Solar companies need large sales forces to reach customers in the last mile of distribution so they can sell their life-changing products to off-grid consumers. However, our consultancy, Whitten & Roy Partnership, observed that they are increasingly struggling to find enough qualified hires with whom they can build their sales forces. Astonishingly, only 35% of sales forces are comprised of women, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. So, with such a large pool of talent to choose from, why are many solar companies skimping on a large segment of the population to build their sales forces?
Having started my sales career in the 1970s working with one of the largest employers of direct salespeople in the U.S., we recruited over 5,000 salespeople annually who would sell educational books door-to-door and be paid only on commission. There are uncanny similarities between that work and direct selling of products, such as solar home systems in the developing world. This dynamic formed the foundation of how our company is transforming business-to-consumer sales for many solar players in Africa and Asia.
A few decades ago, 59 of 60 sales managers were men, and our company hired very few women because of some commonly held myths:
- women aren’t tough enough;
- they’re too emotional for sales;
- they’re too soft on people to be effective managers;
- they’ll eventually go on maternity leave;
- men are easier to manage;
- having women in the sales team will distract the men from their work;
- the job is too dangerous, and so on.
However, when we got past the biases we discovered that women produced more sales on average. They were less threatening to potential buyers, more consistent in their work habits, related better to others and were more believable, churned less often, and tended to be more reliable. They also made excellent managers, because they could empathize and coach well. On the average, they were actually better all-around performers than men!
There are several impact focused businesses, like Solar Sister, LivingGoods and others, which hire a lot of women and have seen strong results. Yet many of the same false and sexist beliefs from my early career days persist when it comes to direct sales forces, and solar is no exception.
Bias toward hiring men
Whether a bias against hiring women as sales agents and sales managers is intentional or not, the fact is that most sales work is set up to be more fitting for a man’s lifestyle, both culturally and practically. Working long hours, traveling significant distances from home and working late are all, generally, acceptable for men. The rationale for hiring men as a first choice isn’t entirely illogical – after all, more time available to sell should equate to more sales and a lower cost of sale.
For a woman, the double-burden of taking care of most of the domestic responsibilities is her reality within African culture. We’re not saying this is right, but it is a reality that must be taken into account. Children need care, cooking fuel and water need to be collected, families need to be fed, the home needs tidying, etc. Cultural beliefs and expectations about men’s and women’s responsibilities will almost always trump the requirements of a job.
From a practical standpoint, some domestic activities must be maintained during regular working hours, so any job that requires being on the road or working into the night presents a dilemma. How can a woman be away from home and yet take care of her family? Companies need to think creativity if they want to increase the number of women who sell within their ranks. And they should.
Women sell well
The truth is that women tend to be better, more consistent sellers. Generally speaking, they listen well and convey trust and honesty in their dealings with others. In a landscape that is fraught with shysters and faulty, unsupported products, women are believed to be trustworthy – and therefore customers, by extension, place trust in the products they sell.
Women readily take on a sales role more as a mission than as a job. They personally know the important benefits of solar – the impact of bright lighting on their school children, better security in the evening, the ability to do chores at night more easily, the absence of dangerous open flames and smoke from kerosene, etc. This personal knowledge allows them to relate well with other women who have the same issues, and to sell with conviction and confidence.
Women also tend to network well, which is central to effective selling. If they are working in their home village, they have a natural network of trusted relationships that can yield significant sales. In areas where they don’t know people, women can build networks rather quickly. Networks are all about trust, and people tend to trust and believe female salespeople more quickly than their male counterparts.
And though women have more responsibilities at home, they are diligent and work hard to protect the job they have. If given some leeway for their home responsibilities, they can sell more than enough. One of our consultants related the experience of a female sales agent in Zambia who was also a shopkeeper, and could only work a quarter of the time as compared with her male colleagues: Nevertheless, she sold 75% more than the average male salespeople.
Women make good managers
We normally find very few women in sales management positions. Those who are in sales management tend to be at the field level. We think that women are less likely to be appointed as managers because of the beliefs that they will be soft on people and therefore ineffective, and that because of family responsibilities they will not be able to maintain a consistent leadership presence in the field.
However, we know that women can make great managers. They tend to be better listeners and nurturers, which are characteristics that can build skills and confidence in their teams. Direct sales agents, especially those who are fully commissioned, require effective coaching so that they stick with a difficult job. Effective coaching requires empathy, which leads to the restoration of confidence and better results.
This approach lies in stark contrast to the typical authoritarian, almost militaristic management styles we often see exhibited by men trying to control sales teams. Threatening and autocratic behavior may achieve short-term gains and give leaders a sense of power, but this fear-inducing approach will ultimately backfire and result in higher churn rates and underperformance.
One of our consultants reported, sadly, that several female managers at one solar company tried to fit in with the male-dominated, authoritarian culture. Instead of tapping into and using their natural gifts, they came off as intolerant, insensitive and even abusive.
Designing sales roles to accomodate women
There are some truths that must be acknowledged and planned for, when hiring female agents.
The strategy needs to reflect the need for flexibility given many women’s domestic responsibilities. For a woman to feel confident and secure in her job, the company and its managers need to make it okay to stop earlier in the day to take care of evening family responsibilities or care for a sick child. Of course, each woman needs to make her own choice on this, but if a woman has young children at home, don’t expect the same continuous work pattern often expected from men. However, she should not be criticized for not working the job like her male counterparts at all times.
Traveling in certain areas and alone at night can be hazardous, so strict company policy needs to be thought through and implemented. The harsh reality is that some male clients or even company managers expect sexual favors. As a result, the company needs to communicate clear policy and plan accordingly to minimize this risk. Companies need to make it easy for women to be able to report abuse of any kind, so they can come forward without the risk of losing their job. A strategy to have women work in pairs may make sense.
How a company sets up and manages its territory also needs consideration. The closer to home a woman with family responsibilities can be, the better. The truth is that many companies struggle with salespeople who go far and wide searching for hot leads, instead of sticking to a territory and plumbing its depths to densify the customer base. It’s safe to say that most companies may want densification to happen, but they fail to teach their people how to do it, and they fail to manage it well. Getting the execution right would create more opportunities for women, and would result in more sales.
It’s good for business to hire women because they are generally better salespeople, are usually fiercely loyal and consistent, tend to manage people better, and create teams with lower turnover. Women create a local presence that can contribute to better sales and better payments, particularly when their job can be set up to handle frontline service issues. Make more room for women in your teams and experience the benefits they bring in building more purposeful, practical sales teams that perform.
Scott A. Roy is the CEO and co-founder of international sales consultancy Whitten & Roy Partnership.