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Men and Women View Risks Differently: What Sales Managers Need to Know

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Written by Bob Croston
Vice President, RAIN Group

Talking about the differences between men and women is a tricky thing. But we need to deal with tricky things if we want to be good sales managers.

The recently published book, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, has a nugget of knowledge every sales manager should know. As the title suggests, it’s about the science behind why some people win and others struggle.

This is not a sales book, but some of its findings relate to sales and have implications for how to manage a sales team. (Note: for detailed, sales-specific research on what makes a sales winner, take a look at RAIN Group’s recent research report, What Sales Winners Do Differently.)

While Bronson and Merryman’s book covers a variety of topics, it’s what they have to say on risk and its implications for sales management that deserves attention, especially the surprising results when comparing men and women. While the authors struggled to accept these findings at first, the science pointed to differences too large to ignore.

According to the research, women are far better at assessing odds than men. However, Bronson and Merryman also found that focusing on the odds often means increased avoidance of risk.

Risk taking is important in sales. Let’s say you have a client who is about to make a bad decision. Do you let them do it, or do you help them see that they might be walking into a trap? If you decide to help them see the pitfalls that lie ahead (and you should), you may create a tense discussion. This is risky.

You may need to spend days or weeks preparing for a major presentation and then fly a team out to the prospect’s site to give the full court press on winning a deal. This is expensive. And risky. You might lose!

You may ignore a bunch of smaller opportunities because you want to win a huge one. Risky!

These are typical, and all involve an element of risk. You could be another “yes man,” or you can take a risk and help the customer succeed. You can play small-ball sales, or you can go elephant hunting.

Even basic things like asking for the sale, cold prospecting, setting the agenda, talking about fees early on, and negotiating all have risks associated with them. Avoid them, and you can lose sales.

Men struggle on the other end of the continuum. It turns out they are less interested in assessing the odds. Men are more apt to take risks, go out on a limb, and be bold. However, do this too soon in a sales relationship—before you build the proper amount of trust—or approach the conversation with the wrong tone and buyers may perceive you as arrogant.

As well, taking risks without analyzing whether it’s worth it or not can lead to wasted time and energy chasing rainbows. What's a sales manager to do?

Bottom line, salespeople are in the appropriate-risk-taking business. While there are no absolutes, sales managers should keep their eyes open for the male tendency to take risks at the expense of trust and without the proper risk analysis, and for when they should encourage women to step out of their comfort zone and take more (appropriate) risks.

A tricky subject, yes. But if the science presented in Top Dog is to be believed, sales managers on the whole should be prepared to help men differently than women.

Topics: Sales Management