Mind the Gap: Helping Sales Connect with Different Generations of IT Buyers

14 Sep

Mind the Gap: Helping Sales Connect with Different Generations of IT Buyers

By Thomas Barrieau
Director, Sales Enablement Practice

A vital part of modern sales enablement is equipping sales professionals with an understanding of different buyer groups and what they expect from sales conversations. Knowing your audience has always been critical to successful selling, but today’s smaller selling windows and hyper educated buyers[1] make meeting this challenge harder than ever. As such, education about key buyer roles and how market context affects the buyer’s journey is an important addition to any company’s sales enablement program.

Many companies, especially those with industry-specific solutions, now include vertical market training and call planning materials that specifically address the needs and personas of various industries in their sales enablement programs. Another variable that often plays an important role in selling strategy is company size. In addition to shaping the budget context, company size is often a predictor of technical maturity—an important factor that can inform sales enablement needs for the sales team. One demographic that hasn’t been well examined in the context of the IT buyer is age.

To better understand generational impact on the purchasing process, IDC included age as a variable in our annual IT Buyer survey. Respondents were divided into three age cohorts:

  1. Millennials (age 19 – 36)
  2. Generation X (age 37 to 52)
  3. Baby Boomers (age 53 to 72)

In this post, we’ll look at how each group responded to questions of relevance to sales enablement professionals. From these responses, we can learn the communications preferences of different generations so that sales and marketing organizations can tune their communication strategy to be effective with different age cohorts.

Our first finding was that everyone in today’s IT buyer landscape expects a lot from sales (see Figure 1). In response to a question asking respondents to rate the importance of various salesperson attributes, all age groups placed a very high value on knowing the customer, being able to inform and educate buyers, and being able to offer insights that can assist their purchase process.


Similarly, we found that use of customer-centric data in developing sales and marketing strategy is valued by all age groups. When asked, “How important is it that a vendor uses knowledge about you and your company to improve the relevancy of the information provided by marketing and sales people?”, 75% of ALL buyers ranked this competency a Level 4 or 5. Looking at specific information attributes, we found that all groups value information that is focused on the buyer’s success, efficiency, and relevance to their situation (see Figure 2).

graph 2

These findings underscore the need for strong sales enablement, particularly around market and buyer education.

When we looked at what types of information sources influence the buyer at different stages of their journey, we did find difference based on age cohort. For Millennials, sales was the least important information source across all purchase process stages, with respondents indicating a distinct preference for digital sources early in their journey and direct experience with the product during the purchase stage (see Figure 3).

graph 4

Conversely, Baby Boomers preferred to get their information from sales over digital sources throughout their purchase process (see Figure 4).

graph 5

Finally, we again saw a trend shaped by age when we asked respondents, “How willing are you to switch vendors, even if you like their solution, if you are dissatisfied with the vendor’s marketing and sales?”. Younger buyers expressed a greater willingness to change vendors (see Figure 5).

graph 6

This last finding sets an important context for us to evaluate generational differences in the purchase process. While the Baby Boomers who make up today’s executive ranks are a relatively loyal lot, younger buyers are more willing to switch vendors if they are unhappy with their sales and marketing. The younger they are, the more willing they are to switch.

Factor in that Millennials value digital sources of information over sales engagement to inform their purchase process and it’s clear that a different approach is required for different generations. While Baby Boomers may be happy with early and relatively extensive sales engagement, younger buyers are better served with a rich, digital dialog that allows them to self-educate. When these younger buyers do engage with sales, they will be seeking conversations that are efficient and offer insights not easily obtained through digital exploration. As such, sales enablement professionals will need to harvest whatever buyer knowledge can be gained from upstream lead nurturing campaigns to help inform salespeople where and how they can best pick up the conversation when they are handed leads.

Though they value engagement with sales more as they approach a purchase decision, Millennials prefer digital information sources throughout their journey. As such, salespeople would be well advised to facilitate continued digital exploration by providing links that connect these buyers to hard-to-find content that can enhance their learning process.

When salespeople do bring deeper insights into their conversations, it’s preferable that they be validated by third-party research. In fact, 75% of respondents rated external validation as an important or very important information attribute. This demand for highly relevant and trustworthy information is shared by all age cohorts, and it points toward the value of programs that tune content delivery to the preferences and needs of specific audiences, such as Account-Based Marketing and Lead Nurturing. A higher reliance on third parties also shows itself in Millennials’ valuing Peers and Influencers over Sales for all stages of their journey. This preference is a strong indication that younger buyers may be more responsive to referral selling as a means of validating vendor claims.

When engaging with younger buyers, job one for sales is to gain trust and establish value by bringing hard-to-find information to the table. Our research suggests that these buyers are saying, “Don’t give me the company line—I can get that online; give me something more that I can really trust.” Noting these generational differences is important, because today’s younger buyers will be tomorrow’s senior executives and holders of budgetary control. As sales enablement professionals, it’s our job to understand these differences and help salespeople adapt and prepare for a new buyer landscape.

[1] For more information, see my article on “The Evolution of the Funnel and Sales Enablement in a Post-Funnel World” 

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