When millennials think about B2B sales roles, they imagine sleazy deals and rounds of golf. These deep-seated misperceptions fail to capture the needs of a 21st-century sales landscape and overshadow the reality of a fulfilling career in sales. Based on a false understanding, millennials forgo these lucrative, meaningful jobs to pursue other options.
Research from Harvard Business School’s U.S. Competitiveness Project revealed that in 2014, employers spent 41 days trying to fill technical sales jobs compared with an average of 33 days for non-sales roles over a 12-month period. This lag time reflects waning interest in sales jobs, a devastating prospect for companies. Without a clear channel for talent acquisition, companies will fail to meet aggressive growth targets moving forward. The long-term results — loss of revenue and reduced market share — could cripple even the most successful companies.
In this article, we break down millennial recruitment into its key elements, naming three reasons why it’s imperative for hiring managers to change their approach, and three complementary solutions they can use to transform their recruitment strategy in 2016:
An Image Crisis: Why Millennials Matter to Sales
Whether millennials realize it or not, characters such as Dwight Schrute in the Office and Jordan Belforte in Wolf of Wall Street falsely shaped their understanding of sales. These illusions stick with young people and amplify other hesitations about a career in sales:
- Millennials assume that the rise of digital marketplaces threatens sales as a viable career path. Young people perceive sales as a dying profession, although there’s significant evidence to the contrary.
- Also known as “the trophy generation,” millennials value constant praise. They struggle with the idea of a competitive environment that necessitates rejection.
- High commission rates signal risk to millennials, who naturally veer toward stable careers.
The prevalence of these doubts necessitates that executives rebrand sales as a cutting-edge career with strong financial incentives. When millennials understand the reality of these roles, they are much more likely to commit to sales jobs.
William Steigner, instructor and coordinator of Professional Selling Program at the University of Central Florida, wrote in The Huffington Post that when students first sign up for his classes, only 25 percent express interest in sales as a career. However, once they understand the dynamics of the industry, that number doubles to around 50 percent.
Dynamic B2B salespeople rely on heavy analytical skills, technical immersion and long-term relationship building. Sales executives and recruiters need to take the initiative to reframe sales according to these characteristics and reposition sales careers to appeal to the millennials.
Here are three reasons making this extra effort is imperative is the future of sales:
1. Baby Boomers are Retiring
An increasing number of baby boomers retire from sales every year, bringing urgency to millennial recruitment. Despite assumptions otherwise, Gallup polls show the age of retirement has stayed constant in the short term. Most notably, in To Sell is Human, Daniel Pink points to labor statistics that show some companies may lose up to 40 percent of their sales talent by the end of 2016.
The lack of millennial salespeople means sales teams company can’t relate to a new generation of buyers. According to Google, 50 percent of B2B buyers are individuals between the ages of 18 and 34. The same research indicates that millennial employees exert influence over B2B purchasing decisions, even if the final approval comes from the C-suite executives. Without sales professionals in the millennial demographic, companies are unable to tap into their target buyers.
2. You Need Millennials To Scale Your Services
After executives build a company, they enter the “compete” stage, during which businesses are likely to fail if they can’t scale sales teams to match demand. Steve W. Martin, a sales and strategy professor at University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, listed this challenge in the Harvard Business Review as one of the four reasons companies fail. To grow, business leaders need a robust recruitment effort that aligns with corporate expansion objectives.
The Wall Street Journal highlighted a powerful case study illustrating the effects of Martin’s hypothesis. Paycor Inc., a SaaS (software-as-a-service) company based in Cincinnati, missed their hiring goals for sales reps in 2014. This personnel shortage, which one of their executives attributed to low millennial interest in sales, meant that Paycor lost out on $2 million of revenue in 2015.
3. Emerging Sales Models Require Digital Natives
Millennials, more than any other generation, are equipt to use technology to evolve with a changing sales funnel. They innately understand concepts such as inbound marketing, prospect data and social selling, all of which are transforming the B2B sales model.
As PricewaterhouseCooper (PwC) summarized in their global generation study, “Millennials’ use of technology clearly sets them apart….This is the first generation to enter the workplace with a better grasp of a key business tool than more senior workers.” With 59 percent of millennials on Twitter compared to 31 percent of baby boomers, millennials are more apt to engage leads through social media.
A 2012 study in the American Business Journal revealed that social media use positively correlated with performance among B2B salespeople. Eliot Burdett, CEO of Peak Sales Recruiting emphasizes the importance of these skills, “The top salespeople are technologically adept and inclined to use every tool and piece of data available to them to win business.” Companies need millennial salespeople to support increasingly digital strategies for business development and client acquisition.
