The secret life of salesgirls

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Who makes the best salesperson? A cheerleader.

The drug industry is so systematic about recruiting cheerleaders that the New York Times writer Stephanie Saul wrote a feature about it, spotlighting women like Onya: “On Sundays she works the sidelines for the Washington Redskins. But weekdays find her urging gynecologists to prescribe a treatment for vaginal yeast infection.”

There are some suggestions that the cheerleaders became the substitute for the now-illegal freebies that drug companies used to give doctors (like trips to Tahiti). Now drug companies persuade doctors to prescribe drugs by lending them the presence of a hot salesgirl.

Lynn Williamson, the cheerleading coach at the Univeristy of Kentucky, says that it’s not just that the woman are dreamy. Williams thinks that cheerleading talent does, in fact, correleate with talent for sales: “Exaggerated motions, exaggerated smiles, exaggerated enthusiasm – they learn those things, and they can get people to do what they want.”

Williamson is not alone. Spirited Sales is a recruiting firm that specializes in cheerleaders. Here’s a quote from their web site: “Spirited Sales Leaders has a database of thousands of self-confident, outgoing, responsible and enthusiastic young men and women from around the United States with varying levels of B2B sales experience.”

The web site also talks about how cheerleaders have a track record of leadership and success. This actually rings true to me. I mean, athletes are coveted by many recruiters because athletes do better in business than non-athletes. And cheerleaders are, in many aspects, just like these athletes; but cheerleaders, unlike athletes, are consistently outgoing and good-looking. And good looks give people an edge in business, as well.

So who’s the smartest hire you can make for your sales team? A cheerleader. As long as she can meet the demands of the job.

And what happens when the best girl for the job goes to work every day? She gets hit on. Constantly. And even when it’s not a direct hit, it’s a guy who is married and bored and not bored enough to cheat, but definitely bored enough to take too much face time from the salesperson while he’s making a purchasing decision.

Not convinced? According to the Times article, an informal survey showed that 12 of 13 medical saleswomen said they had been sexually harassed by physicians. And if you think it’s only physicians, you’re wrong. It’s even Hewlett-Packard board members.

So here is advice to women in sales:

1. It’s not your fault.
It is totally common to get hit on at work, especially if you are a cheerleader type. You are not provoking this behavior. You are being you, and men like you. Do not feel bad about this. And, definitely don’t wear dowdy clothes just becuase the men are hitting on you. Anyway, women who totally downplay their sexuality are seen as less competent.

2. Use it to your advantage.
Men who are attracted to you are more likely to buy from you. So what? Men who like to play golf are more likely to do business with other men who play golf. People have been given unfair preferences forever. Be glad you are the recipient of some of this. If the guy wants to talk with you for too long, fine, as long as he buys something. That’s what salespeople get paid to do: Connect with the customer and talk until they buy.

3. Don’t date someone who is married.
The truth is that the guys who will be most interested in you are the ones who are married. They are not going to leave their wife and kids. They just want something a little more interesting for a little bit. This is a waste of your time. This person is not emotionally available and he is a sponge for the fun, exciting, full-of-possibilities stage of life you are in. Don’t let him ruin it. Sell him something and leave.

4. Dating good dating material is fine.
If you are selling to a really good guy, and he’s single, dating him is fine. But then try to give his account to someone else on your team. Otherwise things get too messy.

5. Don’t put yourself in danger – from the guy or from human resources.
If the guy touches you and you don’t want it, tell him a clear no right away. Don’t worry about losing the sale. If, after you tell him no, he touches you again, leave and don’t go back. Ever. Do not tell human resources if you can help it. The job of human resources is to protect the company, not you, and when you have a harassment complaint, you are a problem to the company. This is not good news. I hate to have to tell it to you, but it’s true. Here are some ideas for what to do instead.

The good news, though, is that outgoing, good-looking women can have great careers in sales — or anywhere else they want to go. So go into the workforce with talent and ambition and create the life you want. Really.

HT: Ben and Dennis

25 replies
  1. Rowan Manahan
    Rowan Manahan says:

    Great post Penelope and brings me right back to my days in the pharma industry. For further reading on the topic, Daniel Hamermesh has some interesting stuff – and the Work Foundation in the UK did some interesting material on the concept of “Aesthetic Labour” –


    * * * * * * *

    Thanks for the comment, Rowan. The links are great.


  2. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    The obvious defense against the attack of the sales cheerleaders (boy, doesn’t that sound like a late night movie) is to hire either gay or happily married men, or heterosexual women to staff your purchasing department.

