11 Tips for Selling to Millennials

Finding it a challenge to earn business from younger buyers? Here’s how you can break through and win over Gen Y.

Some call them lazy, irreverent, spoiled and narcissistic – you might, too. These aren’t the words you’d use to describe your ideal customer, and yet this much-discussed and maybe misunderstood group – otherwise known as millennials – may well hold the key to your future success in sales.

Consider the mounting evidence: Millennials now make up the largest generational block in the U.S. and hold about $1.3 trillion in annual buying power. By 2020, they’ll comprise 50% of the U.S. workforce. Increasingly, studies show they also hold more influence on B2B purchases. Simply put, ignoring the sales opportunities millennials afford is a very bad idea.

“There are 80 million of them, and 80 million customers cannot be wrong,” says Ann Fishman, founder of consultancy Generational Targeted Marketing. “You want to go after them and you want to make them happy.”

Sara Webb, owner of distributor InTandem Promotions (asi/231285), is convinced the kind of marketing that worked with baby boomers and even Gen Xers won’t have the same effect on millennials. “They are trendsetters and influencers, and companies are struggling to regroup in how they are selling to them,” she says. “Traditional advertising just has not captured their attention.”

If marketers are struggling to connect with millennials, it stands to reason that you might be as well. So what’s the secret? Where’s the answer? How can salespeople start winning over more millennials and closing deals? Here are 11 tips for finding success.

1. Pitch Brands
Of course, all clients want the best bang for their buck. But for millennials, Fishman says this is truer than ever. “They’re burdened with student debts. They’re having trouble getting jobs. They like things of quality, but they can’t afford things of quality,” she says.

However, millennials have found a way around this quandary. “They go to discount places. They shop the sales. They go on eBay and RealReal,” Fishman says. “So, if you can give them something they sincerely want at a good value and a high quality, that’s very appealing.”

In the ad specialty industry, if end-buyers are trying to reach millennial customers, this means reps should suggest name-brand items first – especially in the electronics and apparel categories.

“Millennials are brand-loyal, and creating synergies between promotional products to enhance their brand as well as a brand name they believe in creates very successful campaigns,” says Webb. “Under Armour and Patagonia are just a couple of brands that InTandem leverages when selling to this generation.”

2. Deliver on Promises
As a rep, you must do everything you say you’re going to do, Fishman believes, or your relationship with millennials will be over before it really begins.

“Building trust is critical because these millennials have been marketed to since they were babies. They know more tricks than Madison Avenue does,” she says. “The best way to build trust is to be honest, be straightforward and follow through on what you tell them.”

3. Start Face-to-Face
Sure, millennials like to use technology like text messaging and social media in order to stay in touch. But Morley Winograd, co-author of Millennial Momentum: How A New Generation Is Remaking America, believes those tools aren’t the best way to begin a relationship with Gen Y.

“In-person communication is absolutely best, no matter what you read about millennials’ interest in conducting relationships through social media, texting, whatever. They don’t start relationships and build them that way,” he says.

Remember, even if in-person isn’t possible, face-to-face is still an option. “It could be video conferencing, FaceTime, Skype, but it has to be a personal interaction,” Winograd says. “You very much have to put a face and a personality to the name. You have to have something that proves you’re interested in them, that you have a unique attribute they find valuable.”

4. Be Authentic & Direct

Research shows millennials greatly value the opinions of people they know. In fact, an IBM study showed 36% of millennials weigh the opinions of family and friends before buying a product.

“You have to understand, they trust their friends more than they trust you as reps,” Fishman says. “Whatever you tell them, they’re going to send a text to a friend. Everything you say, they’re going to text it to someone.”

The IBM study showed that a plurality of millennials (35%) listed “ease of doing business” as their top priority, a higher percentage than any other generation. Fishman says Lexus has taken notice of this trend and is training its sales reps to become less focused on selling and more focused on simply helping millennials get in, find what they want and get out.

“Millennials don’t really want to sit there and talk to a salesperson. They want to text their friends and say, ‘Do I want the blue or the red one? Should I get automatic or should I get stick shift?’ They’re not running through the salespeople much anymore,” she says.

Webb says millennials’ desire for simplicity and authenticity also includes the products themselves. “Millennials are looking for products that are natural, not made up of chemicals and preservatives. You’re seeing major brands making strong inroads and gaining market growth with this generation by changing their ingredients and their product offering,” she says.

There are several examples of this trend. Kraft’s macaroni and cheese recently removed artificial colors and garnered praise. Hershey’s has cut out artificial coloring in its chocolate and just saw a strong increase in sales. Dove witnessed a tremendous bump in revenues from its real beauty campaign. Panera is even changing up its menu to ensure natural ingredients. “All of these indicate that the millennials are not interested in hype,” Webb says.

5. Provide Something For Free

Winograd says offering something at no cost to millennial decision-makers – even something intangible – will go a long way toward building trust.

