Recently, I participated in a panel discussion at a convention where I heard the most amazing statement I’ve ever heard at one of these events. A fellow panelist looked at the audience and said, “What you have to face is that 70% of your sales reps are incapable of growing your companies. They’re untrainable, they’re gray, and they’re incapable of learning new technologies that will drive this business into the future. 23% are acceptable and 7% are elite.”
Wow. My mind locked – as everyone else’s did – on that “untrainable” comment. Asked to clarify, he explained that the industry in question had an aging sales force that was incapable of learning new technologies. By this point, you might be expecting this comment to come from someone in his 20s or 30s, correct? You’d be wrong. I don’t know exactly how old the man was – I didn’t ask and he didn’t volunteer – but he couldn’t have been a day under 60, and therein lies a number of interesting points.
As much as I disliked what he said (and frankly, him), he wasn’t totally wrong. I encounter people in the sales and sales management world every day who have picked a date where their learning and evolution simply stopped, and they won’t learn any more. Put new technology in front of them, and they simply shake their heads in refusal. They have an unshakable belief in their old people skills, and they think that’s enough.
I see the same thing in training sales techniques; many more seasoned salespeople simply refuse, during training, to even entertain the thought of learning new ideas, skills, or approaches.
I see it in managers who won’t update their hiring techniques and methods, even though hiring has experienced several sea changes in environments from regulatory to the technical tools we can bring to the table.
I see sales reps in their 60s who use LinkedIn more effectively than reps 40 years their junior. They’re a whiz at CRM, know how to use it to enhance every sales call, and only gripe if for some reason they can’t pull up the customer’s most recent activity in the car, on their smartphone, before walking in.
I see sales reps in their 40s, 50s, and greater who can’t wait to learn new sales approaches and techniques so they can integrate them with the hard-earned skills of a long career.
I see senior managers who are constantly researching new ways of hiring, leading, and coaching their employees to better results.
When I was in my 20s, I used to hear about ‘age discrimination’ in the workplace and thought it was something imaginary. After all, who wouldn’t want someone with a 20-year track record over someone newer to the workforce? Now I know better. I talk to salespeople, and managers, in their 40s and upward who have been pushed out by youth movements (which sometimes are cost reductions), and have difficulty being hired.
Here’s the problem that I have: I don’t think, for a moment, that 70% of the sales reps in that industry, or any other industry, are untrainable (and I said so in the discussion). If I did, I’d probably get out of the sales training business.
What I do believe is that too many people render themselves untrainable by a simple refusal to update. If your evolution stopped in 2000, 2005, or 2010, you’re behind the curve, and you have a lot of ground to make up if you want to stay vital. That’s on YOU.
I do believe that one reason that many managers find more senior reps to be ‘untrainable’ is that they simply haven’t tried, or haven’t tried very hard. I didn’t get a chance to ask my follow-up question at the discussion: “How many of you have given a strong effort to train senior reps in new technology or skill – and failed?” I have a feeling that the number of those who have tried would be small, and the failures would be smaller still.
If you’re managing a ‘graying’ sales force, I think you owe it to yourself, and to them, to give them every opportunity to succeed in today’s technology and Internet driven sales environment before simply casting them aside (as the other consultant was advocating).
And finally, if you’re hiring salespeople, don’t overlook this demographic. I’ve helped my clients make hires in this space in the last five years, and some are setting records now.