5 Ways Women in Sales Sabotage Their Success


CRM Analyst,

It’s 2012, and the topic of sexual equality in the workplace is still ever-present. Society points a finger at male-dominated companies and organizations, telling them to wake up and recognize women as powerful forces in business. But what should women do? A recent article in Harvard Business Review discusses how lack of confidence is a primary cause of many women’s stunted professional growth.

As the saying goes, if you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will.

The field of sales is fast-paced, aggressive and dominated by men. However, there is a burgeoning group of female sales professionals who are looking to empower women to take charge of their sales careers:

  • Jill Konrath is an author, trainer and sales strategist focused on teaching sales professionals how to survive and thrive in today’s business environment.
  • Kim Duke is a former sales executive and current owner of Sales Divas, where she offers training and consulting to women in sales.
  • Kristine Scotto is an executive with more than 25 years of experience in sales and marketing roles.

I spoke with each of them about which actions and behaviors they’ve seen women display that can unintentionally sabotage their success. Below are the top five we identified.

1. Being Afraid of Self-Promotion

As young girls, we were taught not to brag. It was a behavior perceived as boastful and improper. However, Duke points out that there is a difference between bragging and self-promotion: “Bragging is when you’re saying something that’s untrue and has absolutely no relevance to the audience that’s hearing it. With self-promotion, you’re sharing things that are true, and can build credibility.”

This behavior is most noticeable in networking and professional development. Women believe their accomplishments should speak for themselves, and many are hesitant to discuss things such as their education and reputation, erring on the side of modesty. Therefore, when a more senior position opens up, they assume they will be considered based on their accomplishments and credentials, despite having been reluctant to voice them.

While modestly is an admirable trait outside of the workplace, it is foolish in the professional world. Konrath compares it to the tree falling in the forest: “If no one knows about your accomplishments, they don’t exist.”

2. Undervaluing Themselves and Their Services

When pitching a prospective customer, many women make the mistake of trying to mind-read their buyer. They make an assumption that their prospect will reject them if their price is too high. By making this assumption, they leave money on the table.

Women are scared of compromising the opportunity, but in reality, they have nothing to lose. If you don’t currently have the customer, you lose nothing if you don’t win them. It’s better to go in confidently with a more ambitious proposal. If the customer gets sticker shock, you can carve back some of the value and work within their budget. Scotto points out, “No one determines our value but ourselves.”

3. Not Asking for Directions

Men aren’t the only ones who are bad about this. Many women in a male-dominated business like sales make every effort not to appear weak. Therefore, many women, particularly those who are newer to sales, fail to ask for help when they need it.

“There’s a way of asking for help that can be done such that it’s not a sign of weakness, but a sign of great strength,” says Konrath. “It’s about sitting down with someone and just saying, ‘Here’s the fact—I’m struggling with this right now.’ You need advice and support from people who have been around, whether it’s asking about the sales process or understanding what you’re selling better, it’s all stuff you need to learn. The key is to not feel weak in the process and to remember that you’re just a learner and that it’s a process.”

4. Making Relationships the Priority

Developing relationships is important when selling. But when the relationship gets in the way of the transaction, you have a problem. As Scotto explains, women tend to be more sensitive, placing a higher importance on creating a positive relationship than on chasing the desired business result.

But Scotto says that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. “When a prospect says no, women will tend to accept that answer focusing again on the relationship. Instead, they should focus on educating the prospect. This ultimately adds more value and will get you to yes almost every time.”

5. Being Afraid of Making a Mistake

Women tend to be perfectionists. We don’t want to let anyone down—including ourselves. Above all, we don’t want to look foolish. As a result, many women in sales tend to play it safe. They pitch the safe pitch. They use the same tried and true ideas because they know that they work. But while you are playing it safe, your male counterpart is throwing the Hail Mary and scoring big.

“Being willing to bring in big, creative ideas and take a chance on your customer is completely win-win,” says Duke. “Even if they hate your idea, it could potentially have a domino effect where there’s some brainstorming with the client and the idea will change into something you both love. That also allows them to see that you are thinking for them and that you’re a part of the team.”

Writing this article turned out to be both a professional and personal exercise for me. I realized that I am guilty of several of these things, and now that it’s been brought to my attention, I can start making an effort to adjust my behavior for long-term success. What about you? Are you guilty of any of these behaviors? Have you observed them in your coworkers? Please share your thoughts, experiences and feedback in the comment section below.

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  • http://twitter.com/vickidonlan vickidonlan

    Great article on how women hold themselves back from success in sales. First, self promotion is so important — when I ask women about their ego they look at me and say, “Oh, I can’t do that!” Why not, if you don’t promote yourself who will. Second, undervaluing value- you’ll never believe how much you are worth until someone offers you the big bucks–finbd out what the marekt will bgear and value yourself at the top — you are worth it -finally, ask for help. Yes, we all need help to navigate the big world dominated by men and if we don ‘t ask – we don’t get–it is as simple as that. Never be afraid to put it out there—your goals, your ambition, your aspiration for the future — finding some one who believes in you and what you want to accomplish is the best thing that will ever happen to you — but it won’t happen if you don’t ask for assistance. Now, go out and get what you need to change the world!

