A Conversation with Mary Lou Quinlan, Author of Just Ask a Woman
from Mark Fortier

In Just Ask a Woman, top marketing consultant Mary Lou Quinlan shows marketers and business leaders how to tap into America's most powerful consumers: women. Although they comprise just over half of the U.S. population, women buy or influence the purchase of eighty-five percent of all products and services sold nationwide. Yet, far too often, products marketed specifically to women fail to address their needs or connect with them on an emotional and motivational level. Just Ask a Woman will tell you why.

The founder and CEO of the premier consultancy dedicated to women's marketing, Quinlan has personally interviewed 3,000 women -- uncovering profound and enlightening truths that can't be learned from traditional research. She'll tell you why focus groups don't work, and help you learn new ways to listen to women, understand their needs, and meet their expectations for customer service. She explores topics such as how women judge brands and advertising, how they make decisions, and how stress affects their consumer behavior.

Q: Are women really THAT different from men in the way they buy?

Women demand many of the same things that men do (value, service, quality), but as shoppers, they notice more, expect more and get annoyed more when retailers don't put them first. For instance, busy Moms with kids in tow get more irritated with slow checkout lines. Women who are hands-on problem-solvers resent the "inhuman" automated phone systems. Whether it's car dealers who don't regard them, financial services brokers who are condescending or even the cashier who questions her credit line, women take shopping more personally and are now starting to retaliate.

Q: What do most companies do wrong?

It starts with not listening to women's needs in the first place. Many companies invent products and ideas, and then at the last minute, ask women what they think. Bringing women into the early planning processes as partners could make or break the new idea. Also, in their communications, many companies still stereotype women, lumping women together by their differences (all 40 plus, all 'Sex and the City' girls), when in reality, women's shared humor, sensibilities, memories and relationships are fresher areas to mine. I think some companies are afraid to be painted pink if they "cater" to women. Really, they'd just be more successful companies with men, too - if they just let women into their planning.

Q: You describe yourself as a seasoned eavesdropper and a skilled listener. Where did that come from?

I learned it from my grandmother and my Mom. My grandmother used to sit on her front porch and pick up on all the action in the neighborhood. My Mom can get the truth out of anyone, even a total stranger. It's about finding common ground and really paying attention to body language, as well as words. Listening that way is so different than the way that companies traditionally listen to women-behind a two-way mirror. I'm all about face to face.

Q: You formerly worked in advertising, serving as CEO of one of America's larger advertising agencies for five years. With more women leading ad agencies and client marketing departments, why aren't they getting it right?

Some are. But although women have moved up the corporate ladder, many have decided to leave their female intuition at the front door. To survive within some companies, women have embraced the system so fully, that they sometimes forget how much their identity as women can make them better marketers. I've always believed in bringing my "self" to work - which is how I listen better.

Q: Why do you oppose focus groups, one of the staples of marketing for decades?

Focus groups are a 1950s way of talking to 21st century women. They merely pay lip service to listening. The two way mirror, the bugged room, the bad food, the bored moderator-not the way to get women to open up. I believe in bringing women together in an atmosphere that is fun, respectful and smart. The TV talk show format works because female consumers feel like stars - just as they should.

Q: How has technology - the internet and catalogs and 800 #s - changed the way we shop and what we expect in stores?

Women welcome all these channels because generally they add up to access when and where she wants it. The buzz word for the past couple of years is integrated marketing. That means that companies are trying to tie all their channels together to create one message, one impression. Some companies connect all the dots, but in other cases, women get one answer from the 800# and another from the actual store. Many women will investigate the merchandise on line, but then want to pick it up at the store to avoid the waiting time and handling charges. They wish that all the channels would get their acts together, so that they didn't have to be the "integrators."

Q: Research shows that women are now responsible for buying things like consumer electronics and cars, areas that are traditionally considered "male". How are these companies doing in attracting and keeping female buyers?

Two different stories. The auto industry has billions at stake with female consumers. While they have been trying to build more intuitive design into their vehicles, they are still struggling with making the buying experience work for women. So, many women are avoiding the dealership until they have to, and rely on the internet and other sources to get pricing and feature information. The dealer is sometimes the last stop, not the first.

Consumer electronics suffers from both product and retail issues. While some technology works for women, there are more 'gee whiz' inventions that are quickly obsolete than simple to operate, easy to understand devices that just help women connect. The in-store experience is so bad, that one retailer, just before it declared chapter 11, ran ads promising not to be so annoying in-store.

Q: What could all companies selling to women be doing better?

Listen first. Sell second. Understand that women are extremely stressed and impatient with bad service and misfiring products. Try to look at communications through her eyes and treat her with respect. Find a way to get out of her way - she wants more time alone.

Q: Any personal pet-peeves as a female shopper? Any incredibly wonderful buying experiences you care to tell us about?

The cashiers who either don't know how to work their computers or spend time talking to co-workers while I am trying to check out. Being ignored, or worse, insulted as if the person behind the counter is doing me a favor. Being told "it's YOUR problem" instead of taking ownership. Wonderful? Not a lot, but when someone once said, "I will make this right for you," I thought I was in love.

Q: If readers take away a single idea from your book, what would you want it to be?

Really listening to women will improve your bottom line.

Here are Mary Lou Quinlan's Ten Ways To Market WITH Women

  1. Give her a laugh. Women are professionals at taking on others' problems and worries. Companies should lighten up and let her smile - through service, through ads - especially during these troubled times.

  2. Find a way to like her. Think of your customer as your sister, your Mom, your best friend. She can detect a fake relationship in an instant.

  3. Give her space to decide. While it makes some salespeople crazy, women decide in their own time, their way. Give her the information she needs, then get out of the way.

  4. Put humanity into the selling process. Women observe not just what you say and do, but how. Technology may be efficient for you, but sometimes it short circuits the sale.

  5. Keep the communications simple. Written, spoken, emailed or phoned in, speak her language, instead of yours. She's busy enough without you.

  6. Don't stereotype her life. In your ads, show a diverse range of women, not just ethnic and racial, but age, lifestyle and looks. Women appreciate nuanced differences.

  7. Real beats fantasy. Fantasy beats slapstick. Stupidity loses. This is shorthand for how to advertise to women. They like it smart and real.

  8. Consistency, consistency, consistency. Women's ability to "get" your whole picture from store window to website make her a tough judge. Pay attention to how it all fits together for her.

  9. Never deny her stress. Your stress and her stress are not in a contest. Whether it is the way a store sells, a product works, even the pileup in the parking lot, her stress-meter is ticking. Listen.

  10. Ask. Listen. Act. Women pay attention to marketers who pay attention to them. Once you listen, follow up. Ignore her ideas at your peril.

Adapted from:

Just Ask a Woman:
Cracking the Code of What Women Want and How They Buy

by Mary Lou Quinlan
(Wiley; May 2003)

Many more articles in Marketing Insight in The CEO Refresher Archives


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