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Motivating Your Millennial Sales Force

By Dr. Joanne G. Sujansky and Dr. Jan Ferri-Reed

When Marketing Manager Reed Kaufmann’s company added an exciting new promotional apparel line he saw a big opportunity to grow his sales. What he didn’t count on, however, was the conflict that arose between his veteran sales staff and the younger sales reps he recruited to help market the new line.

Reed’s firm sold branded promotional products to business clients – things like pens, notepads, organizers and corporate gifts – along with logo-imprinted golf shirts and baseball caps. The new apparel line was radically different, featuring colorful shirts with bold designs and “edgy” slogans. Reed realized that he needed youthful sales people who could market the new product to schools, clubs and emerging businesses.

However, after recruiting and training a group of recent college graduates, Reed’s plans soon fell apart. He hoped to integrate the new employees into his existing sales team, which was populated mostly by Baby Boomers and members of Generation X, but instead of friendly teamwork, resentment and frustration quickly surfaced. Reed was faced with an unexpected and maddening set of conflicts and confusion.

His younger employees genuinely understood what was cool about the new products, but they had no clue how to sell them. At the same time his experienced sales staff were almost totally skeptical of the new products, which they didn’t really “get” or have any real interest in selling. How could Reed build a multi-generational sales force to promote these exciting new products and grow the business?

In today’s environment traditional sales training and management techniques may not work as they did in the past. With Millennials now entering the workforce, today’s sales teams may well be a volatile mixture of four different generations. But members from the Mature generation (born between 1909 and 1945), the Baby Boomer generation (1946 to 1964) and Generation X (1965 to 1979) have all had time to adjust to each other in the workplace. It’s the newest generation – Millennials who were born between 1980 to 1999 – who are now shaking things up.

Millennials possess a unique set of skills and a different work ethic than previous generations and they will have a profound impact over the next five years. By 2014 there will be more than 58 million Millennials employed in U.S. organizations alone. Along the way, however, Millennials are getting what many say is a “bad rap.” There’s a perception that the younger generation has unrealistic expectations and possesses a poor work ethic. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just that Millennials bring a different perspective to the workplace and a fresh way of looking at things.

Generation Y, as they are also called, is generally well educated and technologically savvy. They embrace diversity and have a strong preference for collaboration over competition. They are pragmatic, individualistic and optimistic. Millennials expect to be successful and they fully expect the support necessary to reach their goals. In short, they are likely to become energetic and successful members of your sales team, given that you adjust your traditional sales management strategies to take advantage of their preferences and strengths. Following are four tips to help sales managers adapt to the unique needs and perspectives of their Millennial salespeople:

Setting Goals – Millennials are extremely goal oriented, but their individual targets must be connected to the organization’s goals. They want to know not only how the goals will affect their compensation but also how they contribute to the overall bottom line. When they see they have a long-term stake in accomplishing their goals, your Millennials will be highly focused.

Team Challenges – Millennials have been raised to value collaboration over competition. When sales managers create competing goals (such as pitting sales team members against other teams or against each other) it may frustrate Millennials. Try setting some goals with rewards for everyone in addition to individual rewards.

Incentive Programs – It’s not uncommon for sales managers to create sales contests with tangible rewards for the winners, such as trips or gadgets. But offering an iPod as a prize may fall flat if you find out that 80 percent of your younger salespeople already own one. Rather than trying to guess which gadgets or prizes Millennial salespeople find appealing, offer them the chance to select from a number of interesting and creative prize options (such as gift certificates to local restaurants, gift cards to Best Buy or Target, free or discounted company products, tickets to a sports or recreation events, etc).

Fun Atmosphere – Millennials like to work hard and play hard. A fun, energetic atmosphere is the best way to keep Millennial employees engaged. Look for ways to create social opportunities as rewards for meeting significant milestones. Ice cream socials, paint ball excursions, Nerf fights and similar events can help keep morale high and actually build greater employee performance.

As you begin to recruit and integrate Millennials into your work team don’t be afraid to “change up” how you orient and train new hires. Too often in the past the members of preceding generations were thrown into a new job without much guidance. This “sink or swim” approach won’t work for Millennials, who have experienced extremely attentive teaching and parenting styles as they grew up. Given a fair chance they’ll make strong contributions to your organization and may lead the way to a more collaborative, efficient and energetic environment.

Dr. Joanne G. Sujansky, CSP (Certified Speaking Professional), has more than 25 years of experience helping to create cool workplaces that attract, retain and get the most from their multi-generational talent. As founder of KEYGroup, she and Dr. Jan Ferri-Reed, KEYGroup president, provide businesses with insightful information to create engaged, productive and profitable organizations. Together, they’re co-authors of the best-selling book, “Keeping the Millennials: Why Companies Are Losing Billions in Turnover to This Generation and What to Do About It.”

Read other articles and learn more about Dr. Joanne G. Sujansky and Dr. Jan Ferri-Reed.

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