The proportion of women in sales at the entry level or second level of sales is about equal to that of men in a lot of organizations, according to Mary Jacobs, Director of the Center for Sales Innovation at St. Catherine University. In the sales leadership roles, the proportions change drastically. “When I started my sales leadership position at Northwest Airlines, there were three women managers and seventeen men, which did not match the demographics of the teams we were managing” Jacobs said. While the numbers might have changed at what is now Delta Airlines, “it’s never equal,” she said.
“You see women in human resources and marketing senior leadership roles, but not nearly as many in sales,” Jacobs said. “The word Sales for many is a negative term. I have to overcome that perception with my students.”
Jacobs uses a video of a young woman in a professional sales meeting environment in her sales classes and says, “This is what a career in sales will look like.” In addition, there are role plays in every class. “You see light bulbs going on,” she said.
St Kate’s offers both a major and a minor in both healthcare and business-to-business sales. “We were one of the first universities in the country to offer a sales degree for women, back in 1998,” Jacobs said. “We teach sales fundamentals, customer intelligence, how to do research, how to work with customer relationship management tools (CRMs).”
Jacobs said some St. Kate’s women in sales alumna have paid off their student loans in three years on the job, and they love what they do. In addition, she said, “There can be some attractive perks: Expense account, flexibility in work week, accolades.”
For many women, the primary motivation is “I want to make a difference.” Women in sales enjoy that opportunity as well, Jacobs said. “I had a student a couple of years ago who was in pre-nursing, but she discovered she didn’t like science classes. She came to my office crying, because her family was disappointed in her for changing majors from nursing to sales. She was a single mom with two kids. She was a first-generation college student. Now she works for 3M in healthcare sales. Her family is so proud of her because of the prestige of the company and the career she’s building.”
Some things have changed since Jacobs began her sales career twenty-five years ago. “The old days of field sales representatives as the first sales position has changed. Corporations have moved more to inside sales models. Access to decision-makers is more restricted than ever and inside sales professionals are often more successful than field sales professionals because they are able to connect by phone with their customers.”
Career paths can include moving up to a larger portfolio of accounts or into a national account role. Other options include moving into sales management, training or, as previously noted, into marketing.
The other thing that’s changed—for both buyer and seller—is the plentiful access to information. “There’s no doubt that the customer is better informed than ever. In the old days, meeting with the sales person was the first time the customer was learning about the company. Now, they’ve done their research. We teach a lot about preparation and research. Students in the program take part in national competitions throughout the year. “It’s a very hands-on opportunity to simulate a sales call,” Jacobs said. Students spend months researching the client and creating the value proposition, which they present to a team of judges. “It scares the hell out of them, but it’s a great experience,” Jacobs said.
“We’re an in-demand program,” Jacobs concluded. “Many organizations have diversity goals. St. Kate’s graduates women prepared to hit the ground running in the sales field and perform well in their jobs.”