  • http://www.TheSalesHunter.com/ Mark Hunter

    Agree 100% and it’s too bad.  My perspective is women typically make better salespeople because they listen better than men.  Women tend to take the time to truly understand what the customer is saying while men, again in my book tend to jump to conclusions.

  • http://www.salesprocessengineering.net Justin Roff-Marsh


    You asked me to comment … so I will!

    You offer absolutely no evidence that these issues are peculiar to women or engaged in to a greater degree by women.

    Absent that evidence, this article strikes me as sexist.

    After all, why should the reader simply assume that a person’s sex is a prima facie handicap! This may, as is evidenced by your comments, be a popular thesis but the truth is not a popularity contest.

    If I consider those clients of ours where women sell side-by-side with men, I’m aware of no evidence that women under-perform men.  In fact, if I were to aggregate and scrutinize the data, I have a hunch I’d discover the opposite.

    If we’re discussing a competition that requires upper body strength, then women are clearly at a disadvantage. However, sales — as far as I’ve observed — is not such a competition.

    Where’s your data?


    • Anonymous


      I appreciate your feedback and thoughts. If you re-read the first paragraph, you will see that I cite the Harvard Business Review’s survey as proof, not that women are are less successful than men, but that women generally display lower levels of confidence in the workplace, which is evident in certain behaviors. 

      As with most things, this is a general commentary, and given that the women I interviewed are in fact very successful sales professionals, this is not true of all women.

      I do agree that these behaviors are not exclusive to women, nor do I state that anywhere in the article. However, I would argue that they are more common in women than in men. My support for that statement is the HBR survey, as well as the expertise from my sources who spend day in and day out training women to overcome these exact things. 

      Thanks again for contributing to the conversation.

  • http://www.findnewcustomers.com Jeff Ogden

    Fascinating post, Lauren. Good insights from some top experts. Thanks for sharing these insights. Unfortunately, I don’t have sisters or daughters, but I have many women friends in sales and marketing. I hope it helps them.


  • Teanna Spence

    I did my graduate thesis on Women in Business and I see that the issues women face have not changed much over the years. The issues faced for women in sales are very similar to issues faced by women in almost any role in business.
    I agree we tend not to boast our accomplishments. One of my female co-workers called a male co-worker who excelled at self-promotion a “Glory Grabber”.  It was definitely a trait we did not want to emulate! Often women feel that we have to do more than the average guy to be as good. Being afraid to make a mistake definitely puts us at a disadvantage but in our mind we are not measured by the same standards, hence the need to be perfect to be good enough. In sales specifically do we understand the goals and how to achieve them? More importantly do we connect our actions with the achievement of the goals? Does the coin operated sales rep apply to women? Are we focused on the close or more on helping? As the sales pitch changes to a more consultative approach will that help women migrate to the top?
    Is part of the problem that women do not take charge of their own careers? Or do we keep our thoughts and aspirations to ourselves? If you see yourself as successful, then you make little decisions along the way that help you to be successful. Do we have a vision of success in our chosen field? Having a mentor certainly helps but do we seek one and if we do, are we honest with them about our wants?
    Teanna Spence
    Director of Compensation Products
    Cornerstone Software, Inc.

  • JoAnn Corley

    Omg Lauren – excellent article!! I just want to say “amen” to everything!! I have been on a few of Jill’s training calls..btw.

    I’ll also add 1 more as I’ve worked with professional women across the country and that is a fear of the “B” word.  You know which one I mean….being called that, identified and labeled as such ..from both sexes. We’re socially conditioned to care to our detriment what other people think!

    We must own our power and be willing stand alone if necessary. I share a quote I received recently, “Don’t change who you are but commit to discovering & letting out more of who you’re truly meant to be! Believe me, there are people who desperately need what you’re holding back. Free yourself to celebrate that & let yourself shine obnoxiously!”

    Be unapologetic for every piece of you…or there will parts of you that will not be truly alive!

    Thanks so much for writing and I’ll post on my blog!

  • Kpatocki

    Amen & Hallelujah on all points. Needed to hear #4 especially. I’m willing to bet there’s plenty of Men out there who can relate as well. Great article, Thanks for sharing! 

  • Abbey_dragonforest

    I agree with all your points. Women are highly skilled and quick learners but we constantly judge ourselves. In addition, we are still influenced by old rules about being modest and relationship-oriented. However, some male coworkers and clients might also expect this so a few bad experiences may cause us to shy away.

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