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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Selling Across the Generations

Like many of my contemporaries, whenever I enter a room for a lecture, meeting, or presentation to a group who does not know me, it gives me pause. The reason is very simple—I am getting old. It is not unusual for me to be twice as old as anyone else in the room. What I have learned and many of my mature friends have as well is that you have to shift gears to present to an audience much younger than yourself and also demonstrate some neat balancing tricks if your audience covers a wide age span.

Basically, as I often write, it seems to come down to demographics. Most analysts would put our population in five core categories:

1) MATURES—Age 66+
2) BABY BOOMERS—Age 47-65
3) Generation X—Age 32 to 46
4) Millennials—under 31
5) Post Millennials—born after 2000 (not an issue here)

The first rule of many presentation gurus is to tell people to always “Be yourself.” In general that makes sense but unless you are pitching to members of your own generation that can be deadly. These days you must market yourself with great care. I have talked to many people about this issue, had some significant personal experience and read a number of studies on the topic. Here is where I come out on it.

First, here are some generalizations about each demographic group:

1) MATURES (66+)—you will not be selling to many matures these days but if you do, they likely are owners of a privately held business. They like face time with you. Experience is everything to them; they want someone who has worked in the trenches as they have. These are team players that put their company first and want you to do the same. They want service from a consultant or a salesperson or agency. Your reputation may be checked out thoroughly. Ask them what you can do for them. Never send them a text message. Got it? Never!
2) BABY BOOMERS (47-65)—you may find some workaholics here. They have a competitive streak but are ultimately team players. LISTEN to them very carefully. Let them know that you are eager to be on their team. Also, be very cautious about discussing technology. If you hammer away at technology being the silver bullet to solve their problem(s), they may withdraw. Many are insecure about their positions and, to some, technology means layoffs with their name on it. They like carefully written e-mails.
3) GEN X (32-46)—this is a very skeptical group. You must PROVE your worth to them. They love data—don’t ever talk about gut plays with them. If you make a definitive statement in a meeting or presentation, be sure that you can back it up. I have noticed a quirk with this group since caller ID has come to almost every company. If you call them, they will often not pick up the phone. They will listen to you message, perhaps a few times, and then call you back. As a rule, they are getting into texting but the message should be really spare like “may I call you after 4?” These folks like defined roles and are not “company men and women.” They crave balance in their lives and are not keen on being contacted nights or on weekends from outsiders.
4) Millennials (31 and under)—this group is a bit spoiled. They never lost a game as children or failed at anything. They have no sense of history, corporate or otherwise, so never tell old war stories to them or go to precedent that is more than a few years old. They have huge goals and big dreams but do not seem to have any idea how to execute them into reality. Focus is often not their strong suit. They crave compliments about their work and everything else. This according to some psychologists in affluent societies is due to an upbringing that fostered a delayed entry into adulthood. It has been referred to a bit unkindly as “Adultolescence.” If you can reinforce to them that you see their uniqueness, you can come out way ahead. They love texting—feel free to communicate that way. If you are in a meeting with them and all of them are texting at one time or another, they are NOT showing contempt for you or rudeness. It is simply part of their corporate culture. If the boss is a MATURE, I bet that no one texts in meetings. ☺ They know, love, and embrace technology.

So, if you want to succeed, you have a big leg up if you know the demographic makeup of your audience BEFORE you meet. You can tailor your style accordingly. No matter who the group is, be brief and respectful of their time.

Importantly, always remember that people like to do business with people whom they perceive as like them. That is why sales teams are often taught, “mirroring”. If the prospect is super casual, you can often leave your tie and jacket in the car. If they want to talk NFL football, you get on line before the meeting or watch Sportcenter the night before and are able to talk with them. A few years ago I had a meeting with a man who was less than half my age. He was a client and he appeared to dismiss everything I said. As I was leaving, I had to pick up a report in his office. I noticed a lot of lacrosse pictures on the wall and some memorabilia as well. Without missing a beat, I mentioned that my daughter played on her high school team and that my dad had been the lacrosse coach at Brown University. He exploded with delight and went on a 15-minute rant about Ivy League lacrosse (I did NOT mention that my father had been coach in the 1930’s, long before I was born!). From then on, I was his business partner and he frequently gave me a heads up when he thought his company might be doing something that could harm my agency’s business. We were as different as night and day but I had succeeded in mirroring him and it worked like a charm.

If you are a consultant, the generational divide is very tough. For those of us who are a bit older, young people get very defensive when you walk into a room. Some will think that you want their job (no thanks—been there, done that!). Others think that the CEO has brought you in to build a case to get them fired. You need to tread carefully and stress that you are there to help. The CEO needs to position your presence carefully but few do it well.

Each group views the world differently. Let’s face it. All of us are products of our environment. Thus, our generational perspective will have a GREAT deal to do with how we view things. Whether you are a sales maven, a consultant, or an agency rainmaker or service person, may I suggest that you develop sensitivity to selling across generations?

In closing, yesterday I had lunch with a broadcast executive whom I view as one of the best salesman in America. He raised the issue of what do you do when pitching a room who ages span from 25-70. His answer was the pitch the middle—the older Gen Xers and the young Baby Boomers. Sound advice.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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