    Back at my first company, one of my salespeople brought me to New York to call upon a potential partner. The VP was a male Stanford GSB grad, his subordinate was a blonde, female USC grad dressed in a short, tight, white dress and wearing sandals.

    Then we met at a glass table.

    After the meeting, I asked my sales guy why he hadn’t said much.

    “I was kind of distracted,” he admitted.

    Fortunately, I was impervious to her charms, and I was the one making the buying decision.

  3. Anastasia
    Anastasia says:

    Chris Yeh, That sort of assumes that only girls have cheerleader qualities. I assure you, women can, and sometimes are just as susceptible to sales charms. Admittedly, the women in business I know are either one extreme or another, either obviously reading romance novels in their cubicles, or almost frighteningly agressive in their business practices.

  4. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:


    Heterosexual women are not immune to the charms of handsome men either, but I see far less focus on male appearance as a core business strategy. For example, there is no female equivalent of Hooters.

    In the end, the power of physical attractiveness is an unfair and irrational advantage. But since I can’t do much about how society works, I suppose I should just be grateful that I’m blindingly handsome.*

    * That was a joke.

  5. Jenny
    Jenny says:


    I’m considering not reading your blog anymore because of your advice. Don’t report the sexual harrassment? Wow. That’s first class behavior, right there. No wonder things are still the way they are.


    * * * * * * *
    Hi, J. I’m glad you wrote this comment, because maybe a lot of people are thinking this.Did you read the link I included with the advice to not report sexual harrassment? I included the link so that people who are not familiar with harrassment law could understand it better.

    The advice to not report is not controversial. I’m not saying that harrassment is okay. I’m saying that the law doesn’t protect women who report. The law protects companies from being sued by the women who report. Human resource professionals are trained to protect the company, not the woman who reports. This is simply how the legal system works.

    I am not saying this is okay. But this is not a legal philosopher blog. This is a career advice blog. When you report harrassment it is usually the case that you lose your job – in a way that can be construed as legal — and you go through emotional hell. Most women are not in the position to sacrafice their career in the name of trying to bring down one harrasser. The legal system needs to step in and take care of this.


  6. laurence haughton
    laurence haughton says:

    There are many (well-researched) reasons that women excel at marketing and sales beyond looks.
    According to Dr. Bernard Rosebnbaum’s study “Women have an edge in five of the seven emerging sales competencies.”
    But I’m not discounting your point. One of the most insightful leaders I found researching my book was a former Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader (with a business degree).

  7. jim
    jim says:

    I agree that HR wagons circle the company. I have worked for defense contractors and a major airline. The year 2006 saw the peak (at the time of report) of harrassment in the work place against males. The sexual harrassment I experienced was too brazen to report on this blog. All I can say is that it went far beyond verbal. There was alot of full body contact on the part of the females. They have gotten away with it for so long that it was just one of those things. HR will only do what it has to to protect the company and keep the money rolling in. If worker productivity falls because of the harrassment, then that is the only time we see videos on harrassment prevention or have the long lectures. In my work capacities, I have seen extreme harrassment from the bottom to the top. Supervisors marrying employees and “group relations” while on the job getting paid for it was very common. Some were targeted more than others. If you were nice looking to them, it became very bad. My career was actually destroyed because I did not participate in the “relations”. I did not report the harrassment. The harrassment also happened to female employees, but there seemed to be some understanding that it would only go as far as the female wished (for the most part that is). The males didn’t have that luxury. The female with the “personal mishap” requiring medication was still a wild gun in the workplace. Penelope’s advice seems like a real world advice.

  8. Manny
    Manny says:

    Well, that’s just dandy for those of us who aren’t 19 and don’t look like Katie Holmes. Much as it must be a shock to hear it, other women exist.

  9. James Castro
    James Castro says:

    There seem to be two subjects here. One is the suitability of cheerleaders for sales jobs; the other is the use of attractive young women to sway sales decisions.
    Cheerleaders come in two sexes, lest we forget. Many American politicians were cheerleaders in college, including Presidents Eisenhower, Bush (G.W.), and Roosevelt (F.D.R.). Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a high-school cheerleader. What successful cheerleaders have in common is the ability to communicate enthusiasm, which is an important trait for both leadership and sales work. Therefore it should not be surprising that former cheerleaders of either sex make great sales reps.
    The use of cute young women to sell goods to gullible men is a separate issue. It is a sleazy practice, but it should not surprise anyone that such things happen in competitive industries.

    * * * * *

    Great point about the male cheerleaders. And great examples of how they, too, have personalities for success.


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