Generations Matter

By David Szen on Oct 10, 2012

3 Minute Estimated Read Time

 “Hi, I am a 30-something sales professional with 10+ years of experience, and I am selling to a 60-something VP who has spent more years at this company than I’ve been alive.  Most of my customers love me…  what is the deal with this guy?”

 As a fly on the wall coach, I see some incredible scenes.  Recently I’ve encountered several scenes where I have observed a 20+ year age gap between reps and customers.  Some are thinking……. “So what?” Others are wondering, “Why can’t I connect?” With a workforce comprised of so many generations, it is not uncommon to observe issues when multiple generations come together in the workplace.  This is a big deal, and the bad news is that most of the issues are “inner-thoughts” that cloud the decision process and cause barriers to the sale.

Take for example a 30-something Millennial selling to a 60-something customer.  The Millennial may have some strong characteristics that could flare up unproductive “inner-thoughts” in the 60-something brain.  Generally Millennials are confident, well educated, self-sufficient and love to build teams with folks the same age.  They are typically very eager to succeed with huge goals that may lack a plan.  Oh, and for the most part, they have been entertained their entire lives.  This is a smart bunch, and we will likely see them run the country in the near future.

Now let’s think about how that 60-something may be processing the characteristics that he sees.  It may go something like this… “You remind me of my kid.  Are you serious?  Did you just tell me what I should do?  I invented the concept of work while you were chasing the ice cream truck!”  You see, the 60-something is a Baby Boomer.  His generation is marked different characteristics.  They are typically regarded as hard workers known for being a bit idealistic, breaking the rules, and living the job.  Oh, and with all of that experience behind them, they can, with more confidence, remind the world that this is the way it works.  “You have to pay your dues kid!”

How might a sales call go between the Millennial and the Baby Boomer?  Without proper preparation, it might not go so great… and here’s why:  A well-educated Millennial may see perfect logic and reasoning on an issue, but their confidence and inclination toward self-sufficiency could lead them to take hard stance where it matters to the Baby Boomer.  Why is this a problem?  Even with sound logic, it could aggravate the Baby Boomer, and here’s why… “Who is this kid?  Doesn’t he know how we do it around here?  Sure it sounds good… but he hasn’t seen what’s happened when we’ve tried to do this in the past.”

Now what to do?

It’s important to understand that people are complex.  We have our own thinking preferences, but we also come from circumstances that shape who we are... our generation being one of them.  If you are a Millennial selling to a Baby Boomer, you may want to try this next time…

  1. Ask their opinion.  Test ideas with them, and take the time to hear them out.
  2. Have an opinion and state the facts, but be very aware of the tone of voice (politically correct and respectful) and maintain strong eye contact.
  3. Look for trust to be built but on a very SLOW clock.  Pay your dues, so to speak, and work to gain entrance into their circle of trust.
  4. Appreciate the work ethic of the Baby Boomer.  They’ve been doing this a lot longer, have likely had some success along the way, and are typically very proud of that (wouldn’t you be?).  Try some question openers like this: “In your experience over the years – How have you………?”

My friends, it is likely that the typical Baby Boomer is waiting for the Millennial to respect their experience.  They need to know if this “kid” can get the job done and be allowed to enter the “circle of trust.”  It takes time.  Trust is on a very slow clock and younger sales reps may need to get ready for a longer sales process where they are being tested along the way. 

Is this fair?  100% NO IT IS NOT!!!  That said, with people working longer and more generations in the workforce, it is just another variable we need to consider when working with our customers.  Be careful not to make blanket assumptions based on age, but do take the time to understand who the person is, their characteristics, and their values.  You may find that simply taking the time to get to know them will result in greater trust and mutual understanding in the relationship regardless of the generation.

Much has been written about the generations and there is some great stuff out there.  The key is to teach sales reps how NOT to flare up generational differences by being aware of what they might encounter and always seeking to understand first before asking to be understood.

David Szen

Written by David Szen

David Szen is a contributing author for Symmetrics Group and a sales effectiveness expert. Having delivered numerous sales and leadership training programs for companies across industries, David understands the nuances that can impact sales team performance. David explored generational impacts on sales team effectiveness and co-authored the book The Multigenerational Sales Team with Symmetrics Group's founder Warren Shiver.

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