Customer-Focused Sales: Adapting to Generational Change

Selling to customers continues to become more complicated as technology and the influx of younger buyers force companies to implement new customer-focused strategies. Just as physical mail gave way to faxing, social media is now encroaching on email’s turf. Times are changing. Millennials (the 84 million people between ages 23 and 41) far exceed the 74 million Baby Boomers, and the latest generation, Generation Z, just graduated its first college class.

This changing generational landscape influences how people of all ages access information. People in their 60s and older often rely heavily on face-to-face and telephone communications, while people in their 40s and 50s are more apt to use email comfortably. Those younger than 40, where technology has been a crucial part of their lives, tend to favor texting and social media.

However, rather than assuming how each generation prefers to receive information, a better approach is to ask the person how and when he/she wants to receive information. In order to do that, you need to form a relationship.

The hardwood lumber industry is made up of people of all ages. Just as other industries are finding more and more millennials on the payroll, so are sawmills, insurance agencies, exporters, wholesalers, and flooring manufacturers. Learning how to reach this audience is key.

Companies that want to succeed in today’s sales climate need to place their message everywhere because customers desire to find their own solutions to today’s problems. People are no longer responding to sales calls where someone presents their brochures and website, telling the customer what they want. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have brochures and websites, you most certainly should. Customers want to find answers to their problems, and your company should be represented everywhere they may look.  The best sales approach today is to avoid pitching your product or service, and instead focus on developing a relationship with the prospective customer.

Companies that find the right words to convey they understand their customers will generate the most sales. Even face-to-face meetings and telephone calls are changing, as customers want to feel that salespeople understand them, their problems, and have solutions to make life easier. Buyers must know, like, and trust the companies from whom they buy goods and services.

One way to develop trust is to use language that matches what customers are saying and thinking. This approach ensures greater relevance in their search for solutions. From websites to social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, and Instagram (which each appeal to a specific audience), companies must present compelling information using the language its audience is using.

Successful marketing sales require moving from your company’s issues to your customer’s concerns. When these two areas align, you have a common interest. This common interest can fuel additional discussion, but ultimately, successful companies need to effectively insert their message, using their customer’s words, into the customer’s issues. When this process works, buyers sell themselves, powered by emotions.

Buyers want to relate to the brands they buy from, so marketing messages and sales messages have to embed their buyer’s language and ideas into every message they deliver.

The typical buying cycle now involves five steps:

  1. A need or desire
  2. Finding options
  3. Exploring those options
  4. Engaging with one or more brands
  5. Forgetting or buying

This cycle repeats again and again.

Companies need to be on as many platforms as feasible – from social media to YouTube, from webinars and podcasts to e-books, to videos and guest blogs, direct mail and conferences.  You need to be wherever and whenever buyers are looking to solve a problem. When they are finally ready to buy, let them discover you:  a company that has a solution to their problem.

Customers no longer want to be sold. The traditional sales approach won’t work well, especially with younger buyers; millennials have more college graduates than any prior generations. They know how to research, and they are skeptical of companies that don’t support their need to investigate; hence, the need for information to be wherever they choose to look for it.

Among the more overlooked areas to find prospective customers are:

  • LinkedIn (business to business)
  • LinkedIn Groups (highly focused B-to-B)
  • Facebook (consumers, some B-to-B, but with a very social focus)
  • Facebook Groups (highly targeted social groups)
  • Pinterest (consumers, mostly women)
  • Instagram (consumers, younger)


Pinterest is often overlooked in the hardwood industry, with many businesses writing it off as nonsense. However, Pinterest is a tremendous marketing tool for Associate Members of NHLA.  When people are looking for inspiration on remodeling their home or building a new home, they turn to Pinterest to find ideas for cabinets, furniture, flooring, and molding. Each of these sectors of the hardwood industry can greatly benefit from pictures highlighting their products, with links to their website.  Instagram works in a similar way.

Social media groups are highly targeted to a specific audience.  If you can’t find a social media group that fits your needs, you can create one yourself and invite industry influencers. Others will follow.  If you do create your own, make sure you make frequent posts encouraging members to share advice, solutions, and other ideas. Engagement is the key.

A majority of websites in the hardwood lumber industry look like websites did in the 2000s – similar to a brochure on the Internet.  Today, websites should be created in a problem/solution style, with active images showing the target buyers, not just machinery or warehouses. It’s important that people visiting your site see themselves using your products.  Because the majority of Internet searches occur on smartphones and tablets, websites that are more than three years old are most likely not presenting information in an appealing format.

Successful salespeople must ask more questions about a potential customer’s situation, hoping not just to uncover the real issues, but also to allow them to think more about the problem and their need for a solution. In a perfect world, a salesperson asking thoughtful questions about the situation would create a buyer begging for details about the solution and its pricing.

Companies should endeavor to understand the core need they are addressing for their clients. For instance, a sawmill isn’t just selling lumber. It is providing customers with a safe, environmentally friendly solution for their homes – from furnishings to cabinets to flooring.  Digging even deeper into the real emotion driving the sale, the company is providing safety and quality. The fear at the base of this product is fear of being unsafe or cheap.

Knowing the core fear behind a product or can inform the marketing and sales messaging, not to mention the questions a salesperson might ask a prospective customer.

Among the most important keys to reaching the broadest number of potential customers is to remember: all marketing and sales have to be about them, not the company. Companies should feel as if potential customers are always looking at them. And most importantly, they need to remember that sales today, probably more than ever, requires more time and effort because buyers have so many options and opportunities.

The payoff for this hard work comes when companies can build strong, long-term relationships with their buyers. Those relationships can withstand the pressure of a competitor offering a lower price.


Bob Graham is the CEO of Breakthrough Solutions, a Baltimore-based company that coaches, trains and speaks on interpersonal skills, including sales strategies and dealing with millennials, presented this information at the National Hardwood Lumber Association Convention in October. He can be reached at [email protected] and at