Selling to the Next Generation - Modern Distribution Management

Log In

Selling to the Next Generation

You may have tailored your office culture and training processes to accommodate more millennials in the workplace, but have you considered how you’re selling to the next generation? More millennials are in B2B buying positions, and they shop and buy differently than preceding generations. This article examines those changes and how to adjust to meet these new demands.

This article includes:

  • How to identify your customer demographics
  • How to shift your sales approach
  • Why hiring millennials helps you to reach them

Subscribers should log-in below to read this article.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe below or learn more. Subscribers also have access to the following related articles:

  • How to Navigate Key HR Issues in 2017
  • A Growing Competitive Threat
  • MDM Interview: Winsupply’s Winning Formula

You may have tailored your office culture and training processes to accommodate more millennials in the workplace, but have you considered how you’re selling to the next generation? More millennials are in B2B buying positions, and they shop and buy differently than preceding generations. This article examines those changes and how to adjust to meet these new demands.

Millennials composed 35.6 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2016 (see Figure 1), ahead of Generation X (31.2 percent) and baby boomers (30.7 percent), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2026, millennials will widen that workforce lead, composing an estimated 44.2 percent of the workforce.

The numbers look different in distribution – for now. Millennials compose just 2 percent of employees of Industrial Supply Association members, according to a 2016 ISA ONE Strategic Report, but their numbers will grow, says Cam Marston, whose company Generational Insights helps clients understand generational change and its impact on the workplace and marketplace.

“It might be a baby boomer-dominated industry,” he says, “but the evidence is clear that it won’t last very long.”

While distributors are slow to hire the next generation, their customers aren’t. More of them are hiring millennials for procurement and other positions, meaning it’s critical to develop a sales approach to match the changing demands of these new distributor customers. Understand millennials and you’ll have a better understanding of your customers.

“There’s value in spending time learning them better,” Marston says. “By being aware that you have customers of different generations, it begins to inform your decisions.”

Millennials have different ideas about what they want in a workplace, and they also have different shopping and buying preferences, according to Marston, who presented “Selling Across the Generations” at Essendant Inc.’s show for suppliers and resellers last month in Las Vegas, NV.

As digital natives, millennials want ease of doing business, quick access to information and different ways of ordering, Marston says. They also want to work with a specific type of company – one that is more concerned with looking forward and less concerned with what it’s done in the past.

“Boomers and matures are very interested in background and histories and legacies and what’s proven the test of time is more credible,” Marston says. “The Gen Xers and millennials are more interested in a focus on the future and how a product or company will influence and affect their lives. That’s a big distinction that many groups that sell need to understand.”

In other words, your company should be focused on sharing the ways it can help millennials with their business, not just how it once helped their parents’ and grandparents’ business back in the day.

‘Who is my customer?’

Learning what millennials want begins by asking them. Problems arise when a company – no matter if it’s B2B or B2C, selling primarily to boomers or millennials – gets overconfident thinking it knows who the customer is and what the customer wants.

“They look up one day and realize that that customer has passed them by, that that customer has changed, that they really don’t know as much as they thought they did,” Marston says. “The implication of not understanding is that your customer is going to change and you’re not going to be aware of it.

“The question to always ask is ‘Who is my customer and how do I learn more about them?’ Not, ‘I know my customer and I’m going to deliver what I think they need.’”

Stellar Industrial Supply, Tacoma, WA, asks as many questions as possible about their customers’ buying demands and interaction preferences, according to President and CEO John Wiborg.

In Stellar’s qualification and positioning phase, for example, the company works to better understand its customers – really, anyone with a buying influence – by asking how they prefer to receive information (text, email, etc.) and how they consume technical data (video, website, catalog, etc.). This process is especially critical for engaging with millennials,


who aren’t interested in hearing the traditional long-winded sales pitch.

“Millennials’ tolerance for somebody coming in and blathering at them is low or nonexistent,” Wiborg says. “Their expectations are that you do what you say you’re going to do. And that is exactly what we’ve been working on for a number of years. Time is highly valuable for them, and yet they’re very committed to getting the job done. That’s a good thing. Their expectations are high. They want a professional company serving them in a professional way.”

Shift your sales approach

Looking at demographics and understanding that distributor customers range from millennials to Gen Xers to baby boomers is also part of the customer engagement process at F.W. Webb, Bedford, MA, according to Tom Santer, vice president of sales. Millennials want unconstrained access to product and account information, and the company has adapted service offerings to match.

“F.W. Webb believes it’s critical important to serve all customers whenever, wherever and however they prefer,” Santer says. “For example, with our millennial customers, we understand their preference to travel light, communicate on the go and be paper-free. All F.W. Webb account customers have 24/7 online access to product information, ordering and account management functionality.”

The most important consideration is how millennials prefer to receive information, which differs from boomers. More of them are on social media, checking a company’s Facebook page, Twitter feed or YouTube channel first for basic information. Lacking a presence there makes a bad first impression.

“Given that most customers are computer- and smartphone-savvy, we incorporate online and social media to communicate with our customers,” Santer says. “We have a robust website and where customers can view and order products, and see our latest promotions, training and events. We frequently email customers and disseminate news of interest to them via social media. We recently launched a new robust online order site for our professional customer which makes placing an order and tracking it much easier.”

Wiborg agrees that a company can’t just “foist” itself on a millennial customer, which is why Stellar is also bolstering its social media presence, including a YouTube channel for general information and specific answers.

