What Is Generational Selling?
The right fit goes a long way. Just think about it in terms of something we, in the promotional products industry, are all familiar with: T-shirts.
Imagine you’re giving away 100 T-shirts. If all 100 are the same size, how many people are really going to wear them (and wear them again)? People want what suits their needs, whether that means T-shirts in the right sizes or work solutions that make life easier for them.
So what does that mean for you? The one-size-fits-all approach won’t work in sales either. It tries to treat each client the same, when they are anything but.
Instead, tailor your approach to show your clients that you took their individual wants and needs into consideration. Show them you’re working to find what is best for them, rather than what is most convenient for you.
How can you do that? Well, that’s where generational selling comes into play.
Right now, there are four different generations in the workplace—Silent Generation, baby boomers, Gen Xers and millennials. And each generation has its own preferences and characteristics. When you can understand and integrate those differences into your own approach, you can show clients you’re putting them first.
“[Generational selling] is a technique that salespeople can use to layer on to their sales process to better target, engage, communicate and close deals with customers from different generations,” explained Giselle Kovary, president of Toronto-based n-gen People Performance Inc., an organization that helps companies improve performance within a multigenerational workforce. “This means understanding what motivates different customers based on their generational identities, and tailoring your sales message in a way that will increase trust, respect, loyalty and sales.”
And the need to bridge generations is particularly poignant for the promotional products industry.
According to the Pew Research Center, in 2015, millennials became the largest generation in the U.S. workforce. And yet, in the promotional products industry, the average age skews a little higher.
“I’m a 23-year-old woman [working as a resource to our sales force], and our average salesperson is a 55-year-old man,” Taylor Smith, promotional product specialist for Glenwood, Minnesota-based American Solutions for Business, said.
On the surface, this age gap can pose problems. Without understanding the differences between generations, younger generations often have a difficult time being taken seriously, and older generations can seem out of touch, she explained.
But when someone from one generation takes the time and effort to understand another, they can begin to build relationships on trust, understanding and effective communication. So how can salespeople foster that connection? We spoke with experts in the industry—Smith and Seth Barnett, diversity development manager for PPAI, Irving, Texas—and outside the industry—Kovary and Dr. Elli Denison, director of research at The Center for Generational Kinetics, an Austin, Texas-based generational research and solutions firm—to find out.
1. Know Yourself—and Your Client.
Where do you fall in the generational divide? Understanding the answer to that question is just as important as understanding where your client falls. “By doing this analysis, you can uncover how you may be limiting yourself by not attracting and engaging a wider range of customers,” Kovary said.
“We all tend to buy and sell through our own bias and lens,” she noted. “[Understanding our own generational preferences] helps to identify when your own preference might be particularly irritating to a different generation.”
When armed with the knowledge of your own generational preferences, you can better isolate and hone in on the preferences of others.
“One of the biggest challenges is breaking out of our own, personal generational selling preferences in order to recognize those that exist with others,” Denison continued.
A good place to start is determining where the differences in generations appear, and what the audience you’re trying to sell to is.
But don’t just rely on someone’s age to gauge his or her identity and preferences. Just because someone is a baby boomer doesn’t mean he or she exhibits all the traits of the generation. In fact, the individual may even display some aspects of other generations. When it comes to clients, do the legwork to personalize the sale. Kovary suggested salespeople read clients’ cues—do they use a formal or informal style? Do they like small talk or getting straight to the point? Are they technology-focused to do they favor face-to-face communication?
After each interaction, consider how the individual’s generational tendencies impacted the conversation, Kovary continued.
“By learning about generational customer service preferences and expectations during the sales process, you can adapt which medium you use, what key messages you present and modify your communication style to mirror each generation’s expectations,” she noted.
While this may take salespeople out of their comfort zones and away from their generational preferences—for instance, forcing a millennial to make a phone call to reach a baby boomer, or making a baby boomer send a Gen Xer an email—it keeps the client in his or her comfort zone. And, when clients feel comfortable with a salesperson, relationships of trust are easier to foster.
