might be better people skills. In fact, there’s an entire book devoted to that theory – Women Make the Best Salesmen: Isn’t it Time You Started Using their Secrets? (Visit Amazon page.) The book’s description notes, “Women, with their natural social skills and acute emotional antennae, have natural advantages both sexes can learn from.”

Here’s another theory – the Peacock Display: Could the mere presence of a halfway attractive female serve to “romantically prime” the male customer? Based on the research we previously wrote about, if subconsciously primed with romantic thoughts, the male customer will be more inclined to demonstrate his mating potential by his spending behavior, e.g., by placing a large order. I’ll be the first to admit that this a bit of a leap. First, the priming method was different in the study we cited earlier; the researchers had the subjects write about a date. In addition, the “spending” involved fictional money and hypothetical leisure time. Still, if you buy into Geoffrey Miller’s theory, one would expect that other behavior, such as placing an order, would serve the same “peacock display” purpose. And even though a physician usually isn’t actually ordering product or spending money (it’s patients and insurance companies that spend the real money), he can still demonstrate his power and mastery by agreeing to distribute samples, recommend the product in appropriate situations, etc. To me, exercising authority in this manner seems as much of a visible display as writing a check.

Note that I’m not suggesting anything improper is occurring. While it’s possible that either party could engage in more overt behavior such as flirting, provocative dress, conversational innuendo, etc., I don’t think that occurs in most situations or is even necessary for the romantic priming effect to work. Indeed, such behavior could well be counter-productive. Also, I’d add that MANY factors influence the typical decision-making process, most of them substantive. The product has to be appropriate and more or less as good as the competition. The pricing (when that’s important) has to be in line with expectations and competitive prices. Sales skills – the ability to present the product effectively and establish a bond with the customer – are important as well. Sending in an attractive salesperson with an inadequate product or with poor sales skills is likely to fail most of the time.

I view the romantic priming effect as more of a tie-breaker – given two firms with similar products and pricing, the salesperson who can create the romantic priming effect may have an advantage when she asks for the order. Think of it as a temporary and subtle reality distortion field. Any influence on judgment will most likely occur in the presence of the salesperson when the priming effect is maximized. When the salesperson moves to close the deal, if the customer was favorably disposed to begin with, the subtle and unconscious priming influence might be enough to produce an immediate signature, for example, instead of a promise to think about it.

A Male Approach. Female salespeople aren’t the only ones who try to appeal to male customers for a “power display.” I’ve periodically received calls from boiler-room security salesmen (universally male, in my experience) trying to pitch a stock or at least get an agreement that I’ll listen to future pitches. I’m usually courteous when I disengage a telemarketer, but the only way to get these guys off the line is to hang up. Any attempt to disengage will produce more questions. One approach I’ve had them use is a line like, “Are you telling me you can’t make a $5,000 investment?” Said dismissively, it’s clearly intended to question the authority, the financial wherewithal, and ultimately the masculinity of the client. The desired response is another “peacock display,” perhaps something like, “Of course I can! I make much larger investments all the time!” With that response, the sales guy is back on track with his pitch. Not romantic priming, perhaps, but another way to produce a similar result. In avian terms, he’s asking, “Do you actually have any tail feathers at all?”

The Good News. With entire books devoted to explaining why women make better salespeople, one might fear discrimination in the hiring, retention, and promotion process. In the sales profession, though, it’s results that count. Few companies retain ineffective salespeople, and most make a significant portion of the individual’s compensation proportional to actual sales. Theoretically, at least, that should make gender discrimination less likely than in more subjectively evaluated positions. Ultimately, too, customers want salespeople who can solve their problems – appearance factors will pale in comparison to real solutions.

To sum up, I think it’s possible that romantic priming can affect the sales process, though it may be a second-order effect in most situations. A salesperson seeking to exploit that small advantage should make a subtle appeal to the (male) customer’s financial or authority status. In my opinion, it shouldn’t be as aggressive as, “Are you telling me you can’t afford the payments on this car?” Rather, a lower key approach like, “Would the payments on this car be comfortable for you?” will give the customer a chance to show off his beautiful tail feathers. A simple question like, “Can you sign off on this yourself?” can provide the same kind of opportunity (if he CAN sign off on it himself). Linking the display of financial ability or decision-making power to a concrete action, like signing an agreement, is the final element in turning any possible priming effect into sales success.

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