Managing Older Salespeople

Whether by choice or necessity, many people today are staying in the workforce longer. There are a lot of folks (me included) who missed out on the early retirement, Freedom 55 craze that spread across North America. Many of us are now working on a Freedom 95 (or death, whichever comes first) retirement plan!

So whether it’s for love of work or economic necessity, the older salesperson is much more prevalent in the workforce today. These older salespeople present a challenge to younger sales managers. They’re also a handful for us older sales managers.

The Gaps
There is not only a generation gap between these two groups of people; in some cases it’s a generations gap. It’s not unusual these days to have a 65-year-old salesperson reporting to a 25-30 year old manager.

In addition to the age gap, there is also an experience gap, an attitude gap, and a maturity gap. Each of these gaps presents unique challenges and opportunities.

The Age Gap
Amongst other things, the age gap may highlight another challenge "” a difference in stamina and physical energy levels.

Managers can’t expect the more senior members of their sales teams to carry the same physical loads when it comes to carting stuff around, loading and unloading materials at trade shows, etc. The problem is that some of these older people are very proud and want to carry their share of the load. Let them do so; just try to make sure it isn’t the physical part. Find things for them to do while other younger, more physically fit, members of the team do the heavy stuff.

Mentally, older salespeople are just as able as their younger counterparts, but because they have a vast amount of knowledge in their mental storeroom (their brain), it takes them a bit longer to assimilate new information. Product knowledge and sales training sessions need to be properly paced to avoid overload. Don’t schedule 10- to 12-hour training days at your annual sales meetings. That drives everyone, young and old, into information overload (and eats into the evening drinking/socializing time as well). Train for quality, not quantity.

The Experience Gap
Older salespeople feel that they know it all and that younger sales managers haven’t much to offer.

About the worst thing a younger sales manager can do is try to impress the older salesperson with his vast knowledge because, compared to the seasoned salesperson, his knowledge is half-vast.

Rather than dazzle or impress, utilize. The older salesperson’s experience may help you find your way across the management minefield without getting blown up. Be confident enough in your own abilities to ask seasoned salespeople for their input or even advice. Don’t be intimidated by their years of experience. Treat them as a valued resource.

The Attitude Gap
Bad attitudes can exist on the part of both parties.

I’ve seen sales managers, whose title has gone to their head, become a backward boss. (Spell boss backwards and what do you get"”a double SOB!)

Then there’s the old-timer salesperson who resents being managed by a young twerp.

My advice for the sales manager is to learn how to lead, not manage, your salespeople. Be a resource to them. Be careful to not bulldoze over them when presenting ideas and don’t try to use intimidation as a management tool. Above all, be a good listener.

My advice for the salesperson is to show the maturity and leadership that your years of experience have given you. Remember, just because your manager is 20 or so years younger than you doesn’t mean he can’t offer new ways of doing things. Once you stop learning, you start aging"¦ real fast.

The Maturity Gap
I’d love to tell you that the older you get, the more mature you become. Don’t I wish!

Age doesn’t equate to maturity, but attitude does. We’ve all seen young people who come across as being much older and wiser than their years would indicate. And we’ve also seen older people who we’d like to say “grow up” to.

In my experience, the maturity gap usually happens because the salesperson has regressed into his/her second childhood, is getting close to retirement and doesn’t give a damn, or has an attitude problem.

If you’ve got a maturity gap, both people need to grow up. The more mature of the two needs to take the high road and offer assistance. Because the older salesperson is less likely to listen to the younger sales manager, this is a situation where outside assistance can make the difference. You may need an arbiter to get the relationship on track.

An Incredible Resource
Older salespeople can be an incredible resource. In addition to the experience and knowledge they bring to the table, they can act as mentors for younger salespeople. They also bring a sense of history to their companies or industries. Properly managed, they can be a valuable resource.

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