Baby boomers are retiring, and sales managers are recognizing that their current management styles may not be quite as beneficial as they could be. Adopting a strong philosophy and vision for leading a sales team is the first important step to take when shifting a management culture.
The impending exit of baby boomer-age salespeople is forcing companies to change their sales management cultures.
There is a fundamental difference in sales team cultures based on the age of the salespeople, according to Jim Pancero, a sales and management training consultant.
Younger salespeople are not driven by the baby boomer-esque attitude of, “Get out of my way, I’ll show you a better way of selling,” Pancero says. Millennials grew up in a culture of coaches, teachers and guidance. Baby boomers did not. Instead of coaches leading the baseball team, the baby boomer generation fended for itself.
“If somebody had a bat and somebody had a ball, you had a game, and based on what ball they had was what game you played,” Pancero says. “And you spent half your time fighting over the rules and who was going to be on what team. It was all independent.”
Over the past 20 years or so, the role of the sales manager has evolved into a position that supports baby boomer-age salespeople, whose attitudes toward selling is also independent, Pancero says. Many of them have been selling for decades, and they know their customers, the products and the markets.
But that knowledge is eyeing the door. Baby boomers are retiring, and sales managers recognize that their current management styles may not be quite as beneficial – to individual salespeople and to the company overall – as they could be. Transitioning a sales team from a reactionary model to a more structured, guided model can be a huge challenge.
From Reactive to Proactive
“Even though a salesperson may be in some people’s eyes a dinosaur, they may have relationships with other dinosaurs that are critical to your organization,” says Barry Lawrence, program director of the industrial distribution program at Texas A&M University. “You just have to do the slow transition of winding down that salesperson’s career, making sure that your younger sales force is prepared for the new environment, and then making sure that your middle-aged sales force is feeling the pressure to help lead the movement forward.”
Pancero says that today’s typical manager of baby boomer-age salespeople does five things:
- Special pricing
- Expediting things
- Problem solving
- Customer follow-up calls
- Data and reporting
Because older salespeople don’t want a lot of guidance, they ask for less from a manager. A manager is then, in theory, able to manage more salespeople. But the more people a manager is responsible for, the more the job becomes a reactive position, Pancero says.
“When the manager is managing more than 10 or 12 people, or if other departments become the responsibility of the manager, the manager will become reactive instead of proactive in how they do their job,” he says. “There are so many fires going on when they come into work, all they can do is just keep fighting the fires. They have very little time to try to initiate anything.”
Adopting a strong philosophy and vision for leading a sales team is the first important step to take, Pancero says. Senior management must
support the plan, invest in sales tools and identify a distinct structure in order to gain competitive advantage.
“Sales reps can’t follow a structure if one doesn’t exist,” Pancero says. “We need processes in place. What are the top three bullets we want every salesperson to sell on?”
But the younger salesforce doesn’t want a “dictator,” they want a coach, says Jeff Haggard, vice president of sales for Haggard & Stocking, Indianapolis, IN.
And they want to be involved in the process, says Gail Ludewig, president of TotalWorks, a catalog production firm.
Managers cannot be excluded from training if the shift is to be successful, Haggard says. “If my guys are going to be more tech savvy, I need to be as well,” he says. “If I’m going to teach, I need to learn.”
Managers must learn to analyze data, address business profitability and efficiency issues and communicate across fields both inside and outside the company.
“I think as a manager within an organization, you need to help [salespeople] get context between the other parts of the organization that impact them,” Ludewig says. “You need to be the person that can help them understand the implication of inventory upon their work.”
Cross-training should also be a portion of the training to help sales personnel work most efficiently across mobile devices with data software and analysis tools.
Turning to Technology & Data
Technology tools have increased the pace of change. Every company must accept technology-driven changes or risk being at a critical disadvantage in the marketplace. It’s not about gaining an advantage, Pancero says. It’s about competing in the current market.
“If you stop taking a bath, eventually it’s going to hurt your sales,” he says. “But just because you took a bath today isn’t going to give you a competitive advantage.”
Technology is a double-edged sword in some ways. Keeping the company up-to-date on current technology will only keep a level playing field, but some of those applications can increase risk of disintermediation.
“With the new technology coming on, there will be a natural temptation to start freezing the sales force – especially the outside sales force – out,” Lawrence says. “The day that the outside sales force ceases to matter is the day that 90 percent of distributors will be wiped off the planet. The very survival of the distribution community must drive the success of the outside sales force.”
Technology can also expand opportunities in sales.
“Sales forces can be armed with greatly enriched information, handled by people who are much more comfortable with information management,” Lawrence says. “It will mean more transparency from the sales force and more transparency to others within the supply chain.”
Customer information, and analysis of that information, is available in amounts and with details like never before, he says.
“Those sort of coaching activities have not always been with your current sales management teams, primarily because that information wasn’t available,” Lawrence says.
Harnessing the prospects of that data is something that younger generations may find inspiring instead of daunting, and so providing structure and training around technology tools is a good starting point for shifting an age-diversified sales team.
Data can also help managers manage the sales force better, says Steve Deist, a partner at Indian River Consulting Group, so they shouldn’t be leery of diving in and analyzing sales territories or evaluating pipeline opportunities before they’re passed on to the sales reps. “They’re getting better,” he says, “… but I think there’s a lot more juice in that grapefruit to squeeze.”
Sales managers have to be able to identify gaps in knowledge in their sales teams and to use the tools that they already have to fill those gaps.
“Other sales training skills that have been neglected – and should never have been neglected – are financials; understanding what makes your customer profitable and what makes your firm profitable, so that you make decisions and you make promises that will on the one hand benefit your customers, but on the other hand will be very beneficial to your own firm,” Lawrence says. “If we can just get that one properly in the hands of salespeople, we will have made a major hit for the distribution industry.”
The sales management position is becoming the pinch point in the sales system, according to Pancero. If management is improved even slightly with more leadership and more strategy, the results tend to be significant.