Sales and Millennials — A Broken Bridge?

As the children of the baby boom begin to age out of the workplace (to be replaced by their children, the millennials), a major shift in values and skills between these two generations has become apparent. Millennials, born typically between the early 1980s and the start of 2000, have different long-term interests and employment desires than their predecessors. Many small-scale studies and surveys have been conducted that attempt to understand the major components of millennial motivations, and generally these people have a unique set of priorities and expectations for their managers and more experienced coworkers, making the managing of a mixed-generation team a nuanced task.

Millenials have specifically proven difficult to attract to the sales industry, causing companies to miss hiring goals which leads to a chain reaction of lowered sales predictions and shifts in strategic goal setting that can sometimes be counterproductive to business. A business should be cognizant of the factors that influence the long-term motivations of its prospective employees, since falling behind the crest can lead to perpetual churn and doomed profits.

What is it that makes millenials so much different from their older counterparts? Are there ways that businesses can reach out to younger people more effectively, and if so, where does one even start?

Millennials and Sales Culture: Not So Competitive

Millennial applicants generally don’t bite on the same bait when it comes to hiring. A lot of the key words that once attracted people to sales jobs, such as highly variable compensation based on commission and a competitive work environment, now mostly drive away new applicants of a younger mindset. The old “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps” adage that drives other generations has been replaced with a different urge: the urge to help other people solve problems as a group.

Unlike previous generations, millennials seek cooperation rather than competition. This is not to say that there aren’t competitive millennials or cooperative baby boomers, but as a group, millennials tend to value the ability to confer with one another on major issues and collaborate towards creating something new. Sales, to them, can appear to be a field that relies on competition at every level, both between sales representatives and their coworkers and between sales representatives and customers. For some younger professionals this model is untenable. Millennials want to work together rather than proving the quality of their approach to draw personal recognition.

Third Place Gets Fired – Sales is Scary!

Some of the stereotypes surrounding sales don’t do much to attract millennial workers to the profession either. Ideas from literature like Glengarry Glen Ross, a play that depicts sales as a vicious, ruthless, and predatory business that takes advantage of people’s good nature and that forces professionals into an eat or be eaten situation, are still a wide part of the public conscious, perpetuated by ubiquitous shows and movies that have similar portrayals. Depictions like these can sustain a picture of sales that simply doesn’t mesh with the values of millennials.

These workers value stability and safety over the variable pay and perceived risk that comes with working in sales. Job security is a huge priority, and millennials value it more than most other metrics according to a 2013 Pew Research study. Job security was second only to having a job that they enjoy, and with good reason: millennials face significantly higher educational debt than many previous generations. Stable employment with consistent pay suits their needs, and the lack of a safety net they perceive in jobs that run significantly off commissions can make those jobs seem scary.

Further, sales typically has high turnover, and that lack of a stable environment can make it difficult for millennials to get settled into the routine of performing sales duties. Even in fields with high job satisfaction, a high turnover rate and lack of continuity in the overall job environment can be discouraging and unfavorable. When opportunities for cooperation are relatively low and the ability to build lasting relationships with coworkers is diminished, millennials will ultimately stray away.

Stress and Pressure: A Generation Already Overwhelmed

The other component of the millennial situation that tends to lead them away from sales is their stress. According to an American Psychological Association study, millennials face higher stress than many other generations. Coupled with a perception of sales as a disproportionately high-press, catch-as-catch-can kind of environment, millennials who value balance will be asking themselves why bother to choose being even more stressed out than they already are?

According to the study, the average stress level of millennials was a 5.5 compared to a 5.4 for members of Generation X, 4.5 for baby boomers, and less than four for the mature generation. There were several specific stress behaviors they also led the pack in, including stress increases in the previous year, levels of loneliness due to stress, and meal-skipping because of stress. While younger people are generally more susceptible to stress than their elders, their stress is higher than previous generations at the same stage of life as well.

When coupled with a lack of interest in competition, sales becomes an even less attractive field–millennials ultimately find themselves doing something they associate with behaviors they don’t like, in an environment that they are likely to find isolating due to perceived competition, when they’re already somewhat stressed or unhappy to begin with. In order to get millennials into sales, sales-driven organizations need to start by selling them on the job itself.

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Millennials, Team Structure, and Leadership

These generational differences lead to differences in the management styles millennials respond best to, and sales team leaders should be aware of the ways in which they can more effectively lead this cohort towards success and long-term sustainability. The structure they’ve had in their lives and the shift in their childhood activities from those of previous generations has a significant impact on the way they approach work and life as a whole, and has rendered previous thoughts on best management practices obsolete in some respects.

Those who want to manage millennials in sales teams need to be keenly aware of the ways in which their motivations differ from those of other generations. In a field with high turnover and low acceptance among these professionals, keeping them motivated is essential. Providing a platform for their distinctive skills will help them stay engaged and become better producers.

Millennials Search for Meaning

Millennials crave purpose and are eager to see how they fit into the world and their organizations as a whole. “Need to know” information and opaque processes don’t fit into such a worldview. As a generation that has had constant access to information from an early age thanks to the Internet, millennials love to know what’s coming up next and why. They like to know how they fit into the lives of others, and into the picture of something bigger than themselves.

While the responsibilities inherent in sales can add pressure to a generation that doesn’t necessarily thrive on adversity, managers can re-frame these responsibilities as something much more positive. Businesses that make a positive impact in people’s lives in a visible way, such as pharmaceutical sales and those with strong public images, will have the easiest time with this, but selling millennials on sales will always start here. Show them how the sales team affects others positively both inside and outside the organization; their enthusiasm will magnify significantly. Sell them on sales by selling them on the good that moves behind each successful step.