2. Know How to Relate and Communicate
Yes, a salesperson’s end goal may be to close the sale, but the bigger pay-off comes when he or she is able to cement a relationship with the client. Relationships can lead to repeat orders, referrals and loyal client bases.
Learning the ways in which your clients’ generations communicate shows them that you respect them and value their insights.
“It’s essentially taking the time to hear and notice another person, rather than shoving them in a one-size-fits-all sales box, and doing so immediately gets the person’s attention,” Denison explained.
In addition to listening to what they are saying, being aware of how a given generation wants to be heard is similarly important.
“With generational differences, it’s important to understand something as simple as how people prefer to communicate,” Denison continued. “This may not even be on a salesperson’s radar because most of us automatically communicate with others in the matter we ourselves prefer.”
Are you trying to reach a traditionalist who prefers a face-to-face meeting, a baby boomer who values a phone call, a Gen Xer who champions email, or a millennial who utilizes social media? Communication is at the core of any relationship. By shifting the emphasis onto what is most convenient and comfortable for your client, you can better relate to and communicate with the individual on his or her terms.
But just because it’s not your preferred method doesn’t mean it isn’t the pathway to a strong relationship.
“There is a common misconception present that says millennials do not care about personal relationships,” Barnett said. “This is completely false. The truth here is that how the millennial connects to build upon these relationships may look unfamiliar to some … [but] this is still relationship building, and it is important. Think of it this way: Social media is simply the new Rolodex.”
Likewise, technology has become a means of differentiation and, at times, division for millennials from other generations, when it should be used as a tool to reach the generation. With so much talk of how to market to millennials, Smith explained, at times there has become an “us versus them” mentality, when in reality, technology is a tool to take advantage of. Find out what works best for your client by integrating different technology into how you attract, service and engage customers, Kovary suggested.
3. Know When to Ask Questions
Yes, a great deal of generational selling depends on self-education and the salesperson’s understanding of the client. But no one is expected to know everything. One of the best ways to foster stronger client relationships and open communication is to ask for clarification, specification and assistance when necessary.
“[Generational selling] is not a ‘fake it till you make it’ situation,” Smith said. “If you’re talking about social media, technology or trends, and you don’t know what you’re talking about, it will quickly become clear.”
Instead, she suggested letting the person you are trying to connect with teach you what you don’t know.
“Young people in the workplace … often feel overlooked and underestimated,” Smith continued. “If the younger generation can teach you something, it makes them feel valued, and this creates a strong, honest relationship.”
The same is true for the older generations, as well. “For every one thing I can teach them, they can teach me tenfold about the industry,” she noted. “If you’re both on the same page, you will end up working smarter and more efficiently.”
Be open about what you still need to learn, so your clients know you are trying to help and understand them.
“The best way to build that relationship is through transparency,” Smith said. “Show the other generation that you’re interested in learning about them.”
4. Know How to Adapt
When it comes to generational selling, there always is something new to discover—something new to implement into your sales strategy to make it more unique to the client over time.
“There will always be a next generation,” Barnett said. “Research has shown that there will always be four generations active in any market at one time. This means being able to continuously reinvent ourselves to adapt to the new challenges and changes.”
While millennials may be the dominant generation in the workforce for now, Generation Z isn’t long behind them.
But, as Barnett explained, catering to the needs of one generation doesn’t mean forsaking your own successful sales strategy. It means being willing to learn the practices of others in order to strengthen your existing tactics.
“It is best to understand that as the audience changes, so should the approach,” Barnett said. “But this doesn’t not mean changing who you, as the salesperson, are. So, if you are a baby boomer, sell to me as a baby boomer, but understand that I am a milliennial and appreciate the specific aspects of my market.”
It comes down to a matter of mutual respect, Barnett explained.
“If you are able to shut out the stereotypes about any particular generation and understand that they bring value to what you are doing, you will ultimately be successful,” he noted. “Remember, if you treat them fairly, they will treat you fairly.”