Are Women Selling Themselves Short in Business?

21/11/2012 15:08 GMT | Updated 20/01/2013 10:12 GMT

Two weeks ago I was invited to attend the WE Connect Europe conference focusing on all matters of procurement. I confess to not really knowing the parameters of this subject and actually was quite surprised to find out how many of our larger institutions run special diversity programmes to ensure that they procure goods and services from businesses owned and run by 'minorities' such as women! But that's how it ever was and I guess it's better this way than with no way forward at all.

It seems that women are missing out on the big deals, working hard at running their businesses but not always lining up like the men for the higher stakes. It doesn't surprise me that women owned businesses fail to pursue some of the more lucrative corporate contracts when the time taken to tender has to be weighed up against the priorities of fulfilling regular smaller contracts. Like mother hens we like to keep all our little eggs warm and cosy but I have fallen foul (sorry...) of the 'all my eggs in one basket' syndrome several times and find that a spread of business is far more practical in the current climate.

I am daunted by the whole corporate procurement system and have had one particularly difficult experience that left me feeling unworthy! About three years ago just as the recession was beginning to bite hard, I was thrown a potential business lifeline when a friend who was a partner in a leading management consultancy recommended me to his HR department. My company was given the opportunity to run a trial two hour workshop for their female employees - there was no fee but an opportunity to pick up a lucrative regular contract if they liked what they saw. This was to be the fore runner of our 'Stand Up to Stand Out' workshops based on stand-up techniques to improve communications skills and build confidence amongst their female staff.

At the time I wasn't running the workshops myself and sent in another facilitator who had been running then for our comedy clients. I made a mistake because my colleague had little regard for the formality of corporate life and this was reflected in the all-important feedback which stated that our format was 'not structured and too casual' and went on to say that they had preferred 'the woman who introduced the session', which was, of course, me!

The other issue was that we hadn't been properly briefed, quite possibly because the introductions had been conducted platonically rather than professionally - I later found out that all their on-going training sessions were delivered in one hour, not two hours as we had pitched. Had we known, we could have adapted the session - three years on and numerous versions of 'Stand Up to Stand Out' sessions under my belt for organisations large and small, the format is easily adapted.

So, did I get another chance? Sadly not and (I suspect) the fact that I wasn't invited in by the people actually buying means that any further opportunity to prove myself is unlikely until they move on and memories are erased. Embarrassing for all involved: my friend, participants and me. Lesson learned? Get a brief direct from the person doing the buying and not the mate who introduces you, and play to your strengths - if you sense a rapport, ensure that you pursue it.

Continuing in this vein, I've noticed that 'procurement' often translates as 'jobs for the boys', which I use euphemistically as it isn't bound by gender at all. When the BBC started its dissemination to Manchester and beyond it was interesting to see production companies snapping up newly redundant BBC 'lifers' who would become their meal ticket in the brave new world of outsourcing. Nests were feathered before the ink was even dry on the redundancy cheques as anybody with the inside track was a very good insurance policy for gaining and keeping lucrative contracts. But what hope does that hold out for rank outsiders?

Transparency is everything, along with a good proposal and price, and the ability to deliver. I believe in second chances too because there is the learning curve to consider and you are dependent on the buyer to make sure you get the right brief.

On a final note, the WE Connect conference was aimed at women and was designed to allay our insecurities about selling in to larger organisations. Even though I've had my fingers burnt once, I'd like another chance to pitch for the higher stakes and felt encouraged to do so listening to the success stories of women who are now hugely successful suppliers for some major organisations.

I spend my time encouraging women to be confident about who they are and presenting themselves in their own unique way and even have a new title to prove it! Two weeks ago I was awarded as 'Women's Champion' at the Annual Women Leaders Dinner run by the Achievers Academy for Women. So it's time for me to practice what I preach and knock on a few of those bigger doors myself! I've learnt that it may take a few attempts to reach the handle but the longevity and profitability of these relationships has to be the ultimate pay off.