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My biggest customer was a hippie. Is yours a millennial? Add to ...

In early March, NBC Nightly News ran a segment called: By the numbers: ‘Who are the Millennials?’ based on a report by Pew Research Center. What struck me most were the similarities to other generational groups, including the baby boomers and hippies. I also started thinking of the implications on business-to-business (B2B) selling and buying. As a 1957 Cynic – with my go-to song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” – I witnessed hippies slowly (but surely) transform into all the things they railed against as they listened to “My Generation” during the summer of love.

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The report highlighted some key differences, especially as they relates to technology and media consumption; hippies guarded their personal privacy, while millennials are happy to trade it for a round of Angry Birds. Yet many millennials’ attributes were a function of age, and will change as they grow older. Hippies are prime examples of this. I don’t necessarily believe that hippies ‘sold out’ as much as they ‘grew up’ and began to deal with new realities including kids, mortgages, work, or running companies.

Our lives are shaped by the realities and limitations of our surroundings. I just read Theodore H. White’s The Making Of The President series, to see how even the most idealist candidate is quickly cut down to size by the office, just as the most freedom-loving hippie was eventually shaped by his or her office, be that procurement manager or vice president.

Over the last year or so, there has been numerous articles proclaiming how selling has changed; more specifically, that selling to millennials, or conversely the ‘millennial as a buyer,’ is and will be a different that selling to previous generations. This is absolutely true for consumer buyers, but is not for B2B.

My first sales manager was a hippie, and every bit ‘The Man’ whom he and his ‘bros’ [had once] protested against. As were many of the buyers I sold to, when it came to buying, forget the Sgt. Pepper’s poster on the wall. They were much more like their fathers than John Lennon. It was clear from the report that many millennial attributes will change as this generation ages, including how they behave and buy when they have profit and loss accountability or for success of their company.

It’s easy to understand why many people want to extend social tools on the consumer experience to B2B, especially given the millennials’ appetite for all things social. But B2B sellers are just another consumer group, susceptible to the same marketing ploys as any other consumer groups. And it’s why we should be a little suspicious of all the talk around this generation being different.

There’s no denying that tools and apps available today change the mechanics of how people sell and buyers’ access to information. These new devices certainly have a positive impact on how we sell, but they don’t change why people buy, be they millennials or any other demographic. B2B selling is about how we can help B2B buyers achieve their economic objectives, which in turn are shaped by their ‘office.’ To confuse tangible economic outcome with the means of delivery is risky, and frankly, no different than making the same mistakes others have made in the past. Good selling is not about the tools, or latest gadgets. A fool with a tool is still a fool.

Being a 1957 Cynic, I’m sensitive to the world ‘different,’ and every time I’m told things are different, I remember all the prior ‘differents’ I’ve encountered: the October 1987 market slide, the S&L crisis, the Dotcom boom and bust, the housing bubble of the mid-2000s, the subprime crisis, subsequent market meltdown and run up that follows. All different.

I bet Theodore White turned over when we were told Obama was going to be different. My hippie customers were not different, nor is your Gen X. Do you really think the millennial buyer will be?

Tibor Shanto is a principal at Renbor Sales Solutions Inc. He can be reached at tibor.shanto@sellbetter.ca. His column appears once a month on the Report on Small Business

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