Preconceived notions are a tricky thing, especially in the business world. And regardless of whether we recognize it, we all tend to assume things from time to time.
Gender bias is the tendency to unconsciously attribute certain behaviors to one gender. In the pool industry, it can tend to show up on the sales floor, on the phone or even in emails to customers — for instance, that the “man of the house” is the one to talk to about all pool matters.
The problem is, that’s no longer the norm when dealing with large purchases or service contracts. In fact, women now drive 70% to 80% of all consumer purchasing, according to a 2019 Inc. magazine article citing Bloomberg research. So, how do we acknowledge it and fix gender bias?
Kara Weed, vice president of Ultra Modern Pool & Patio in Wichita, Kansas, says she deals with gender bias regularly as a female business owner.
“People will say, ‘Let me talk to your owner; is he available?’ she says. “They’ll assume it’s a male, but I don’t let it bother me. I know the pool industry is still pretty male dominated.”
Knowing we all have these tendencies, Weed trains her employees to never assume anything about anyone. “We talk about not making assumptions pretty regularly,” Weed explains. “Don’t assume they don’t have much of a budget based on what they’re driving, or who’s going to make the final purchase decision. As soon as you assume something, it comes back and bites you.”
David Isaacs, owner of Isaacs Pool & Spa in Johnson City, Tennessee, says change starts with self-awareness of gender bias tendencies and training to overcome it.
“People rarely just realize their biases, since biases by nature are culturally ingrained and acted upon at an unconscious or subconscious level,” Isaacs explains. “The way to gain awareness is through education about gender bias, role playing during training, observation of the interactions pool professionals are having with customers, and implementation of a less biased approach.”
Angela Barta, operations manager at 21st Century Pools & Spas in Vestal, New York, says her team tries to avoid gender bias by understanding who should be included throughout the purchase process.
“We always ask who we will be meeting with when we come to look at the yard or when we meet the customer for the first time,” Barta says. “It allows for us to be prepared and to bring enough material to share with everyone involved. It also makes it clear to our customers that we are anticipating a meeting with whoever they feel should be involved, rather than making an assumption ourselves regarding who will be meeting with us.”
Barta says her team also uses these communication standards for customer emails and calls.
“When a customer emails us and chooses to copy others on the email, we use ‘reply all’ to avoid leaving anyone out who is expecting to be part of the process,” she explains. “This goes for contact numbers as well.”
When Barta’s team receives contact information from a new customer, they ensure all numbers are added to the account. Contacts are used in order of a stated preference.
“If we need to call them, we are calling everyone who has the authority to make decisions,” Barta explains. “There are times this can include husband, wife, adult children and grandparents. We have heard more than once that our customer treatment is the reason a family chooses to do business with us rather than a competitor.”
Isaacs agreed with Barta’s tips, stating that even these seemingly small steps toward inclusion will make a difference.
“Take small, practical steps in your interaction with the customer,” Isaacs says. “Look at each party as you talk. Direct questions to both parties so you are making no assumptions about who may answer what you are asking.”
Isaacs says this may feel awkward at first but will become natural with practice.
“It’s all a mental exercise,” he says. “Awareness starts when the pool industry professional becomes aware of their own biases.”