Why Women Should Consider Distribution Sales

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Sandy Riggs is a senior director of national sales at Lawson Products, where she leads the company’s East Coast sales teams and the North American sales force for Lawson’s Kent Automotive brand.

Lawson’s sales force now totals more than 1,000 representatives amid organic growth and following the company’s acquisition of Partsmaster in 2020.

Riggs previously held executive leadership roles at SC Johnson and Spartan Chemical. Below, she discusses whether now is a good time for women to launch or advance a career in B2B sales.

Is a career in industrial sales possible without a selling background?

Sandy RiggsSandy RiggsLawson ProductsIs it really selling, though? People want to connect with other people. A distribution representative that knows how to build relationships will be effective. Reps who take care of their customers tend to do well. To me, selling is about problem solving. It’s collaborating with the customer on the issues they are facing and finding solutions together. 

Even with companies’ sales training, you need to find your own groove and what works for you. Authenticity is so important in sales. That said, some approaches might not “feel” right, but that may be because they are new to you or something you need to practice. That’s fine. Nobody’s born knowing. But soon enough you will know, things will fall into place, and every action will have a purpose.

Sometimes women have to spend a lot more time doing what we do to be seen at the same level as men. I tell women coming into the field to educate themselves. Don't be afraid to put that work in because it comes back 10-fold. You don't always have to be the loudest person in the room, but you should always be the smartest.

Do women approach B2B selling differently than men? How so?

Plopping down a big catalog in front of a buyer and asking, “What do you need?” doesn’t cut it today. I work with women who leave the catalog in the trunk and ask customers, “How can I help?”

Studies show that listening is a key difference. While men listen more, women listen better. Women are naturally empathetic and actively listen to understand. Forbes says 74% of customers are more likely to buy if they feel they’ve been heard.

The buyers we work with are less interested in transactional sales and want to know how we can add value to the process. This prescriptive approach plays to women’s strengths, focusing on customer needs and working with the customer to shape a solution. And it’s not just a product solution: service intensity is part of the value proposition I’m talking about. For Lawson, it’s service-intensive, vendor-managed inventory.

Are there aspects of a career in sales that are especially of interest to women?

Coming out of the pandemic, I think everyone has prioritized maintaining a healthy work-life balance. A career in sales gives you flexibility and control to plan your workday around your life schedule. Work from home, connect with customers digitally, meet with customers in their environment, but again pivoting as you need throughout the day, and of course, the income opportunity checks a lot of the boxes for women.

Also, data is queen. Distributors have so much information available on their buyers — usage, seasonal trends, effective spend. You don’t have to know how every piece of equipment on the operating floor works. Pulling a report is a smart way to do your homework, and walking in with client-specific data empowers the buyer with objective information for their purchasing decision. And it can help customers with reporting up and consensus-building. Client enablement, meeting clients where they’re at, these concepts appeal to women.

According to Forrester, women represent only one-third of the B2B sales force. Is there more support for women in sales than in the past?

Women are underrepresented in B2B sales because companies haven’t recruited them, and women haven’t been encouraged to explore industrial sales as a career path. Plus, aggressive language like "always be closing" and the manipulative sales tactics of the past were turn-offs. Earlier in my career, I used my being the only woman in the room to my advantage — to stand out. But why should that even be necessary?

Today, it’s all about collaboration and client sustainability. What can we do to help each other succeed and make the customer’s job easier? Our reps have a phone app to connect anytime with their 1,000+ colleagues for quick product questions. The whole team is present for one another. Our Women’s Affinity Group is a community within our organization that shares information and discusses topics relevant to their professional lives.

I mentioned data earlier. We also use it to understand our reps’ strengths and performance gaps and then work with them to capitalize on what works and shore up competencies where needed. I was fortunate to have a few great mentors when I started, and I do to this day. It’s part of a leader’s job to mentor and coach new sales reps. If a prospective employer doesn’t have a culture that supports that, it’s not the place for you.

About the opportunities for career advancement for women in sales: what’s required from the industry?

I tell women, especially those who have taken a career break, “Companies are looking for you.” Regardless of if they were in HR or worked in fitness or at a bank, if someone is good at relationship-building and solving problems, they’ll probably be good in sales. And while men hold the majority of sales management roles in most industries, research from Xactly found that teams led by women have slightly higher win and quota attainment rates than male-led teams.

Women can help distributors enhance their diversity efforts and raise diversity awareness among clients. McKinsey’s Women in the Workforce 2021 research found that company profits are close to 50% higher when women are well-represented at executive levels. That’s good for women and good for business.

Whatever the industry, it’s all of our jobs to grow the ranks of women in sales and do whatever we can to help them succeed. And by the way, we’re hiring: reach out to me or connect with my talent acquisition colleague Trista Jones about a sales career with Lawson Products or Kent Automotive.

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