Throughout my sales career—from when I was a first-year sales rep, to my leadership role as a VP of Sales—I always made it a point to foster a work culture that accentuates the significance of diversity and inclusion. In other words, I genuinely believe the most exceptional teams are the ones comprised of a variety of different personalities, cultures, ethnic backgrounds, ages, differing religions, gender, etc. In my experience, diversity has a powerful impact on a sales team and drives profitability to your business.
But ageism is a worry as we continue to see a disproportionate age representation in the workforce. I myself spent some time worrying that my career might spontaneously end at the age of 40. We all saw what happened when the Baby Boomers started delaying their retirement— the strong majority could attest that ageism is alive and well in America. But these days I am less concerned about not having a job in sales when I am 40…or 60…or even 80, because I believe there is a solution. The solution is wrapped up in the Sales Flywheel where the customer experience is at the center. It’s up to us as salespeople to discover our strongest talent and then optimize accordingly.
Age Limits in Sales?
Times are still not easy for salespeople, particularly if they are over the age of 50. And sales positions are less accepting of the aging process. Statistics support the reality of age discrimination and in 2017, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco conducted the largest to date study on age discrimination. Of the 40,000 dummy job applications they used in their research, the job candidates that were aged 29 to 31 received 35% more callbacks, even though they had identical applications besides their age. I remember my first jobs as a sales rep were intense—I had to be energetic and full of passion, focused, fast on my feet. I put everything I had into, much as I still do today.
So many of the qualities companies are looking for in sales rep positions put older people at a disadvantage. A stereotypical preconceived notion exists that an older candidate is less flexible, more disagreeable, and lacking necessary technical skills. This a prime example of age discrimination .
The truth is older individuals have a lot to offer in sales. They also provide great value in two areas:
It’s true that any adult can serve as a mentor but older adults tend to make people more comfortable. The benefits of mentoring are well known and truthfully, it doesn’t matter what age you are we all need some kind of mentor. I serve as a mentor for people just starting out but also have a mentor myself. Career mentorship can be life changing for some people and is a great opportunity for older people to get involved.
I can remember a time where I lost a major business deal because my competitor made elaborate promises and basically screwed me over. I was 25 years old at the time and he was 44. We met for drinks after he scored the deal and over the course of 3 hours, my enemy became a friend. It was he that gave me some of the best life advice I have still to this day ever received. He told me that he won the sale away from me for one simple reason: the clients trusted him. They trusted him to make sure that things got done how they were promised to get done.
The power of a promise. He was able to win and keep his customers by telling the truth about the company brand. This was something I had not considered and hearing it from the veteran salesman changed the course of my thinking forever. The point is that older workers have a copious amount of real-world knowledge and experience to impart on their younger cohorts
Feedback and learning
You can gain a lot of insight by asking someone who is more experienced than you for feedback. How you develop and learn, how you incorporate feedback and learning into the improvement of the business of you, is critical to being employable. There is enormous value in feedback and yet so many of us are afraid to ask for it, and are defensive in receiving it. Feedback, however, is a two ways street and an older person can learn just as much from a younger person on things where they may be lacking in, such as technology.
It’s All About the Relationship
At the heart of any successful company is the customer experience. In fact, the customer experience influences all areas of your business and a positive experience leads to loyalty. And what plays the biggest role in shaping the customer experience? The relationship you have built and cultivated plays an integral role in whether they will feel positive about the experience.. Relationships don’t have anything to do with age but, it is the older demographic that has an easier time establishing rapport and forging a bond. Put simply, they are seen as more trustworthy. The Sales Flywheel does it right and always puts the customer experience in the center, with all other parts surrounding and supporting that experience. Undoubtedly there is a place for all ages in sales, but you need to figure out where you fit into the customer experience.
Happy Customers Make Loyal Customers.
The customer experience is touched by all areas of the business including marketing, sales, client services, and customer service. Part of the solution to ageism in sales is wrapped up in the Sales Flywheel Customer Experience and where you fit in relation to it.
Young people who are fresh out of school often fit into the demand and/or lead generation marketing role. These jobs are all about metrics and reaching your goals. A good demand marketing rep thrives on competition and does not get beat down easily. They let the word no bounce right off them and develop a thick skin fast. They explore every marketing tactic available and come up with creative ways to communicate. This type of role can be less desirable for the older population but certainly is still a possibility.
If you are a person that enjoys carrying a quota then a sales role is perfect for any age. As long as you are adaptable and accept how the market wants to buy as opposed to the way you were trained to sell. In other words, a successful sales rep will adapt to the times and learn new tactics as needed. For instance, the modern-day customer has many touchpoints to reach including digital touchpoints, which means you must be up to date on all the latest technology. Technology can sometimes be a struggle for older adults, but it is a necessary evil to be successful in sales. These days, your customer is empowered and will tell you everything you need to tell them about what needs to happen to close the sale. No matter what age group, a good sales rep knows that it is less about focusing on the product and more about the 1:1 interaction. You must have the ability to engage people in a positive way and then build it into a long-term, sustainable relationship. Here are some attributes vital to a sales rep role:
Passion: This is an attribute that knows no bound with age. When you are passionate about something you that believe in then you never feel like you are selling. The world just makes sense when your product or idea is in the world. That kind of mentality is contagious and a quality that all top-notch sales people have.
