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Mind the gap - how to get the most out of an age diverse salesforce

Mind the gap - how to get the most out of an age diverse salesforce

Huthwaite’s sales experts explore some of the common attitudinal differences between new and traditional sellers and explains how to harmonise your team for maximum performance.

1. Introduction
2. Attitudes to each other
3. Attitudes to work
4. Selling skill development
5. Sales recruitment
6. Remuneration
7. Technology
8. The intergenerational gap between seller and customer
9. Conclusion

1. Introduction

The newest generation of sales professionals can have a different attitude to work than their more mature colleagues. In everything from working patterns, learning style, preferred approach to being managed and the structure of their remuneration package, they value and seek out new and different approaches. They are tech-savvy, innovative and disruptive and unafraid of asking for what they want.

Each group has valuable experiences and skills but for sales leaders, line managers and HR professionals there are increasing challenges in balancing the needs and demands of older employees with those of their younger colleagues.

In this article we consider seven key areas:

and highlight how to create a sales organisation that is high performing, fair and consistent yet flexible enough to accommodate differing demands.

Attitudes to each other Attitudes to work Selling skill development Sales recruitment Remuneration Technology The intergenerational gap between seller and customer.

and highlight how to create a sales organisation that is high performing, fair and consistent yet flexible enough to accommodate differing demands.

The three demographics of working age:

  • Baby Boomers, born between the end of the second world war and the early 60s
  • Generation X, born between the mid 60s and the mid 80s
  • Millennials, born between the mid 80s and the millennium.

2. Attitudes to each other

In some quarters, particularly in the USA, there can be huge animosity outside the world of work between Boomers and Millennials.

Boomers often consider Millennials to be feckless and having an unjustified sense of entitlement, whilst Millennials think Boomers are selfish, materialistic and responsible for the economic, social, and political problems they are now living with. It’s a toxic mix, and carried through to the sales team, potentially disastrous.
Fortunately it’s a somewhat narrow view and, on a one-to-one level, easily overcome. Both generations want respect from the other. Boomers want to be looked up to, whilst Millennials want to be treated like equals. It’s a great basis for truly fulfilling and productive relationships on both sides. Boomers have experience and knowledge they are proud of and willing to share, whilst Millennials are seeking guidance and mentoring.

And it’s not just a one-way street with knowledge only passing from the older to the younger generation. Millennials have skills and knowledge that Boomers don’t. For example, Boomers may be excellent at writing reports and long-form articles, but do they know how to write punchy short-form pieces for blogs or other social media? To Millennials it’s second nature. Both can learn from the other, creating mutual respect and trust, and an even closer and more productive working relationship.

By formally implementing a mentoring or buddy system, where Boomers and Millennials work together in pairs, on real sales if possible, or in planning and review if not, can greatly facilitate a collaborative, supportive and nurturing culture – something both generations want and that can only help employee engagement and staff retention.

3. Attitudes to work

The generations also have different attitudes to work-life balance. Boomers invented the workaholic. They consider visibility a key to professional success, and a strong work ethic is highly valued.

It’s perfectly captured by Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street with the line, “Lunch is for wimps”.

Millennials on the other hand tend to have a ‘work to live’ attitude, are diligent and committed but are out of the door at 5.00pm. Boomers may see this as a lack of commitment but, in this regard, Millennials are ahead of the curve. Wellbeing and mindfulness are becoming a core HR mantra as burn-out and stress related illness are increasingly recognised as extremely unproductive and bad for business. There’s little point putting in 60-hour weeks if you are then off sick for a month. If your team can’t get the job done within normal working hours, they are either ineffective or you are understaffed.

Cruising to retirement

Perhaps one of biggest people management challenge for sales leaders is how to handle those long serving sales people who can see retirement on the horizon and are doing just enough to keep out of trouble and nothing more.

You both know they are not giving their all but there’s nothing you can do about it. They are meeting all their performance measures (only just), but have no aspiration for progression. They may feel it’s their right after many years of service. It’s not just Millennials who can have a sense of entitlement. The chances are they are probably older than their sales leader, which can make it harder to challenge.

To not challenge them though is not an option.

It’s obvious to the entire team when a sales person is disengaged. They may not try to hide it and may even openly declare it. The hard workers resent it and are demoralised or disenchanted if it’s left unaddressed. They may even reduce their own efforts. The fact is, one disengaged seller can bring down a whole team.

A further consideration is what a disengaged employee is saying to your customers. They may not be openly critical, but not being wholly enthusiastic either can have a negative impact on your brand. So what can you do about it?

