A few decades ago, a career in sales was a much sought-after career by young graduates entering the workforce. College seniors would clamor to get on the interview list of on-campus recruiters representing blue-chip companies like IBM and Xerox who were hungry for top sales talent.
Today, it’s much harder to sell young people on a career in sales. And yet it’s vital for successful organizations both large and small to overcome this barrier if they want to grow their sales force and their profits—not to mention their market appeal to this giant demographic group.
In this two-part article, Talent Maximizer® Roberta Matuson of Matuson Consulting looks at why sales gets a bad rap from millennials, and sales strategist Colleen Francis of Engage Selling Solutions explores what you can do to reverse that trend.
Identifying the problem is key, says Matuson.
“Finding ways to make top talent stick with you is one of the biggest challenges that businesses face today,” says Roberta Matuson. “Nowhere is this challenge more acute than with this new generation of bright, young people moving into the professional workforce. More than just retaining them, you need to make a convincing case that a career in sales is a noble profession where they can really make a difference.”
Matuson, who helps world-class companies like General Motors, Best Buy and New Balance attract, engage and retain top talent offers the following examples to show how businesses are tackling this problem.
Repackaging the appeal of sales.
John Geist, VP of Sales for the Boston Beer Company, believes the business of selling has an image problem. “When young people think of sales, they conjure up an image of a guy in a plaid jacket going out to sell a product. At Boston Beer, we are professional, yet casual. Ties for men are no longer required for daily wear, although reps are expected to have one available in case the situation calls for it.”
Steve Richard, Founder and President of VorsightBP, believes that colleges and universities do little to promote the field of sales to their students. “You don’t see sales courses in colleges and universities,” says Richard. “There is a lack of exposure to the positive and productive sales roles that are out there. Instead, many times the only exposure a student has to sales is a poor one, when they go with their parents to purchase a car.”
Richards is on a mission to change the way young people view sales. He is passing the college placement offices. Instead, he’s building relationships directly with the professors and the undergraduate business fraternities. “We put on programs and seminars for the kids,” says Richards. “We host lunch and learns. We buy them pizza and soda or healthy drinks and we talk about sales and provide advice on their job search.”
Getting young people excited about sales is crucial, according to Richards. He makes it a point of staying in touch with them through marketing automation tools like Hubspot. “We put them in the nurture stream, so we can be front and center in their minds.”
Besting the competition.
Technology companies have had a huge impact on the ability of sales leaders to attract millennial talent. According to Geist, “The creativeness and freedom they offer is appealing, whereas sales requires discipline that many people don’t have today.”
In other words: tech is hot, sales is not.
Ted Kennedy, VP of Sales and Marketing at William B. Meyer, Inc. is preparing for the fight of his life. Working in what he describes as an old-line industry, he explains “we are not glamorous nor are we sexy,” but that the opportunities for young recruits with his firm are nevertheless considerable. Despite this, they struggle. “I have 20 people in sales,” says Kennedy. “Our average age is high 40s to low 50s. We cannot attract a millennial into our organization.”
Kennedy acknowledges that as his sales force ages, he has to have new people to replace them. His company is thinking about starting an apprentice program for the children of some of their best employees, who can be groomed for these jobs. Kennedy admits that they’ve been thinking about ways to attract new talent to the sales organization for the past three or four years.
However, reality is now hitting him in the face and he understands he must take decisive action, rather than merely thinking about things.
Nurturing and retaining new talent.
Back at Boston Beer, the focus is on retention. “The big challenge for us is holding onto our sales people past the two-year mark,” says Geist. Promotions at Boston Beer often require relocation, which young people agree to, yet resist when the time comes to make a move.
Start solving the millennial challenge now, says Francis.
“Building the best team possible is a crucial step for businesses that are serious about accelerating their sales,” explains Colleen Francis, founder of Engage Selling Solutions. “Solving the millennial challenge needs to be your top task in that bigger job.”
As a sales strategist, Francis works with companies to develop field-tested, winning methods of attracting and retaining top talent. While that search cuts across generational lines, her work with top-ranked sales organizations has helped her formulate specific advice on how best to reach this millennial generation—the sales force and sales leaders of tomorrow.
It starts with adopting a new mindset. “Get ready turn what you think you know about sales on its head,” says Francis. “The tried and true methods of recruiting young people just don’t work anymore. And that means you need to take a hard look all the way down to your corporate structure and rethink what it needs to do to be able to better drive sellers and influence buyer behavior.”
