Generational Selling

PPAI (Promotional Products Association International) have many informative Blogs but this one we see becoming more and more relevant in our New Zealand economy. PPAI have a clear vision - "The Promotional Products Association International advocates the power and value of promotional products in the marketing and advertising professions to ensure the success of its members and the global industry.” Through this powerful network we share with you some insight into the new generation of workers, sellers and buyers we identify as “Millennials”.

Fresh sales approaches are essential if you want to reach and influence a new, younger market.

As the wants and needs of the people we sell to change, the way we sell is also changing. Today’s new market is driven by the Millennial generation, and they have taken the majority spot among U.S. workers and potential buyers. Members of the workforce’s youngest generation are helping to challenge traditional sales models and creating the necessity for new approaches to supply chain management within our industry. While there are tested methods within our business that have worked and will continue to work, there is now a need to focus on new and emerging trends to help our industry continue to compete.

New Consumer Behaviors

It’s a well-known fact that consumers want to be marketed to using a familiar and relatable approach. This is true of generational selling as well. Certain generations trend more toward a preferred method of making marketing and business connections. For Millennials, digital connectivity and constant communication are the foundation for their lives. It was once thought that certain channels of digital connectivity such as Facebook and Twitter were trends that would become obsolete. However, these channels have become so integrated into everyday life that social media has moved from strictly personal communication to become a viable solution for business and marketing, too. The level of interconnectivity among the younger generation also continues to grow and their use of technology is unprecedented. As a result, a new level of consumerism has begun to trend along digital lines. This does not mean the days of interpersonal relationships are over, but it does mean that the way we access these relationships may look different.

One of the most common misconceptions about the younger generation is that they are removed from interpersonal relationships because of the distractions caused by the continuous stream of tweets, online messages, posts and alerts. However, a recent industry survey found that relationships are the most critical element when it comes to Millennial purchasing power. This group ultimately wants to buy from people, not businesses, and certainly not just from the little blue screen. Yes, most of us are guilty of purchasing something online because of the ease with which we can obtain the product. But that does not have to be the standard for our industry. There is tremendous value in purchasing products from a person with whom we are familiar—and there is a reason why our industry cannot sell itself well online. Promotional products are tangible; static images on a computer screen are not. So where is the proper intersection of technology marketing and relationship selling?

Transactional To Relational

It is clear that Millennials utilize their understanding of technology integration as part of daily life. Good or bad, this group’s connectivity will never diminish from the level it is at today. This means that in order to market and sell to this group, the seller’s level of connectivity must be integrated into a marketing and sales plan. A full 100 percent of the potential Millennial buyers in the market access the internet every day; more than 80 percent access some form of social media every day for any number of business-related transactions.

They take pride in the fact that they can become educated on any product or business easily by using the digital platform they understand best. This means that the companies they want to do business with, the products they want to use and the people they wish to connect with must have some sort of internet or social media presence. It is almost a certainty that if a Millennial wants to learn more about a product, service or company, they will not pick up the phone to call and inquire. Instead, they will access the information online. This leads to opportunities to build the relationships they value. They get a certain level of comfort from learning about a person, product, service or company using their preferred methods. It is at this point that the opportunity moves from transactional to relational. Once a Millennial has better knowledge about you, your business or your product, the actual interpersonal relationship can begin. Without this ease of access to information about you and your business, the relationship outcome would likely be quite different, if it developed at all. The most useful elements to a company website are your company story (we all have one), introduction of your staff members, your industry philosophy or value statements, and finally, your product information. Remember, websites can be a delivery method for a relational sales approach.

Using online channels optimally within our industry is also a critical factor. When working to develop a level of trust and understanding among younger customers, understand that Millennials care just as much about how a business develops its people and contributes to society as they do about the products.

We operate in a product-centric industry. Odds are, if a person is researching your company, they already know it’s a promotional products business but they want to better understand your company’s principles and practices. Websites and social media are great places to demonstrate how your business develops its people and contributes to society. These are things that make even the most similar companies unique. If a Millennial researches a company to determine if he or she wants to do business with that company, the search will likely be for stories about the company employees and the community the business serves. When communicating your story, it is best to think small. Start with a picture from an event, company meeting or something from around the office. Then, let the words flow naturally. This generation is a civic-minded and socially engaged group. The reason social media has become so popular is because this group wants that constant understanding about people. We all have stories to tell and something to share. This is true of both the sole-proprietor distributor and the 5,000-employee supplier.

Don’t Sell To Them

Studies and personality tests have shown that most Millennials don’t want to be sold to. They want to work to develop common goals and ensure that there is continuous mutual respect in any transaction. Being able to sell without selling takes careful consideration and can be approached in a number of ways.

Dan Reading, vice president of Boise, Idaho, distributor In The Bag Promotions, has taken a number of steps to better reach his Millennial customers, and as a result has been exceptionally successful operating within the collegiate market. “I don’t think we will ever get away from the negative connotation people have about sales,” he says. “The first thing we do at In The Bag is remove the word sales from our titles. Those on our team who are responsible for developing and maintaining client partnerships are given the title brand ambassador. We also train our brand ambassadors to take a consultative approach with clients and eliminate suggestive selling. People purchase from us because of our product knowledge, our expertise and our passion, not because we only have something to sell.”

The idea of taking “sales” away from titles is a tactic adopted by many successful companies in our industry because, in order to connect with the new, younger market, new approaches like this are necessary.

But even with a new title, how does a salesperson fit in this scenario? Millennials often make purchases online because they are comfortable with the process and it helps them avoid engaging a salesperson in the transaction. Thus, the best way traditional industry companies can sidestep losing out to the online marketplace is to help younger customers understand the need for building personal relationships with our industry. Through personal interaction with a promotional professional they get the added value of consultation, assistance with proper branding, decorating expertise, quality assurance and continuous customer support. These elements of the sale cannot be obtained through exclusively digital experiences.

Even so, companies that successfully achieve this level of selling to new, younger clients also do so without alienating existing clients who prefer the more traditional salesperson approach.

Those who have built successful careers in our industry have a strong understanding about the importance of relationships. However, the Millennial group is going to continue to challenge this approach as the primary sales tactic. Companies that will reign supreme among Millennial clients are those who maintain a solid online presence and revamp their traditional sales approach to match the needs of Millennials, while reinforcing the value of relationships. Focusing on the following qualities will help create that unified success:

  • Make sure your sites talk to each other. Is there commonality between your social media sites and your website? Is there a way to access each site from all the others?
  • Tell your story and take pride in it. Does your social media page or your website only talk about product? If so, start talking more about people and community; product is a given.
  • When selling, do you allow clients to communicate with you through email, text or a phone call? If not, what are your reasons for the limitation?
  • Do you give back to your clients in some way? Is there an opportunity for you to do this to form more of a relationship?
  • Feedback is a gift. Do you provide feedback to your clients to help them better manage their business and your relationship?


Seth Barnett is PPAI’s diversity development and engagement manager.