Compassion: And that passion leads to compassion, which is another attribute of a great sales rep. This can also be seen in all ages although typically older adults make it a priority to have the customers best interest in mind at all times.
Persistence: This is the one attribute that is at the core of any successful salesperson. Persistence can make up for many other traits that may be lacking. Younger sales reps come with a thicker skin and can handle rejection. Being confident and able to shake it off you are important qualities to have. The average person wouldn’t be able to take some of the abuse sales reps get.
Integrity: Having good listening skills and the ability to ask good questions are fundamental to a successful salesperson. Older sales reps generally have this ability and are a great asset to the young salesperson for learning. Asking a customer why he or she wants something done is key.
There are dozens of qualities that successful sales reps should possess, and it seems between the two age groups they would benefit from teaching each other.
Customer service is an excellent place for someone who built their career from relationships, because they are normally highly empathetic. They have the ability to put himself in someone else’s shoes and this is great for customer retention. The Sales Flywheel means that the customer is not going to fall off the radar one day but will stay as your customer forever. Older people generally understand what the customer is going through as opposed to someone with no industry experience.
Client services is a big piece of the “ageism in sales” puzzle and an area where older adults can make a powerful impact. The reason? Because the majority of businesses fail to put enough time, effort, and resources into their onboarding programs designed to maintain customer satisfaction after the first check has been cashed. This is a problem because it’s also where a large part of the revenue can be made. Client services is a great place for someone not interested in meeting a quota but knows they have the ability to upsell or cross sell. So much of it is about relationship building that most older adults can walk right into the role.
Onboarding has always been a weak spot in most companies, but these days, customers have an easier time making decisions because they have the option to cancel and head to the competition. For example, Lyft took over the market share from Uber after the sexual harassment scandal. In the past, it would have taken a long time to accomplish but in today’s economy, people either care and go ahead and delete the app— or they could care less and stick with the company.
What is Being Done?
There is so much work that needs to be done to win the fight against ageism in the workforce— and luckily things are already starting to change. There are multiple diversity and inclusion thought leaders who are speaking out about the topic and showing how you can build a better brand with a diverse workforce. There are also some companies trying to do their part to fight against ageism. For example, Goldman Sachs, Barclays, Lyft, NIH, and H&R Block are all companies who now have a returnship program for individuals who have been out of the workforce for at least two years. The program runs over 8 weeks and offers individuals the chance to sharpen their skills and get up to date in areas like technology. These efforts are valuable for employees and a good start in the battle against age discrimination.
I would advise my younger self to…
If I could rewind time back 10 years, I would encourage myself to adopt a Sales Flywheel type mentality. A growth mindset, if you will, where the customer experience is always at the center and it is my job to figure out where I best fit in and can do the most good for the company. Having that mentality gives me peace of mind about my future employment because I know that as long as I am doing something productive for the company and serving the customers then I have a job.
I would also tell my more youthful self to create my own opportunities, be even more self-motivated and to always proactively provide my value. And I would realize that no matter what age you are, a sales career exists is all about building new, solid relationships while cultivating those already exist.
How Can I Make Sure I Stay Relevant?
The key to staying relevant is to never stop learning. Learning is so vital today that you have no choice but to be a lifelong learner. You must keep all your skills up to date and maintain your own competitive edge. So, do whatever you have to do. Take continuing enrichment classes, courses to master your skill, go to trade shows, read up on the latest practices, and get to know social media. Of utmost importance is getting your technology skills up to date and then keeping abreast of future changes. As technology infiltrates our daily lives and flattens the world, the only job security will be what you bring to the table. Learning technology will improve your job performance and help you work better with customers. Think of ways your company could take advantage of current and emerging innovation and then help steer it in that direction. This shows that not only do you accept change, you thrive in it.
You should also find out what skills you have that are elite and then develop them into an expertise. I can say from personal experience that being a subject matter expert can take your career a long way. People think of me immediately when they know they need a personal workflow design. It’s because I go deep on the knowledge that I have on that subject. The great thing about this depth is it incredibly difficult for someone new to best me. Which makes a person more valuable to their company.
Learn to love change and make sure you can do it quickly. You must be willing to learn, adapt, and grow no matter what age you are. Anything else is a deal breaker. Ageism is illegal and unacceptable—but many companies still get away with blatant discrimination. If ageism is something that worries you then focus on where you can help the company improve the customer experience. Do what you do best and then impart your wisdom on colleagues.
Where do you think you fall within the Sales Flywheel Customer Experience?
Also published on Medium.