Rebrand Sales Roles
A sales executive’s clearest path to a new generation of employees is to replace old stereotypes with a much more enticing package: consultant-style roles based on purpose-driven work and entrepreneurial thinking. By rebranding sales roles, sales and human resource leaders play to job attributes that appeal to millennials and heighten the chance of a positive match.
Sales as External Consulting
The average millennial doesn’t know that modern sales positions require consultant-style reports, deep analytical thinking and the fine-tuned ability to negotiate. To attract high-performing young professionals, debunk the age-old adage about natural salespeople and emphasize problem-solving and data-driven skills.
In a presentation at Forrester’s 2015 Sales Enablement Forum, principal analyst Andy Hoar supported this approach. Hoar suggested that salespeople fall into four categories: order takers, navigators, explainers, and consultants. Of these four sales archetypes, Hoar explains that the need for “consultants” continues to dominate the selling ecosystem.
These consultants guide prospects through a complex problem-solving process, matching their needs with the right services. “Consultants are a qualitatively different bunch of people,” Hoar said. “They can explain abstract concepts; they can solution sell; they can build relationships. They’re true consultants.” During the recruiting process, sell the sales-as-consultant concept, rebranding available positions to appeal to high-achieving college graduates.
“Sales has evolved from selling features/benefits to solution selling and now insight or thought leadership. A career as a thought leader delivering significant business value will be a very attractive option for the next generation of sales leaders.” – Gary Symth, Founder, Sales Elite
The Deloitte Millennial Survey found that 77 percent of millennials chose their place of work based on the “sense of purpose” at the organization. Deloitte also linked these purpose-filled companies with significantly higher recruitment, job satisfaction and financial success.
Unbeknownst to most millennials, the ability to provide value is the foundation of a positive sales experience. Lisa McLeod, the author of Selling with a Noble Purpose, encourages companies to connect their strategy to a larger motivation that entails helping clients. This message of ‘sales as an act of goodwill’ is integral to recruiting millennials.
Hiring managers should share the purpose of their corporate brand and emphasize the role of buyer empathy in a job well-done to entice passive millennials. As Brian Halligan, the CEO of Hubspot summarizes, “The job is no longer to sell as much software as possible. It’s to help the customer get as much out of the software as possible.” This emerging approach to sales not only drives revenue, it appeals to the moral compass of a new generation.
Salespeople have the power to author their own career: there are no limits to earning potential or the speed with which a salesperson can move up the ranks — unlike in other departments, it’s rare employees face red tape if they’re able to learn and perform.
The entrepreneurial aspect of sales means that these roles appeal to self-starting millennials who value extra responsibility and independence. Salespeople, for example, embrace the unique opportunity to take risks and experiment with their approach to clients without many constrictions.
Framing salespeople as entrepreneurs within larger organizations taps into the self-starting and creative mentality that millennials seek from prospective employers. The best sales reps flex their creative muscles and follow their own judgement when it comes to making a sale, rather than following rigid protocol. Furthermore, it is a requirement that sales reps rely on ingenuity to lead independent projects, which millennials frequently cite as a significant aspect of their work lives.
Reach a Different Set of Recruits
Millennials are increasingly college educated, from diverse backgrounds, and turning toward program-based sales training to solidify their careers. To appeal to the most promising professionals, employers need to expand beyond standard recruitment efforts and target a specific set of prospects.
Sales has reemerged as a dynamic field within higher education during the last ten years. Over 100 universities and colleges prepare their students with formal sales training, and the majority of marketing graduates start their careers in sales roles. These emerging programs align with an increasingly complex marketplace for B2B sales, which require new professionals to adapt and grow quickly. Qualified millennials exhibit analytical thinking and strong market insights grounded in higher education.
Recent graduates with formal sales training offer additional skills beyond the degrees in economics, marketing or business. According to the Sales Education Foundation, these sales program graduates onboard 50 percent faster and are 30 percent less likely to turnover than non-program employees. By focusing on a college-educated cohort, employers make a strategic investment in their sales team’s future and help offset the risk of bad hires.
Diverse Sales Personnel
As of 2014, women were 33 percent more likely than men to earn a college degree by the time they reached 27 years of age. At the same time, forty-two percent of millennials self-identify as minorities. Emphasizing diversity in recruitment efforts helps to ensure that hiring managers choose the best candidates for sales roles, not the ones that fit a perceived demographic. Not only is this practice tied to increased business performance, but it also overturns persistent myths that sales operates like a good ol’ boys club rather than a progressive team that values performance.
It’s important that human resources leaders recognize the inherent bias in frequently used sales language. When recruiters develop job descriptions and promotional materials, they benefit from using gender-neutral phrasing. During interviews, leave terms like “play with the big boys” and “get in bed with clients” behind in favor of case studies and examples that include people of both genders. Female millennial workers, in particular, need to know that collaborative, innovative and intelligent women are exactly what the industry needs.
