Bridging The Gaps

Is your age keeping you from making the sale? Learn how to turn it to your advantage.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the August 1998 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

It seems like only yesterday that I was younger than all my customers. I was always concerned that my baby-face would cause those customers to choose an older and wiser salesperson--and sometimes they did. But over time, I began to understand what makes a great salesperson; this insight allowed me to develop a wonderful sales script for prospects who objected to my youth or lack of experience.

"Yes, it's true," I would say. "I may not have the years of experience that some of my competitors have, but I know one fact for sure: I understand the secret to pleasing a customer. It's delivering first-class service. Many salespeople, no matter how long they're in business, never grasp that truth. Service, not age, separates the great from the mediocre."

Now it's a different story. I often find myself sitting across the desk from the CEO of a multibillion-dollar company, who's almost young enough to be my son. Or I look at my audience full of entrepreneurs, managers or salespeople and see people half my age.

When I hit the high 40s a few years back, I decided to take a close look at how my age and the ages of my prospects influenced how the sales process played out. Because I asked myself tough questions and was willing to change my approach, I believe my ability to communicate with (and sell to) people both younger and older than I am has improved.

If you're having a sales crisis because of age, ask yourself the following questions, then adjust your style accordingly:

  • How is my appearance affecting my relationships with younger or older customers? In some businesses, today's younger executives are casual dressers. Last year, I was the keynote speaker at an annual retreat for the sales force of a billion-dollar company. I wore an expensive business suit, but from the moment I walked into the room, I felt out of place: Everyone in the audience was half my age and wearing jeans. I found out later from one of the attendees that my formal attire was an immediate turnoff to that crowd. It was only after I got well into my speech that I began to connect with the group.

That evening at the company dinner, I wore bluejeans and a flannel shirt just like everyone else, and didn't over-style my hair. "Why weren't you dressed like that during your speech?" many people commented to me. "We would have paid attention to you a lot sooner."

At first it made me angry to know I was being judged by my appearance, but let's face it: We are easily swayed by first impressions, particularly across generational lines. Not doing your homework could cost you a sale. It certainly cost me my credibility for the first 30 minutes of my speech. During those 30 minutes, I imparted some vital information that my audience could have used to make much-needed market share improvements, but they weren't listening because they were put off by my appearance.

A word from the CEO prior to the meeting regarding the company's dress code would have been helpful, but I should have asked. If you are a younger person who prefers to dress casually, what impression will you make if you call on a 50-year-old customer who happens to equate casual clothing with laziness and a lack of respect for the customer? It behooves you to do your homework and dress appropriately on sales calls.

Once you have built a relationship with a customer of any age, what you are wearing will take a back seat to the kind of person you are and the quality of the service you deliver--but don't discount the importance of first impressions.

  • What kind of tone do I take with my younger customers? Carole Horowitz, president of Plantscapes Inc., a Pittsburgh interior plantscaping design firm, says she is older than many of her customers and usually knows something about her industry that they don't know because of their youth and inexperience. But she doesn't walk in like a know-it-all. Instead, she walks into the presentation with a "curious" attitude.

Since being a good listener is key to dealing with any customer, here's a "curiosity" script that will put you in the listening mode with your younger customers: "I want to know about you and what you do. How did you get into this area of work? Tell me a little about your history, and I'll tell you about mine. Then we can see how we can blend our skills and talents for the betterment of your company."

  • Should I hire salespeople who are generally the same age as my customers? It's not a bad idea to re-evaluate your sales force if it isn't aligned with the profile of the customers in your market. Shirley Pepys, CEO of NoJo Inc., a $40 million children's products company in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, believes that in her business, young manufacturers representatives relate better to other young manufacturers reps.

"When I was a young entrepreneur calling on buyers, we all had toddlers, babysitter problems and lack of sleep in common," Pepys says. "Our common ground [created] a foundation of trust and bonding. It's the same today. My sales force can do a better job connecting with our buyers than I can. I stay in the background but continue to guide my salespeople when they get stuck or ask for help."

Sometimes it's hard for high-powered entrepreneurs to give up the ego satisfaction that comes with landing big sales. But you must constantly reevaluate your business as you mature. Is it time to pass the torch to a younger salesperson who seems to relate better to the marketplace?

  • How can I improve communication with my customers when there is a noticeable generation gap between us? A young salesperson recently said to me, "My over-50 customers don't listen to me. They think they know it all, and I don't think they trust me or the information I'm giving them."

My advice? No matter what your age is, get off the defensive. "The customer is always right" should be your guiding principle. If your older customers don't believe you when you tell them yours is the best price or the best value, instead of arguing, acknowledge their concerns by saying something like this: "Let's make sure you're getting the best merchandise at the best price. I can understand you don't want to be taken advantage of, so let's do some checking together."

If your knowledge of the product is sound and you're committed to serving your customer, there's no need to be arrogant. Say to those customers who may need reassurance because of your age or their assumptions about your level of experience, "I'm here to serve you, not just now, but in the future. I can't afford to give you the wrong information. I'll do whatever it takes until you're feeling as confident as I am that this product or service is the perfect solution to your current (shipping, accounting, production) problems."

It's worth repeating: Superior service at any age is what truly impresses people. Experienced salespeople can serve their younger customers by becoming admired mentors or trusted parent figures. In turn, younger entrepreneurs can thrive as "the youthful geniuses" we midlife folks have come to rely on to enlighten us as we move into the new millennium.

Danielle Kennedy presents sales and marketing seminars and keynote addresses worldwide and is the author of seven sales books as well as audio and video sales training programs. Check local bookstores for Seven Figure Sellingand her latest book, Balancing Act: An Inspirational Guide for Working Mothers (both Berkley Press). Write to her in care of Entrepreneur, 2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA 92614.

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