Today’s post is by Mark Bashrum, SVP of marketing at Richardson Sales Training. Obsessed with performance improvement and rapid behavior change, Mark has worked across the disciplines of sales, marketing, information technology, and project management, helping teams improve the way they work, communicate, and deliver value to customers.
In 2015, the composition of the workforce experienced a dramatic shift. For the first time, millennials comprised the largest demographic segment of the U.S. workforce, according to a report by Pew Research. The report also revealed that the U.S. workforce has never been more multi-generational than it is today – with traditionalists, baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials all working side by side.
So what does this mean for the typical sales force and for those responsible for developing them? The answer is... quite a lot.
Most sales leaders would agree that consistency is essential for high-performing sales teams, and sales training and coaching programs are important parts of building reliable sales outcomes.
Sustainable revenues depend on a consistent sales approach, a common sales language and culture, and, most importantly, a consistent customer experience that leads to predictable results. So how do sales leaders in a multi-generational sales organization develop consistent skill sets when individual sellers have such unique perspectives and experiences? Here are three keys to getting there.
1. Recognize the Differences
Your learning approach should be as unique as your sellers. We never want to make sweeping generalizations about groups of people; however, individual sellers in multi-generational sales organizations have likely gone through their careers with vastly different training, experiences, and expectations.
When designing a skill development program, it’s important to understand where your sellers have been. For instance, many boomers started their careers in the world of transactional sales, where selling was about putting a product in front of a prospect and closing hard. In the 80s – mid-career for many boomers – transactional selling gave way to solution selling, where questioning and understanding needs became the focus. Approaches to selling continued to evolve through the 90s, and – by the time millennials entered the workforce in the early 2000s – selling was much more consultative and focused on relationship building.
Today, most people would argue that our solutions and the customer’s buying process have become much more complicated (particularly in B2B sales). Effective selling depends more on collaborative teams and negotiating a complex array of buyers. The point is that the skills required to be an effective seller have changed over the years, and, depending on when a salesperson entered the profession, their development is likely focused on a particular skill set – which may or may not be as relevant today.
Take the time to understand how your sellers are different and where each individual might need upskilling; then, develop your training and coaching programs accordingly.
2. Leverage Digital
Smart sales managers see the growing population of millennials as an opportunity to build a more effective sales team by leveraging technology as a way to upskill their sales representatives and improve team results.
Millennials are digital natives and are very comfortable with technology as a solution to just about any problem. Technology is also useful for overcoming the challenges of training geographically-dispersed sales teams. Over the past 20 years, sales organizations have become more and more distributed around the country and across the globe. This distribution creates a huge problem in achieving consistency in learning and development. Sellers have become increasingly expensive and difficult to reach through traditional classroom training.
Learning technology has advanced dramatically over the past decade, and, while it was historically not a popular option among boomers, that is changing. As millennials become the majority and older generations embrace technology, online learning is rapidly increasing in popularity.
In many ways, the generational shift is unlocking the full potential of learning technology because younger cohorts are familiar with online learning formats and often prefer digital learning over more traditional experiences. That doesn’t mean classroom training should fall by the wayside; there are still plenty of sellers who prefer face-to-face training. It does mean, however, that selling organizations should introduce fully online sales training programs and blended learning options to take advantage of the trend.
3. Engage Millennials
It’s no secret – people don’t change unless they want to change. That’s true across all generations. The key is to understand how to engage and inspire sellers to improve themselves. In the past, sellers were motivated by status, so we gave our top performers grandiose titles, President’s Club awards, or bigger offices.
Millennials have a different perspective. In many ways, they are much more social and value peer recognition as much as, if not more than, praise from above. They are also more visual – YouTube and video games have conditioned millennials to expect highly-interactive visual learning experiences. The book Reality Is Broken by Jane McGonigal highlights this phenomenon, stating that, by the age of 21, many millennials will have spent more than 10,000 hours immersed in online gaming. So how should we adapt our learning programs to better train millennials, who are now the largest segment of our workforce?
- Video-based Learning
Wherever possible, use video-based scenarios to show skills in action. Millennials respond well to the medium, particularly when we show them the difference between what effective and ineffective selling behaviors look like.
- Game Mechanics
Use gamification techniques, like badging and leaderboards, in your training to inspire and recognize sellers. Gaming is appealing because it leverages millennials’ natural desires for competition, achievement, status, and closure. Millennial sellers need to feel they are doing a good job and that their work is being recognized by their managers and peers.
- Bite-sized Learning
Teach new skills using microbursts of self-contained learning content that includes videos and activities like exercises, quizzes, or games. Millennials prefer to digest content in small chunks. Microlearning makes it easy for sellers to learn whenever, wherever, and on whatever device they prefer.
Businesses that do not recognize the changing composition of their sales forces risk becoming disjointed and ineffective. In fact, a recent survey by Aberdeen Group reported that 77 percent of top-performing companies reported making “significant” or “extreme” changes in order to manage millennials in the workplace. The key is to view our sales force not as a single group of people, but as a team of unique individuals who have different levels of experience and skill and who may want to learn in entirely different ways. We need to adapt our approach to skill development by recognizing the differences and meeting learners where they are.