Millennials can make great salespeople—if you forget the phone

Workforces are changing, and sales tactics need to change too. Cold calls are on the wane—and your younger employees know it

Canadian Business Sales Week

Woman talking on mobile phone while walking outside

(Paul Bradbury/Getty)

A young salesperson flops down at a desk, straps on a headset, and begins the first of a hundred daily cold calls to hit a high sales quota. It’s not an image that resonates with most millennials. Indeed, it has many of the features of their employment nightmares: long hours, phone calls, uninterrupted sitting, regular rejection.

Turned off by the profession’s reputation for pushiness and cut-throat competition, millennials are overlooking sales—often a springboard to higher level management and executive positions—as a viable career option. In 2014, Burning Glass, a labour-market firm, found employers were taking an average of 41 days to fill sales positions compared to 33 days for all other jobs. And Paycor Inc., which sells cloud-based software, told the Wall Street Journal that it could have brought US$2 million more than the US$130 million it did that year if it had hit sales-hiring targets the previous one.

It’s tempting for managers from the baby boomer generation to blame millennials—typically stereotyped as work-shy and praise-seeking—for not having what it takes to hack it in business-to-business (B2B) sales. But according to some experts, that line of thinking is all wrong. In fact, millennials’ aversion to the traditional selling strategy of cold calling is exactly why they have the potential to be great salespeople.

It’s not that millennials don’t know how to pick up the phone, but that they know that doing so is futile. “The likelihood of you reaching a senior executive with a cold call today compared to three years ago—and drastically compared to 10 years ago—is so minimal,” says Shane Gibson, a Vancouver-based sales trainer, author, and professional speaker. “For me, when the phone rings and I don’t recognize the number, I look at my calendar and think, That’s weird, I don’t have an appointment for a phone call.”

Gibson’s not alone. According to a 2011 study by market intelligence firm InsideView, 90% of high-level executives never respond to cold calls or e-mail blasts. Millennials understand why—they too hate being sold to. “People are armed with so much information today about products and services they’re looking to buy or engage with,” says Matthew Cook, CEO of Saleshub, noting that people typically get nearly two-thirds of the way through the buying cycle before ever speaking to a salesperson.

As customer behaviour changes dramatically, many companies are at a loss for how to adapt their sales departments. Social selling may be one effective strategy, suggests a study by KiteDesk and A Sales Guy Consulting. Looking at more than 500 B2B salespeople, the study found that 74% 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. And social media-savvy respondents were six times more likely to beat their quotas compared to peers with little or no social media skills.

“That’s one thing that makes millennials great salespeople,” says Gibson, pointing out that millennials’ reputation as over-sharers doubles as an effective sales strategy. “They’re comfortable sharing the whole picture of who they are, and that storytelling gives them an advantage over someone who’s a bit older and doesn’t understand why they should be tweeting four or five times a day about their professional and personal life.”

It’s all part of inbound selling—making yourself visible so customers contact you first—a strategy popular among tech startups but slow to catch on with traditional businesses. “The role of the salesperson is no longer going out and finding that opportunity; it’s taking customers who are already engaged across the goal line,” says Cook.

Both Cook and Gibson agree that the falling out between millennials and sales is more a problem with management than it is with Kids These Days not being able to handle the grind. “Companies need to get out of selling like they were in the 1970s and 1980s,” says Cook. “Invest in inbound marketing, invest in a good website, make sure your people are active on social media so you’re attracting prospects to you. Why would you want your salespeople to spend 90% of their day dialling a phone that nobody answers?”

Gibson concedes that there is still a place for cold calling in sales. “When you need revenues tomorrow and you haven’t had the forethought to have a good business plan in place, then yeah, maybe you should pick up the phone and call,” he says. “But there are so many more options to reach the customer now than by interrupting their day with a cold call.”