There are five steps your business can take now to help solve the millennial challenge.
- Money really does talk. Time does, too.
Pay for performance with no cap. Far too often executives put a cap on sales incentive plans. That just turns off millennials. They view it as an arbitrary limit on their earning potential. And quite frankly they have point. Consider individualizing your company pay scale. Don’t be afraid to have unique bonuses for individual top performers. Put away the old-school invitations to a President’s Club winner’s circle. Instead, offer something that is meaningful to the seller—ahead of what’s meaningful to your organization.
Time off can be just as valuable as money. Consider the example of a sales director (let’s call him Brian) of an international software company. He successfully motivated his younger team members by offering them a mix of time off and some extra money to invest in what they enjoyed doing.
- Catch people doing the right thing.Praise goes a long way, even with younger employees. Millennials want to feel they are contributing to your organization and to your client base. Case in point: a client recently lost a top performing millennial seller who was earning $250,000 annually. Why? Because that seller felt her contributions were not valued by the CEO.
Take more time to listen carefully to their suggestions, and offer praise for good work. Just as important, go out of your way to highlight client success stories on a regular basis. When a client accomplished great things using your product or service this is a sign that you are not just “selling stuff,” but making a different to the lives of the people and businesses that you serve.
- Flexibility is a big deal.
Does it really matter if your sellers are in the office 9-5 every day? Consider adopting flexible work arrangements for top performers, allowing them to work at home if they are producing.
Here are two examples. First, there’s Melissa, a young sales director based in the Netherlands, managing a team in Singapore. She chooses to work from Miami Beach throughout the winter. Her company’s leaders are happy with this arrangement because her results are excellent. Second example: David in Edmonton Alberta is a top seller who works hard at managing two territories and consistently delivers great results. His employer lets him go home every weekday from noon to four to rest up and have an early dinner. Then he comes back to the office and works late into the evening. While that’s not a great schedule for many people, but it’s ideal for David and his performance numbers back that up.
- Be a leader, not a follower in embracing new technology.
Too often, this gets overlooked in organizations with legacy systems. Millennials are highly connected. Embrace a work style that encourages this, using multiple platforms and multiple media for reaching clients. Excessive limits on—or over-managing of—social media activities only repel this new generation of sales performers, to say nothing of what it can do to your reputation with customers.
If you’re worried about responsible behavior online, offer a class to sellers on what’s expected of them before you allow them to log-in to their platforms of choice. Never shut them off completely. If you find yourself on the wrong side of progress, you’re bound to be seen by millennials as not worth their time.
- 5. Rethink your expectations about retention and loyalty.
One of the biggest complaints companies make today about millennial hires is that they leave too soon and jump from job to job. That’s not a generational problem. It’s a symptom of a corporate problem: of not knowing how best to harness the millennial sprit, their capabilities, and of accepting that ambition is an important part of being young. The old way was to assume you would keep a seller in place for five years and it would only be in year two that they would become profitable. What if you assumed today that this seller was only going to be in place for two years? Could you onboard them quickly and make sure they were profitable in 6 months? The faster a millennial seller is profitable, the happier they are. The happier they are, the better job they do, and the longer they will stay.
Your next step: know what’s at stake.
Experts tell us that 2015 is the year millennials will surpass the Baby Boom generation as the largest living generation in the United States. That’s a worldwide trend and it’s one that will keep growing well into this century.
Therefore, it’s vital that businesses get serious about tackling the millennial challenge: making your organization a more attractive place for this young, vibrant generation to invest their time and their considerable talents.
This is about more than chasing a demographic. These are the future leaders of business and the future top-performer in sales. You need them more than they need you. By making your company be seen as a great place for these young sellers to grow and thrive, you are positioning yourself for steady growth and accelerating sales for years to come.
Roberta Matuson is the Talent Maximer® and owner of Matuson Consulting. Her latest book is Talent Magnetism: How to Build a Workplace That Attracts and Keeps the Best. www.matusonconsulting.com
Colleen Francis is The Sales Leader ™, founder of Engage Selling Solutions and author of Nonstop Sales Boom: Powerful Strategies to Drive Consistent Growth Year After Year, among other titles. www.Engageselling.com