Purchase Power: Women as B2B Buyers

Korn Ferry’s Evelyn Orr says many companies fail to see that women are major B2B buyers.

At a time when the world needs strong leadership, it’s all hands on deck. Yet data shows that women continue to be an underleveraged resource. In this regular column, Evelyn Orr, vice president and chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute, will explore the intersection of career, relationships, and gender and the impact on families, organizations, and society.

At a recent software user conference an IT team from a large business showed up to learn more about best practices, features, and other client stories. Like any large user conference, the swag was plentiful; and so were the salespeople (i.e. the swag distributors). Interestingly, the salespeople swarmed the lower-level IT employees, zeroing in on who they perceived to be the company’s decisionmakers. Left alone and swagless: the head of IT, the woman responsible for millions of dollars of business. While the IT executive could have cared less about the pens, frisbees, water bottles and tote bags, she vowed to remember the experience when it was time to engage in the next contract negotiation.

By some estimates, women control as much as $20 trillion in consumer spending each year. In U.S households, women make the overwhelming majority of purchasing decisions on homes, cars, healthcare, food and travel. They are even equal partners in making purchases in male consumer goods. Most companies understand that dynamic and take it into account in how they market and message their products.  

But many firms do not yet fully appreciate the increasing number of women who make the major purchasing decisions for businesses. Women hold about 50% of all managerial and professional positions in the United States and account for 41% of employees with authority to make purchasing decisions. This isn’t just an American trend, either; In Asia, 31% of management roles are held by women, and more than half of the countries in Europe are seeing increasing percentages of women in management positions 

The women who have these powerful purchasing positions are looking out for the same things that men in those roles do: innovative products or service models that save on costs, add value to their own products, or both. We don’t want pink laptops or thinly veiled coopted feminist messages.

For maximum success, B2B selling needs to be gender intelligent. Salespeople should expect a mixed audience for a pitch, avoid the assumption that the males in the group are the ones holding the purse strings, and recognize that women may have a different leadership profile or style. Korn Ferry’s own research finds that there is no one best way to sell. Instead, what predicts success is the ability to adapt to the unique needs of the situation and the individuals. One way to increase adaptability is to reduce assumptions, stereotypes, and scripts that run on autopilot. By anticipating a diverse group of buyers, each with their own styles and needs, salespeople can take a tailored approach to engaging each customer and winning their business.

In order for companies to serve and understand women B2B customers, they must prepare their sales force. Women expect competence but could do with less name dropping. Challenge our thinking—but do it in a collaborative, rather than a contrarian, way. We need partners to solve problems and make a difference, because at the end of the day we have a business to run, customers to serve, and employees to take care of. Most fundamentally, it’s difficult to win our business if we are invisible and overlooked.