There’s a funny disconnect I experience every semester: One hundred percent of my Marketing students want to be employed when they graduate (duh). But when I ask them what type of job they hope to land, almost none of them say sales. Why is this a disconnect? Because the very large majority of them will in fact wind up taking a sales position when they graduate.
But they’re not happy about it. When some of them tell me about the job offer they just accepted, they look like they’ve received a prison sentence instead of gainful employment. Apparently my students are typical; young graduates do whatever they can to avoid the dreaded sales position. A Canadian firm reported in one study that employers were taking an average of 41 days to fill sales positions compared to 33 days for all other jobs.
Why the long faces? Most of these young people equate salespeople with stereotypes like the famous character Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman. Loman (as in “low man” on the totem pole) is a pathetic peddler who leaves home for the road on Monday morning and returns late Friday evening selling “on a smile and a shoeshine.” Or, they think about the sullen retail salespeople they encounter at the mall, and wonder why they need a college degree or an MBA to sell blue jeans to tweens.
Most B2B salespeople will immediately (and correctly) object that this dismal picture applies only to transactional selling, and not to relationship selling that is at the heart of many professional sales jobs. Ironically, Millennials are all about relationships, so they should eagerly rise to the bountiful opportunities that await them: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates job growth of about 3 percent for sales representatives across fields between 2016 and 2026.
Perhaps part of the problem is that the relationships they are about don’t really exist so much in face-to-face encounters as they do onscreen. Many of us have observed the rather strange Millennial “date”: A couple seated across from one another at a restaurant, both with eyes down and madly texting (perhaps to each other!). As far back as 2013, a Match.com survey found that respondents under 30 were four times more likely to ask someone out via text message than those over 30. A survey by TextPlus reported that almost 60% of those aged 13-17 would ask someone to their prom by texting them.
Even in business contexts, 3/4 of Millennials prefer email as their primary mode of communication, compared to phone calls or in-person meetings. They like email’s speed, trackability, and its ability to allow users to compose what they want to say rather than having to (shudder) converse spontaneously.
Clearly sales organizations need to adapt a new reality: Face-to-face sales pitches and certainly cold calling may soon be obsolete. Good riddance: A study by market intelligence firm InsideView found that 90% of high-level executives never respond to cold calls or e-mail blasts. Another, more recent study found that less than nine percent of Millennials said the phone is their preferred channel to hear from a company for the first time. Clearly both young buyers and sellers aren’t happy with the status quo.
But there’s a huge silver lining if you choose to look for it: You can harness the very same platforms that are transforming Millennials’ social lives to your advantage. Don’t discourage or prohibit your employees from their incessant posting when they should be “working.” To the contrary: Give your young sales force free rein to embrace social media during the workday. Let them tweet and post on Instagram and SnapChat to their heart’s content.
Only 1/4 of consumers report that they a salesperson has connected with them on a social platform, yet nearly 40 percent claim they prefer this modality over all others. A study by KiteDesk and A Sales Guy Consulting that polled more than 500 B2B salespeople found that about ¾ of those who beat their quotas by 10% or more described themselves as “highly effective” or “better than most” at using social media to sell.
Why do young prospects prefer to interact with a salesperson in the same way they connect with friends? Most likely the answer boils down to one of the defining traits of Millennials: A thirst for authenticity. As I discuss at length in my latest book, the barrier between what a company sells and what it is is dissolving. Younger consumers want to know who the real people are in the cubicles, and what the organization stands for. This means that they don’t want to “get down to business” right away. Instead they yearn to establish a personal relationship first and let the practical stuff evolve naturally. If they make a connection with the company representative and maybe even discover they share a love for Drake, craft beer or even Kim Kardashian, so much the better. They’ll be more likely to want to learn about what the rep’s company has to offer as well
Indeed, a recent study study found that nearly a quarter of Millennials, compared to 12 percent of other generations, say they’re more likely to buy from a sales representative who shares their personality or non-work interests on social media. Furthermore, 35% of respondents are more likely to buy from a sales representative who shares industry news and helpful content, and 22% say that a sales rep who shares helpful content on social media makes them more likely to follow him or her on social media. And a whopping 43% are more likely to buy from someone who responds to their questions on social media.
In this age of transparency (or even Too Much Information on social media as far as old folks are concerned), young people don’t hesitate to share intimate aspects of their lives. Older salespeople might balk at blurring the lines between their personal and professional selves, but Millennials don’t really distinguish between the two. The wall between these aspects of their lives is quite low – work merges into play and play merges into work.
So now we come full circle, away from the stigmatized transactional salesperson and to the salesperson as storyteller. Again, Millennials want to know the backstory behind what they buy – and behind who sells it to them. Relationship selling is not dead at all – but it looks a lot different today.
Essentially this new form of social selling requires the sales organization to turn around a battleship. It needs to think about what it does as inbound marketing rather than outbound marketing. Rather than just sharing content with whomever chooses to access it, make what you do – and the people who do it for you – so enticing that prospects reach you to you instead. This strategy is popular among tech startups, but hard to find when we look at other kinds of companies. But it’s the wave of the future: A 2015 Hubspot survey found that three out of four companies globally prioritize inbound over outbound, and that they are three times as likely to see higher ROI on inbound marketing campaigns than on outbound campaigns. Your Millennials can be at the vanguard of this transition.
Give your young salespeople the freedom to tell their stories and to create ongoing dialogues with their networks of prospects. Let them become very visible on the very social media platforms that people use 24/7 anyway. Many of those Digital Natives will shoulder much of the burden to contact you for more information rather than trying to push your sales collateral down their throats. And, please help me to convince my students that a sales career will allow them to keep doing what they love to do anyway.