Remember, Boomers have a strong work ethic and like to be valued, but an individual may genuinely no longer have the energy or resilience to cold call or chase enquiries. What they do have is a vast amount of sales intelligence and knowledge, most of which will be stored in their personal records or not written down at all. All of which will be lost forever when they retire. Now is the time to harvest it.


  • Get them to record all their experiences in an accessible way for everyone to share
  • Get them to write up their successes, both what and why, and the learning from their failures
  • Have them create a competitor database, value propositions for key solutions and how to handle your most common objections
  • Get them to share their knowledge across the business, mentoring and coaching newer sales people, talking to R&D about product development, and with Marketing about customer profiles
  • Have them work with L&D developing, and maybe delivering, training
  • Engage them in new areas and equip them with new skills, perhaps getting them involved in creating content for your social media output.

4. Selling skill development

Over the last 40 years the B2B sales environment has changed dramatically. Back in the 70s a typical B2B sales person would be an area rep, with a geographic territory and a product catalogue.

They’d cover the same route, visit the same customers, on the same day each month for a chat, a coffee and possibly an order. Sales were built on long-standing, valued relationships.

Whilst strong relationships are equally valued now, the nature of selling has changed.

Products, services and suppliers can be researched online, and the customer relationship is more likely to be with professional procurement, or in some cases a complex DMU, than end-users. Traditional salespeople may find it difficult to adapt to these changes and may resist attempts to make them do so.

One Huthwaite client, a global conglomerate, recognised this and adapted their sales process to accommodate it, using Millennials to find, create and develop new opportunities and Boomers, who are very product savvy, to go in later down the line to talk functionality detail and discuss like for like comparisons with existing or competitive products. They also changed their pricing policy, offering product with or without support from the salesperson post-decision at different prices. It’s been a great success improving sales performance and employee engagement.

This strategy does carry risk, however. Customer’s may be willing to accept a change-over during the buying process, but they expect it to be seamless, with the new salesperson fully up to speed with the sale so far. They want a consistent customer experience. To ensure that happens, it’s vital all the sales team have a common language to communicate where the customer is in the buying process, their role in the decision, and the problems, needs and value you have developed so far. They also need to adopt the same sales methodology to ensure momentum is maintained in a consistent way.

It’s one of the reason why in a typical SPIN® Selling Skills programme, the whole sales team is trained, not just the leaders.

Challenges for L&D

The resistance some Boomers have to changing their approach to sales can often be a challenge for L&D. Some traditionalists are unwilling to engage in new learning initiatives, whilst Millennials are invariably eager and willing to acquire new skills.

Huthwaite client example:

The client was an industrial giant of long standing, with existing client relationships that, in a few cases, dated back to the 1890s. The sales team of 24 people was split equally between very seasoned old-school reps and a new cohort of younger sellers.

Attitudes were split along classic lines; the younger cohort keen and eager to learn, whilst their older colleagues were cynical and dismissive.

The company had gone through several reorganisations over recent years most of which had been totally ignored, or actively sabotaged, by the Boomers. It was captured perfectly in the introductions round on the first sales training workshop where one participant’s opening comment was, “I’ve worked here 25 years, hit my target every year, and you can’t teach me anything”.

He may be right but things had to change and he, and his colleagues, had to change with it. The problem was tackled head on by winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the cynics to stop them undermining our efforts with the enthusiasts.

A SPIN® programme was designed for the Boomers that was heavy on acknowledging existing skills, but gently persuasive of the need to change while subtly uncovering areas of weakness. Creating an understanding of the need to change and providing the tools to do so turned cynics into converts. The second group then underwent the normal skills programme.

Everything was underpinned with a hard output - a completed plan for each key account, to reinforce and engage. It was an effective approach with even the initial detractor announcing, “That was the best training I ever had”.

It’s essential all your sales team get the same learning, it’s not essential they get it in the same way. Boomers may prefer an instructor-led classroom event whilst Millennials are far more willing to adopt remote learning and virtual collaborative development tools. It’s a key reason why Huthwaite offers a range of delivery options. Working together to select the approach most appropriate to their culture is a key requisite for behaviour change success.

5. Sales recruitment

Are there implications for recruitment? Absolutely. You’re likely to lose a Millennial after just three years, whereas a Boomer quite possibly is looking for something longer. How do you manage these different expectations?

The obvious starting point is to ensure a faster on-boarding. The cost of recruiting is roughly twice the starter’s direct cost (salary plus benefits). How long will it take for a starter to generate enough business to give you a return on your investment? It’s a balance of time and revenue since the lower the cost of a product or service, the shorter the sales cycle. Assuming the new starter will be starting from scratch and not given any sales in progress, the formula is induction/on-boarding time + duration of sales cycle x average contribution.

If you can get a starter who’s a Millennial making a net contribution within, say, six months, they will, assuming they stay with you for three years, contribute five times your investment in them.