“Our YouTube channel might be the most important thing that we do over the next several years to enhance that, to provide resources, expertise, how-to’s,” Wiborg says. “We’re heading in that direction. Young people want to know where to go for answers rather than having some slick salesman trying to hawk something. We have been and we continue to refine making ourselves a resource and projecting that out to the marketplace.”

This generational shift in the way buyers want to interact means the field sales role is also evolving – though not disappearing altogether – because millennials “don’t want to see a sales rep just to see a sales rep,” Wiborg says. “They don’t want a sales rep coming in just to say, ‘What can I do for you today?’ They’re not going to solely engage on a non-face-to-face basis, so it’s not that the physical presence completely goes away, but they need to know that a sales rep has to bring value when they come in and time can’t be wasted.”

Reach millennials by hiring them

Jack Henderson took a chance when he hired Morgan Horner to be a lighting specialist at Hunzicker Brothers, a nearly century-old electrical distribution in Oklahoma City, OK.

Horner was in his 20s and didn’t have a college degree or any distribution experience, but Henderson plucked Horner from a sales gig at a furniture store because “he has the purest sales personality that I have ever seen,” says Henderson, Hunzicker’s executive vice president.

Though Horner “knew zero about electrical” and had little business sense about how a distributor operates, Henderson says his willingness to call anyone, anytime, was a plus. So was his youth and his ability to connect with customers around the same age.

Unlike older salespeople at the company, Horner sends Facebook friend requests to customers. He texts them. And he even sends them videos using Snapchat Spectacles – sunglasses with a video camera built in so you can record a 10-second “Snap.”

“A lot of those people he’s calling on are the same – they’re 25, 30 years old,” Henderson says. “You have to use those tools. You’re not going to tell a young guy like that, ‘I’m going to fax you a cut sheet of this LED lighting.’”

As a company works to understand how to bring millennials into the workplace, it’s also understanding how to sell to them, as well. For example, Horner displays a strong desire to understand a product inside and out – another millennial trait, one that distributors can leverage with their customers.

“You cannot sell those people using old sales techniques. You have to use this new stuff. In order to do that, you have to understand it,” Henderson says. “And it all has to happen in an Amazon-ish fashion. The speed of the transaction is much quicker than what I grew up with.”

Younger employees are more open and amenable to learning new technologies, such as sales automation platforms, which can make company-wide adoption smoother, Stellar’s Wiborg says.

“As we digitize our business, we need to have people that operate like that and thrive on it,” Wiborg says. “Younger people are more open to new ways of thinking and new ideas. This generation in particular, because they’ve seen so much rapid change, doesn’t seem to hang on to the status quo and entrenched interests in the same way. When you position yourself as being able to provide value, you’re not as likely to get shut down.”

Adapt or lose customers

For all the talk of generational differences, however, the shift from boomers to Gen Xers to millennials isn’t as stark as many might think, Wiborg says. Millennials and the generation to follow (Gen Z) will still exhibit some of the qualities of their predecessors. That’s why an omnichannel presence – providing an “and” instead of an “or” when it comes to shopping and buying options – is integral to customer engagement.

“We have to continue to refine and enhance the capabilities we have now to better serve our customers, and we have to develop new capabilities,” Wiborg says. “There’s a risk for companies that say, ‘We’re going to do it the way we’ve always done it because it got us here.’ My saying is, ‘What got us here isn’t going to get us there.’ We have to challenge all of our assumptions – and our team is set up to embrace change.”

Henderson sees where the future is heading with millennials in distribution and at distributor customers. Before long, salespeople like Horner will become the norm rather than the exception. Even Snapchat Spectacles will someday be obsolete.

“These old guys like me are going to be gone really quick,” Henderson says. “When those younger guys pull into those purchasing agent jobs, it’s going to happen really fast. You better be prepared.”

Share this article

About the Author
Recommended Reading
Leave a Reply

Leave a Comment

Sign Up for the MDM Update Newsletter

The MDM update newsletter is your best source for news and trends in the wholesale distribution industry.

Get the MDM Update Newsletter

Wholesale distribution news and trends delivered right to your inbox.

Sign-up for our free newsletter and get:

  • Up-to-date news in a quick-to-read format
  • Free access to webcasts, podcasts and live events
  • Exclusive whitepapers, research and reports
  • And more!


articles left

Want more Premium content from MDM?

Subscribe today and get:

  • New issues twice each month
  • Unlimited access to, including 10+ years of archived data
  • Current trends analysis, market data and economic updates
  • Discounts on select store products and events

Subscribe to continue reading

MDM Premium Subscribers get:

  • Unlimited access to
  • 1 year digital subscription, with new issues twice a month
  • Trends analysis, market data and quarterly economic updates
  • Deals on select store products and events



You have one free article remaining

Subscribe to MDM Premium to get unlimited access. Your subscription includes:

  • Two new issues a month
  • Access to 10+ years of archived data on
  • Quarterly economic updates, trends analysis and market data
  • Store and event discounts

To continue reading, you must be an MDM Premium subscriber.

Join other distribution executives who use MDM Premium to optimize their business. Our insights and analysis help you enter the right new markets, turbocharge your sales and marketing efforts, identify business partners that help you scale, and stay ahead of your competitors.

Register for full access

By providing your email, you agree to receive announcements from us and our partners for our newsletter, events, surveys, and partner resources per MDM Terms & Conditions. You can withdraw consent at any time.

Learn More about Custom Reports

Request a Market Prospector Demo

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.