Just Like Soccer Practice: Team Play

As a generation driven to team sports and quiz bowl, a generation pushed towards “service learning” opportunities, and a generation that spent tremendous amounts of time engaged in activities beyond themselves, millennials excel as team players. Millennial salespeople aren’t often going to be dynamos who can take a potential customer from lead to closed sale, but they also don’t necessarily have to be, either. One lesson they’ve learned time and time again is that they can rely on each other and play to their unique strengths.

For sales managers this cooperative nature can be a boon. Consider staggering responsibilities based on a given sales representative’s strengths. Those who have a keen sense of what the company’s products actually do can handle demonstrations and product Q&A. Those who make natural salespeople can focus on up-selling and cross-selling customers once they have a foot in the door. By distributing the load across consistent performers rather than creating a common hat for all to wear, companies can use this natural proclivity for teamwork to enhance user experiences.

This does require some technological support, however. One big disadvantage of this approach is the lack of continuity between customers and sales representatives, so companies planning to implement such an approach should have a robust CRM strategy developed to make efficient use of data. Well-kept archival information on specific clients, including their interests, buying histories, and personal or business needs, can make it much easier for larger teams to provide a personal and enjoyable experience, even though the interactions are spread among many representatives.

Another thing to consider when implementing such a team model is continuity of the teams themselves. Employees need to get to know each other and understand what they’re all working towards if this sort of model is to work. It’s much like team sports: teams grow together and learn how to work best alongside an unchanging group of relationships. While teams require effort to cultivate, groups of millennials specifically can become even more productive over time given the right motivations and support.

A Culture of Respect

The final thing that distinguishes millennial workers from their predecessors, in terms of work environment, is an expectation of mutual respect. They are unwilling to bear up under unfavorable workplace conditions, hostility, or a sense that their personal lives don’t matter; they’ll give exactly as much respect as they’re given. They won’t openly disrespect someone from neutral, but if they feel as though they aren’t valued, they’ll return that feeling in kind.

A top-down management style won’t catch their attention for very long, and may even turn them off to working with a manager altogether. What millennials crave is real leadership. They want to work with people who won’t ask anything of them that they’re not willing to shoulder themselves as well.

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Quick, Easy, and Streamlined: Millennials and Technology

As digital natives and the first generation to face a childhood full of communications technology, millennials have a facility for technology unlike many generations prior. They gravitate toward technology use in professional contexts more rapidly than other generations, and find working under low-technology conditions to be difficult. As sales moves to catch up with the digital age, these young people are well-suited to take advantage of technological advances. They don’t have as much patience for certain issues with technology as their predecessors did, so a solid design is even more important for them than others.

Integration: Everything is Connected

As a group, millennials do their best to finish things quickly and efficiently. Reduplication of effort is almost unforgivable to them, and they do their best to find solutions they can implement on their own. Accordingly, convenience has proven essential in software if there’s any hope of getting a millennial to use it. Clunky software will see lower adoption rates and worse results, and a piece of software that ends up not adopted by the majority of a sales team is ultimately a poor investment.

Consider using CRM solutions that integrate easily with other software and tasks, such as social posting tools, marketing automation, and email. If millennial workers see the efficiency inherent in a system, they’ll be more likely to put it into active use. Software has to do something for them now, or have a clear benefit for later, rather than merely promise potential better outcomes if they use it. Similarly, it has to be something that can be easily and naturally built into the flow of a sales professional, rather than something that itself adds more steps.

This integration should also use as much of the familiar interface as possible. Part of the urge to do things quickly is finding shortcuts, and for digital natives like millennials these are second nature. Being able to work quickly in a familiar setting helps them get down to the business of selling much faster while still maintaining enthusiasm for the overall pursuit.

Mobility: Selling on the Go

Millennials often have difficulty convincing themselves to sit down at a desk and get work done. They want to be on the move as they do work, and have adopted the smartphone, tablet, and laptop as their tools of choice. These tools offer streamlined interfaces and portability, making them a natural fit for their approach. Mobile phone and tablet applications assist this generation with everything from scheduling meetings to picking out lunch.

Good business software for millennials has mobile support. Not only does this offer easy access for those who travel to do project demonstrations or close deals, but it also allows an anxious millennial salesperson to get reacquainted with their sales pipeline while lying awake in bed, or while commuting. Instead of doing nothing with the nervous energy they may have while already contending with the effects of stress, they can channel that energy into something practical that they can readily access.

The ubiquity and familiarity of mobile access can make communicating with millennials easier, too, provided that the communication takes a form they can use easily. More than half of millennials use a laptop or a handheld device to connect to the Internet wirelessly when not at work, according to a study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Consider integrating portions of your sales flow with text messaging, instant messaging, or email functionality, as this generation can be counted on to have ready access to at least one of these through a phone or tablet.

The boundary between work and life doesn’t register for millennials in quite the same way it does for other generations. While they do value having both work and a personal life, they don’t segregate them as cleanly. While this sometimes means they like to browse the web during work, it just as often means they’ll check up on work while at home. Taking advantage of this inclination can lead to a more efficient, more engaged workforce.

The New Largest Workforce Demographic

Millennials now make up the biggest slice of the American workforce, according to the Pew Research Center, and businesses that can’t take advantage of their strengths have a rough road ahead of them. Regardless of where a business’s management team stands on the generation’s status as insightful entrepreneurs, self-absorbed Internet junkies, or just the next generation of workers, learning how to leverage the strengths they bring to a business team toward sales success is now essential.

Not everybody within the 1981 to 1997 birth group identifies as a millennial, and everyone is different. But on the whole, individuals born in this time period have changed significantly in how they work with the advent of the Internet and mobile technology, and these differences should be recognized and highlighted in the workplace to create a lasting, sustainable workforce built for the future.

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