Not a bad return.

Research shows 89% of B2B sales do have an average sales cycle of six months or less so for most organisations this won’t be an issue. If you are in the 11% with a longer cycle you may need to rethink. On the positive side, longer sales cycles usually mean bigger decisions. Which in turn means more senior, and generally older, decision makers who want to deal with salespeople with similar seniority. It may be there’s a natural gravitation of more mature salespeople into long-cycle sales.[/fusion_text][fusion_text]

6. Remuneration

One area of huge and inescapable difference between the generations is personal finance.

In the UK the vast majority of Boomers will own their home and many will be debt-free, whilst Millennials are mostly living in rented accommodation and burdened with significant debts from their university years. And it’s unlikely to change soon. In the 1970s it took three years to save the deposit for a first home. It’s now nine years.

What we value in our pay and benefits package therefore will vary depending on our circumstances. The same reward for the same job is a fundamental principle, but the nature of the reward can vary. For example, a debt-free Boomer may value greater pension contributions, health insurance and more holidays over salary. A Millennial may want the exact opposite and be willing to sacrifice what they see as fringe benefits for more cash. It’s possible to accommodate both groups.

Many organisations offer a ‘menu’ of benefits enabling employees to tailor their benefits package to their needs. As long as its equitable and transparent, it can work.

In sales, you have the added option of the balance between basic salary and bonus or commission. Risk averse individuals can opt for a relatively high base salary and low bonus, whilst risk takers can have it the other way around. This is not an equal outcome however. Opting for the high-risk, low base salary option should, if successful, reap higher rewards than the alternative. For the employer it’s a win/win - enabling all your sales team to work at the level they want and only pay out the highest rewards to the highest achievers.

7. Technology

Although most professionals have embraced technology to some degree, attitudes towards it may vary.

Whilst a Boomer is likely to take a good book on holiday, albeit perhaps on their Kindle, and actively seek out somewhere with no mobile signal, a recent report found 25% of Millennials check their phone at least once an hour – even on holiday. Indeed, the report, from Piper, an investor in consumer brands, found the twin but conflicting desires of some Millennials for “having exciting experiences in places with few tourists” and “sharing their holiday experiences instantly on social media” are driving the roll-out of mobile networks into remote holiday destinations around the world.

It’s no different with sales technology. Everyone will embrace it, but to different degrees. The important thing is having clarity on what is mandatory versus personal choice.

For example, it’s quite right to insist that all your salespeople update their forecast and customer records on your CRM, but does it matter if they record their call notes in a note pad or and iPad?

It’s also worth considering the customer. If they are a Boomer how might they react if your Millennial salesperson starts making notes on a tablet? They may be irritated by it. There’s less eye contact and the device can become a physical barrier between the two people. It’s worth pointing out to your sellers that they ask if it’s OK before they take notes on a device and perhaps get them to input with a stylus rather than a keypad. It’s less distracting.

8. The intergenerational gap between seller and customer

Intuition suggests it’s probably more effective when both buyer and seller are in the same demographic but there is little evidence to support that. The global research firm Ipsos recently characterized Millennials as “The most carelessly described group we’ve ever looked at.” Ipsos wrote, “Myths and misunderstandings [about Millennials] abound, with bad research jumping to general conclusions based on shallow caricatures about a group that makes up 23% of the population.”

It’s an abiding assumption that Millennials are obsessed with technology. But, within the B2B buying community, that simply isn’t true. Research into transgenerational B2B buyers by software giant Oracle found far more similarities than differences. For example, the preferred methods for engaging with suppliers were:




Request for proposal



Going to the market



In person







Whilst Millennial buyers are much more likely to research the market online, a Boomer would send an RFP. When it comes to physical engagement with the suppliers, there’s barely any difference.

That would suggest a smaller intergenerational gap between buyers and sellers than one might expect. We prefer to buy from people we like and trust and one could argue that’s most likely to be someone from your own demographic. But that’s not always the case. Your company’s brand, culture, price, product or service play a part. You may prefer to buy a battleship from a retired admiral or software from someone barely old enough to drive, but these may be caricatures. And bear in mind, when you make your first call on a new prospect, you may not know how old they are.

The important thing is to make all your sales people aware of generational differences and, most important of all, not jump to conclusions based on what may be widely inaccurate generalisations.

9. Conclusion

There are differences between the generations and we all have a natural tendency to want people to behave the way we do. But at the end of the day they are just differences. They are no better or worse than any other. If accommodated well they become enablers of sales success, not a barrier to it. And when you’ve worked out if your salesperson or customer is a Boomer or a Millennial, remember, above all else, they’re a person.

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