Mind the Generational Gap
Tensions are brewing in the office. The generation gap continues to widen, and although this isn't West Side Story—with a choreographed musical brawl between Baby Boomers, Generation Xers and Millennials (aka Generation Y)—the stage has been set. While younger salespeople might tout the effectiveness of their new technology-driven approaches, face-to-face tactics remain in play for a reason. Scrapping traditional techniques could result in lower sales and would alienate a Baby Boomer clientele.
With both sides digging in their heels, a successful business model must incorporate the strengths of both generations. So while social media might be the elephant in the room for Baby Boomers, and face-to-face meetings seem unnecessarily time-consuming to Generation Y, both have value.
Rebecca Kollmann, MAS+, director of business development at AIA Corporation, Neenah, Wis., believes in the power of relationship building, when done correctly.
"Veteran salespeople who understand that relationships are important can adapt to changes in the print or promotional industry, as long as they take the time to understand what buyers need, how they need it and how to stay relevant," she said.
Kollmann remarked that veteran salespeople will have an advantage over Millennials if they can approach and build relationships with today's diverse group of buyers.
"While a little business may still be done on the golf course, that has faded significantly in the past years," she observed. "Business is done in so many places: virtually, via phone and in-person."
According to Bill Farquharson, president of Duxbury, Massachusetts-based Aspire For, face-to-face selling still has many advantages. And classically trained salespeople have the upper-hand.
"Veteran salespeople understand the value of face-to-face selling. They are much more likely to get out of the office and meet with a client. They have less fear," Farquharson commented.
"The buyer typically has fewer suppliers they trust and are more loyal than those who are just starting their careers," he observed. "The buyer also feels more confident in knowing their products and don't need to be sold as much, so it's more about the connection that has been developed."
Millennials have successful sales techniques as well. Millennial salespeople possess what Farquharson calls "the gift of naïveté." They are not limited by constraints that might weigh down Baby Boomers and, instead, are free to imagine new solutions.
"[Millennial salespeople] see print as one solution, and not necessarily the only solution," Farquharson explained. "They are able to consider other forms of communication. This, coupled with a consultative selling approach, is a powerful combination."
Kollmann has seen the Millennial sales approach generate positive results in terms of buyer happiness. "Millennial salespeople—based on the characteristics of their generation—are more apt to understand the need of the buyer, assuming they will give them the time to interface with them," she commented. "Some of the best millennial salespeople take the time to understand what the buyer is really looking for, and offer them solutions that will be the most helpful, even if they have less impact on what the salesperson is earning."
Abbett found the Millennial's ease with technology the most advantageous. In fact, he expressed that the Millennials' use of web exposure is a company's best introduction to potential buyers.
"[Millenials] understand the importance of social media. Some people I know usually have a minimum of two social sites, and prospective buyers can learn just about anything about them with a few computer keystrokes. Most new buyers will not talk before checking you out via Google, LinkedIn or Facebook," Abbett remarked.
If not careful, however, both generations can get caught making critical sales mistakes. Farquharson felt that young sales representatives are "much more likely to send an email as a first step than an introductory letter." This could signify an over reliance on email communication.
"Oftentimes, I find [that] a young sales rep I'm working with will send multiple emails prior to picking up the phone. [...] It exposes a fear of the telephone," Farquharson pointed out.
He stated, nevertheless, that both age groups commit a common mistake: a low-quality sales call.
"In other words, they are 'selling printing' instead of solving problems. If you're not saying anything of value, it matters little how you are saying it or how old you are as a sales rep," Farquharson explained. "Customers will sit up and pay attention to a message that is relevant to them."
Kollmann agreed that not listening to the prospective buyer is the biggest mistake shared by both generations.
"There are excellent salespeople with stellar listening skills in every generation. For those who could sharpen their listening skills, what seems to vary between generations is why they're not listening," she said. "Boomers proclaim experience; Gen Xers are used to thinking independently, so while the buyer is telling their story, the Xer already has jumped ahead to the close without taking into account what they're really being told."
So what's the most effective approach? A personal style that incorporates technology is the best way to reach all potential buyers, and salespeople must be ready to adjust to the needs of different buyers. For Farquharson, it's not a complicated problem to solve.
He offered the following advice. "I would ask the client early on: 'What is your preferred method of communication?'"
Abbett agreed that the buyer controls how he or she will be sold to, and the best salespeople are those who know how to get a response.
"A sales pro using technology has a better chance of reaching a buyer. Anyone using every method possible to communicate is staying relevant. Having a LinkedIn page is great exposure and the first thing I do is Google a prospect to learn more about their business before contacting them," Abbett noted.
After the potential buyer responds, Kollmann cautioned against basing your sales approach on generational assumptions, and instead advised salespeople to be ready with numerous techniques.
"The best approach is likely a mixture of traditional and new; being familiar with what could work with diverse buyers will allow [salespeople] to easily shift their technique if they find it's not effective. Generational understanding is helpful—but stereotypes should be avoided," she warned. "What we hear is that younger buyers want direct/fast, etc.—but what we don't always stop to understand is that, for every generation, there are personalities and behaviors that run the gamut for that generation."
She continued, "There are personable and uber-talkative Millennial buyers and technology-oriented, 'don't-bother-me' Boomer buyers."
Perhaps Abbett summed it up best. "The most successful salespeople have a few important attributes that are age-resistant. Foremost, they are great listeners. They are honest, can communicate to a buyer in any method that is required, and they make themselves relevant in any situation. They also know their value and are selling something they believe in."