Exhibiting “performance bias,” which experts define as giving inferior sales support and assignments to women, is a major detractor from recruiting efforts. To hire the most promising salespeople, pioneer diversity as a value among every team. Highlighting how each candidate will experience equal opportunities to acquire lucrative clients and achieve internal promotions is the key to ensuring diverse candidates want to work for a company.
Through program-based recruitment, hiring managers can reach a diverse range of high-performing college graduates who see the potential in a new career trajectory. By gaining referrals, working in conjunction with universities and building on sales competitions and internships, employers build a sustainable talent pipeline:
- Employee-referral programs – When successful young salespeople recruit peers, it breaks down barriers and builds interest. These programs also reduce talent acquisition costs and shorten the hiring process. Plus, referred hires are more likely to stay at a company after one year, increasing retention rates.
- College recruiting – Companies can partner with universities that offer undergraduate and graduate sales courses to create clear channels for recruitment. These pre-trained employees understand best practices in sales and require less hands-on training.
- Sales competitions – Sales contests identify top-performing individuals through role-play scenarios. The software company Acquia, for example, started a sales competition at Bryant University to recruit young talent. One hundred and forty participants presented mock sales pitches to five recruiters, giving Acquia the opportunity to handpick top performers for interviews.
- Internship programs – Hiring rising seniors in college for paid, on-site internships gives teams extra insight into promising candidates. Interns are already familiar with a company and its industry, accelerating the onboarding process.
Transform Your Culture and Compensation
Corporate culture and compensation packages are two of the most impactful aspects any job decision, especially for millennials. Companies that adjust their approaches to these topics gain a competitive edge as employers.
Softened Compensation Packages
Millennials are the most financially risk-averse generation since the depression. They took on enormous debt to graduate from college and witnessed their parents move through the financial crisis. Plus, without the buffer of savings, they are most likely living from paycheck to paycheck.
Companies that ‘soften’ their compensation plan appeal to a new generation that values consistency over commissions. Leading employers are already leaning in this direction by increasing base salaries, which help taper the sense of risk around sales-rep jobs. The Wall Street Journal, for example, reports that base portion pay increased 11.7 percent from 2010 to 2014.
Some technology companies are taking this approach to compensation a step further. At Slack, a team communication software company, salespeople receive bonuses based on customer satisfaction rather than straight commissions. A radical departure from the status-quo, policies like Slack’s speak to millennials who value the long-term benefits of a positive relationship more than its immediate effect on a revenue stream.
Clear Advancement Opportunities
World-class employers don’t pitch a position; they pitch a career. Despite the association with risk, sales teams are essential to every business — they don’t go out of style. Millennial workers list their growth and development as one of their highest priorities at work (second only to personal wellbeing). Hiring managers and sales leaders need to respect this hierarchy of needs by creating avenues for vertical growth.
The most successful recruiters give millennials multiple advancement tracks. Promotional paths are clear and accessible, keeping senior sales roles and management opportunities within sight. In every conversation with a potential employee, they articulate the promotion process and list clear examples of sales reps who have furthered their career in the company.
Employers that prioritize career advancement opportunities benefit from increased interest among millennials and higher retention rates regardless of the position they’re recruiting for. In an industry with a notoriously high turnover, an emphasis on professional growth is one way to build a strong, loyal team.
Job Flexibility and Autonomy
Millennials value location-independence and personal freedom, both all of which align well with sales roles. It’s rare to find companies that insist sales professionals even sit at a desk in a traditional office setting — as long as they meet their quotas, they have the freedom to manage their own time.
“For their part, millennials do not believe that productivity should be measured by the number of hours worked at the office, but by the output of the work performed,” says PwC. The best employers recognize this approach to work and emphasize the flexibility that sales roles offer. In particular, millennials’ fluency with technology turns remote work into a realistic option, and the influx of innovative communication tools makes it easy for sales managers to oversee remote reps.
Road warriors also receive the benefit of paid travel, which is a major incentive for millennials according to Expedia’s Future of Travel Report. The most effective sales recruiters portray sales roles as a means to building relationships across the world within a flexible team that values their time.
Millennials will make up 50 percent of the workforce in 2020. Companies that fail to tailor their sales recruitment efforts to this demographic will not be able to retain or increase the size of their sales teams. By rebranding sales roles, appealing to college-educated millennials and evolving their culture to match the needs of young workers, executives strengthen their positioning as an employer of choice for the next generation of B2B sales talent.
For more information on Millennials’ sales career preferences and ideal workplaces, download Peak’s 2016 Millennial Study.
Eliot received his B. Comm. from Carleton University and has been honored as a Top 40 Under 40 Award winner.
He co-authored Sales Recruiting 2.0, How to Find Top Performing Sales People, Fast and provides regular insights on sales team management and hiring on the Peak Sales Recruiting Blog.
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