‘Sex’ as a consumer marketing and sales strategy infiltrates our daily lives via advertising, celebrity endorsements, tabloids, publications and various other means and has done so for as long as we can remember. Using images of women (more recently men) in a variety of formats is supposed to entice prospective buyers (adults) and sell products and services. The ‘sex sells’ consumer marketing strategy is more recently infiltrating children’s markets creating much angst and debate about its merits and rightly so.
I want to make it clear that I’m not attempting to debate the use of ‘sex’ in consumer marketing here. Although I would like it on the record that I don’t support the sexualisation of children in any form and abhor using children in such advertising.
This article is about the use and exploitation of women in business, particularly, B2B (business to business) sales environments. Females are mostly great at sales. They usually have the right demeanor and emotional intelligence to do well. Using women to sell is a great idea, using women for their “womanhood”, I believe leads to the trivalisation of good business practices and of women as legitimate business professionals. This type of sales tactic reduces customers to the lowest common denominator and leads us down the slippery slope of the sexual discrimination of women in the workplace. Just look at IBM. A highly successful sales woman is currently suing IBM for sexual harassment by a male senior sales manager. Sadly the ‘show us your t#ts’ and other less than savoury fair is still making the rounds of some sales teams.
In my many years in business, I’ve heard many stories of people (usually women) being ‘used’ to get sales or increase sales. Often these people were not fully aware until after the fact, as to why they were allocated certain accounts. These people (usually women) soon discover that they are there because of their gender and good looks, not because of their ability to perform as professional business and sales people. One manager was heard to say to a young up-and-coming and successful sales woman after she questioned why she was being sent to a certain client who was less than professional in his dealings with her, ‘we sent you there because he (the customer) loves looking at good looking women’.
The women I speak to are clearly disappointed and in some cases alarmed at being treated as sexual objects. I know because as a 21 year old pharmaceutical representative, my manager knowingly sent me to call on a sleezy doctor whose reputation for sexual advances and other dubious practices was well known in the industry. What happened to me was, to say the least, very frightening. Once I entered the doctor’s surgery room he locked the door, offered me a whiskey (which I declined) and tried to sit right beside me. I was up and out of that chair so quick, standing at the door demanding to be let out. He tried to coax me back but I told him I would scream if he didn’t let me out. The door was unlocked and I bolted. I told my manager about what happened and he said not to worry I didn’t have to back there. Nothing was done about this doctor and it was all swept under the carpet. Not what I was hoping for and the cycle still goes on somewhere today. Not good enough.
By contrast there’s no doubting there are women who choose to use their sexuality as their sales strategy, positioning themselves as something other than a professional sales person. I am no prude but this type of approach leaves me and many other women cold, it is not how we want to be remembered.
Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking to the ‘Women Sourcing Network’; a group of smart business women specialising in procurement for the IT sector. We discussed the sales profession and how sales and procurement practices are changing. The topic of ‘sex sells’ was also mentioned. One woman explained how an IT supplier sent in a young woman representative, whose ample cleavage was visible for all to see in her tight low cut business attire, to meet with the ‘procurement person’. The IT supplier had expected the women rep would be meeting with a man. When it was a woman, the shock on the representative’s face was clearly visible. The meeting was very uncomfortable for both the supplier and the customer as the initial intention of the sales person was to entice the customer for all the wrong reasons.
So how seriously do you want your business, yourself and your team to be taken?
Businesses are now relying heavily on the latest innovation, cutting edge ideas, expert knowledge and the ability of suppliers to help map pathways forward to the future. Surely flashing cleavage and other “bits” is more a distraction than an asset. It’s a dicey strategy to employ a ‘sex sells’ strategy in B2B sales. I’m not saying that all women are set up. Yes there are some women happily playing along with this game, however, in today’s world business ethics and transparency on all levels are key. The tactic to entice the male buyer – procurement person with ‘sex’ is wearing thin.
Does it help to look well presented? Yes. In fact, many sales people could benefit from some lessons in how to put a wardrobe together and lift their game on the presentation stakes. It’s important to look good, feel good and represent your company well. Taking effort to look good helps portray that you will also take effort with what you’re selling.
Does it help to look sexy in B2B sales? Well it’s all in the eye of the beholder. You could be well turned out, not overtly exploiting your ‘bits’ and still be deemed sexy by some, however, this is usually a private interpretation from the other person. The question is are you there to try and look sexy? How you portray yourself and how you are received all depends on your intention. If you go to market with the intention of being professional, well prepared and well presented then I find you are treated with respect. If you go to market with the intention of selling yourself through sex then you reap what you sow.
So what are you trying to say? What are you trying to sell? As a business woman how do you want to be remembered?
I fear we may have lost sight of the true value of femininity in business if it is being reduced to just about exposing flesh. Today’s world of selling requires a balance between masculine and feminine qualities to be really effective. Masculine qualities are about being proactive and focused with a “go-out-into-the-world and find the opportunity approach” (prospecting). Feminine qualities include skills which respond to the subtleties of more complex relationships; genuinely listening and patience, nurturing and dealing with ambiguity. Think of the types of conversations you now need to have with your prospective customers where listening, questioning, resolving problems, collaboration, empathy and understanding are encouraged. Clouding the issue with blatant sexual overtures is no help to an ever evolving, complex world.
Many say in business and in life it helps to be ‘attractive’ and that beautiful people are more successful. Maybe there’s merit in this view but intellectual substance needs to be of any value to your business, your customers and, above all, to yourself.
Remember everybody lives by selling something.