Meeting your female customers on their terms

Jan. 1, 2006
It’s not just the majority of hygienists. Dentists, dental assistants, office managers, and front office personnel are female.

Story by Kristine Hodsdon, RDH, BS

It’s not just the majority of hygienists. Dentists, dental assistants, office managers, and front office personnel are female. Am I stating the obvious? After all, you can tally for yourself how many females versus males you speak with during each dental office sales call, right? Considering this reality, the premise of this and upcoming articles is that, based on trend projections, your current selling strategies should be fine-tuned to respond to this market.

Gender facts

Why would you change your strategies to focus on the female market? Women now earn $1 trillion each year and their incomes over the past three decades have increased 63 percent. Women are earning 57 percent of bachelor degrees and are pursuing advanced degrees - degrees in dental medicines and specialties, purposed advanced dental hygiene practitioner (ADHP) designation, respectfully coupled with masters in dental hygiene, public health, business, and/or education - at a record pace.

Additional facts to consider:

Between 1997 and 2002, sales generated by women-owned firms increased 40 percent nationwide.

Women account for roughly 80 percent of all consumer buying.

Women write an estimated eight out of 10 personal checks in the United States (an important statistic to consider, especially for companies that have a professional and retail product mix).

About 51 percent of all purchasing managers and agents are women. Note: Historically, females have predominately guarded the front line in dental offices. They are often fondly referred to as “gatekeepers” in regard to the sales representative’s ability to woo staff in order to penetrate an office’s inner sanctum. By the way, what percentage did you notice stopping by your booth at the last trade show?

Run the industry numbers

According to the American Dental Education Association (ADEA), the total number of dental students in 2004 was 18,315, with 44 percent being female. The total number of dental hygiene students in 2004 was 16,354, with roughly 92 percent being female. Dental assisting students, with similar male/female ratio statistics as hygienists, numbered 8,623 in 2004. Furthermore, based on the 2002 U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, dental assistants held about 266,000 jobs in 2002. Almost all jobs for dental assistants were in dental offices, clinically and administratively. Collectively, those numbers add up to a dynamic “female” point of sale.

Think about this...

To whom are your sales practices geared? Are they only focused on male dentists? Sure. After all, traditionally male dentists - and hence, male-owned practices - have dominated our industry. Yet, the trends in dentistry show that the female presence will continue to grow. And amazingly, the women’s dental market remains overlooked by many companies and sales teams.

It’s easy to gather your own anecdotal field data at the next trade show. Walk down a dental trade show aisle or, better yet, stand behind your booth and listen to your sales team. Track how often, for example, you hear similar “qualifying” questions or witness a similar scenario to the one below.

Scenario: A sales associate asks a group of female trade show attendees, “Will you be coming back with the doctor?” So what happens next?

Option 1: Awkward silence, then, “Oh, you are the doctor. I couldn’t see your name tag.”

Option 2: Awkward silence, then one or more of the attendees respond, “No, we have the authority to purchase products and equipment,” or “I am not purchasing this item for the doctor. I am purchasing it for my own clinic/practice/business.”

What’s the likelihood that the sales associate in the previous situation closed the sale or, at the very minimum, created a level of interest or product buy-in? The safe bet is that the female group never returned to the booth, never followed up after the convention, and proceeded to share their 1950s-style “sales” experience via a professional e-mail network, chat room, or in person with as many colleagues as possible.

One gender tip to consider - Women customers spend more time carrying out prepurchase research than their male counterparts. Also, the decision may not be made at the initial encounter, especially if they feel pressured or disrespected. Just a conscience reframing of the sales approach by the salesperson would have yielded more lucrative results.

An extra tip - Women customers retain more loyalty and provide more referrals to companies they patronize than their male counterparts. Every female convert represents more business in the long run than a male convert.

All of which adds up to a “pretty” persuasive argument that a prudent dollar applied to advertising to women, plus adapting sales training to include women appeal, can earn you a competitive edge.

Suggested reading

“Don’t Think Pink: What Really Makes Women Buy and How to Increase Your Share of This Crucial Market,” by Lisa Johnson and Andera Learned

“Just Ask a Woman: Cracking the Code of What Women Want and How They Buy,” by Mary Lou Quinlan

“Marketing to Women: How to Understand, Reach, and Increase Your Share of the World’s Largest Market Segment,” by Martha Barletta

“The Power of the Purse: How Smart Businesses Are Adapting to the World’s Most Important Consumers - Women,” by Fara Warner

Kristine Hodsdon, RDH, BS, is the director of RDH eVillage, an online newsletter from PennWell, the parent company of Proofs. She is a frequent contributor and columnist to dental industry publications, serves on a variety of industry advisory boards, and has presented more than 200 lectures both nationally and internationally. If you’re interested in obtaining a free copy of “5 Gender Specific Tips for Dental Sales Teams,” send her an e-mail via