“Whether it’s advice or insight, or something you can do that is of value but doesn’t cost them anything, that’s what you’re really trying to accomplish in order to start the relationship,” he says.

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6. Keep Up With Tech Trends

Millennials are more tech-savvy than any other generation, so you have to speak their language. Webb keeps up with these trends on a weekly basis in order to remain competitive.

“Because the technology and how they are using it is constantly changing, they are seeking new products that can be used for various applications,” she says. “Millennials use between two and three mobile devices on a daily basis and we’re expecting that to increase at a significant rate with wearable devices in the coming years.”

Webb says InTandem monitors buying patterns and retail-driven trends, promoting to Gen Y through posts that encourage feedback. This creates a higher confidence with the products and a history of success in the market.

What kinds of promotional items are millennials actually using right now? Those that combine technology with practicality. “Leed’s (asi/66887) has a water bottle that contains a Bluetooth speaker that we receive a number of oohs and ahhs over,” Webb says.

Winograd says offering millennials products that are compatible with the technology they already own is preferable to a new, standalone gadget that they may quickly discard. “You’d be much better off with a gadget that allows them to take their smartphone and plug it into a sound system, rather than trying to create a sound system,” he says.

7. Don’t Waste Their Time

Millennials have grown up in an age of speed and convenience. That’s why Gillian Hammond, account manager for Brand Fuel (asi/145025), says sales reps must get straight to the point.

“In the past, more time was spent hemming and hawing – ordering three samples to compare and requesting three price quotes before making a decision. In the current climate, there isn’t time for that nonsense,” she says. “The mantra is: Get in, get it done, and move on to the next project.”

8. Go for Functional

Hammond also says millennials aren’t the knick-knack-loving types.

“Above all, products must be functional. If something isn’t useful, it will only get lost in the commotion of this input-driven world,” she says. “I use the filter: Is this something someone would touch every day? If yes, then it will grab a millennial’s attention.”

And since millennials are growing up – the oldest ones are now 35 years old – Winograd says they’re focused more on what’s useful. “You have to look at the kinds of things that 30-year-olds that are forming families and settling down are interested in: appliances, things to put in the house – all of those kinds of more young-adult or adult things that, three or four years ago, might not have been as prevalent among millennials,” he says.

9. Treat Them Equally

It’s important for sales reps to remember that the millennial generation is the equality generation, Fishman says. “You have to realize that men and women are equal, color is equal, sexual preference is equal,” she says. “This generation is an equalizing generation, and so you have to be an equalizer, as well.”

Specifically, Fishman says the 40 million millennial women in the U.S. are “living the feminist movement’s goals” and must be approached with that in mind.

“They have choices. They are in the military. They can be stay-at-home mothers. They can be the primary breadwinner,” she says.

Fishman says millennial women also tend to be strong and athletic – and they love personalized gear. “They participate in sports – they don’t just watch them – so baseball caps that are attractive are a really good deal,” she says. “If you have the person’s name on it and your logo is tiny and toward the back, that’s a really nice thing.”

If you make them happy, Fishman says millennials will do your PR for you in the form of selfies and social media. Indeed, IBM’s study revealed 69% of millennials will post a positive comment about your brand on social media if you leave them satisfied.

“Millennials are the tell-all generation. If you please one millennial, you can push that out to at least 25 people because one happy millennial is going to tell her BFFs, her acquaintances and everybody else who will listen,” Fishman says. “Every interaction with a millennial is critical because they spread the word. They’re waiting to be asked to help promote your products.”

10. Respond Quickly

Fishman says millennials expect prompt responses to queries – and their definition of prompt is different compared to that of other generations.

“You have to understand: They expect you to check your phone every 15 minutes at least, and if they send you a message, you better do a turnaround quickly,” she says. “It used to be two days, and then it was one day, and then it was a couple hours. Now, I get fussed at if they don’t get a return in about 15 minutes.”

11. Give Back

Millennials are an extremely socially conscious generation, which means if you’re not promoting a cause, you might as well not exist to them.

“Millennials expect brands to give back. They’re tired of corporate greed and look to brands who care about giving to people in need,” Webb says. “Sharing the love is another strategy that has proven successful with this generation.”

In honor of industry icon Janelle Nevins, Webb says a portion of InTandem’s profits during the month of March go to the Orbit Village Project, which provides educational and medical needs to children in Kenya.

“It’s a charity organization that she was very close with, but it is our way of remembering a truly amazing lady,” Webb says. “We post about it and share stories of her to keep her memory alive. It humanizes us as an organization and it is tied back to who we are.”

Fishman says environmental causes are a big hit with millennials, such as Starbucks’ promotion in which, for every bag of coffee purchased in 2016, it will plant a coffee tree for a poor farmer. “Is it going to get them to buy that coffee? Doubtful. But they feel good about spending $5 at Starbucks,” Fishman says. “Millennials have changed the face of corporate America because every corporation now has a cause. So make sure that you have a cause.”

Shane Dale is an AZ-based freelance writer.