At a few of the recent NAW Sales Roundtables, a hot topic emerged around the generational shifts going on in many distribution industries. Many companies are approaching a wave where 20, 30 or even 40 percent of their sales teams will be reaching retirement age in the coming years. 

While these numbers are often expressed in fear, uncertainty or doubt, the reality is that this moment presents a key opportunity for distributors to build their sales forces for the future. 

One of the biggest questions distributors have around navigating this shift is around attracting and selecting the next generation of sales talent. How will we find enough good candidates? How will we know we’re selecting the right ones? The stakes are high, so it’s critical to get this right. In this article, I’ll tackle these challenges and hopefully provide some perspectives that can be helpful as you look to the future of your sales team. 

The Opportunities in the Generational Shift

When I’ve discussed this topic with companies who have successfully powered through a retirement wave, I hear a few common reasons why this transition can actually prove to be a strong positive. 

First, numerous distributors have used a generational transition as an opportunity to realign sales roles, territories, and even sales compensation. A timely topic in its own right, role realignment in particular has been front-of-mind as buyer preferences have changed and virtual technology has blurred geographic boundaries. Many distributors are using these retirements as an opportunity to replace outside roles with inside roles, and/or split larger territories into smaller territories more configured for growth.

Beyond realignments and process changes, companies also can seize this opportunity to make sales more of a system and less of a “wild-west” activity. Many longstanding distributorships have battled an outside sales culture where reps, heavily commissioned, see themselves more as independent business owners rather than members of a team. This type of culture proves difficult when companies work to implement new processes, customer service models, and even sales technology. 

By leaning into the next generation of sales talent, you can formalize your sales function and make it systemic, repeatable, and scalable. Younger generations want structure, defined processes, and tech that supports them… all things that many companies want their sales teams to adopt so that they can find consistency and not count on “sales superstars” executing well in pockets of the company.

Attracting Next-Gen Sales Talent

Hiring the next generation of top salespeople may require different recruiting and candidate selection processes than what you’ve historically used. The traditional talent pool has no doubt changed, and thinned out in some geographies, and the skill sets required to thrive in today’s marketplace are notably different than what was required before.

When it comes to attracting talent, it must be noted that many of today’s strongest early-career sales candidates may not look to wholesale distribution as a natural industry for them. As some in the industry say, it isn’t known to be sexy

To attract some of the best Millennial and Gen-Z sales talent, it’s worthwhile to give your sales roles a marketing overhaul. Find what is appealing and innovative about your sales roles and your company and lean into it hard. There are great sales candidates out there that have had less-than-desirable experiences in the “sexy” tech and SaaS spaces who might just be a perfect mutual fit with your company.

If you’ve just raised an eyebrow at the idea of hiring somebody who doesn’t have years of experience in your industry, you probably aren’t alone. Many distributors have required or preferred some level of product or technical expertise in their sales roles. However, in today’s talent marketplace, you may be reducing your eligible candidates to near-zero levels by doing so. 

Cast a wider net and draw in high-potential sales pros who have the right mindsets and drive, then equip them with the tools and knowledge to succeed in selling your specific product lines to your specific customers. Look for candidate pools where salespeople have been successful selling in similar sales cycles, managing similar territory sizes, and even selling to similar decision makers. You’ll find that there are great candidates out there particularly in this moment when great salespeople from other industries have been able to work remotely for the past few years and may already be living in your company’s geographic footprint.

Selecting Top Sales Candidates

If your company is planning for a period of retire-and-hire turnover, you know the importance of getting hiring decisions right. Unfortunately, this is an area where many distributors have historically struggled. Sales managers have earned their role by being good salespeople rather than good leaders, and then they tend to hire reps with similar personality traits as themselves, regardless of whether those traits correlate to sales success. To successfully hire best-fit, next-gen sales talent, you must break this pattern.

Hiring decisions can’t rely on resumes and interviews alone, as many companies have discovered the hard way. Both are critical tools in candidate evaluation, but both also have blind spots. 

To correct for these blind spots, consider utilizing a sales competency assessment that objectively evaluates candidates on their professional drive, mindsets, and sales skills. A well-rounded sales assessment like this can give you key data points that corroborate what’s in the resume and provide targeted questions to use in your interview process. Doing so will ensure that you’re diving into the most critical areas of concern rather than asking one-size-fits-all questions.

The right sales assessment, alongside a stringent resume review process that includes speaking to references, as well as a carefully planned interview process, will give you the best chances of selecting the right candidate to help you grow your business in the years to come.

Making Your Future Sales Team a True Sales Force

Retirements, role restructuring, and changing buyer preferences are throwing wrenches at several longstanding distribution sales traditions. While moments like these can produce uncertainty, they also provide opportunities to re-configure your sales team to power your growth now and into the future.

Whether you’re facing a retirement wave or similar hurdle, consider what needs to be different about the makeup of your sales team today.

Don’t fear the younger generations; they have strengths of their own and are quite aligned with the next generation of buyers in your customer base. Expand your role profile to consider great sellers who may not be experts in your industry. Finally, be certain that your selection and hiring processes are capable of sifting through the average candidates to provide you with top talent.

Doug Wyatt, VP, Sales & Marketing of SPARXiQ

Doug Wyatt has 15 years’ experience supporting companies in distribution in improving their sales results. He currently leads Sales and Marketing at SPARXiQ, a leading analytics and sales training provider supporting wholesale distributors.