Not Cut From the Same Cloth: What You Need To Engage Millennials in Sales/Customer Service Roles

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The retail industry employs around 14.4 million people in the US and retail consumption represents ~66% of GDP. Millennials, with a 35% underemployment rate, find themselves often in sales roles, in retail as well as other customer-facing, repetitive work roles such as call center work. But are Millennials engaged in these jobs?

The retail industry has the highest rate of employee turnover of all industries at ~30%. While this has always been a high turnover industry, Millennials bring a new set of challenges. Consider some of the top factors Millennials are most often looking for in a workplace and career:

  • Meaningful, impactful work: Millennials are excited by organizations with deep values, connected to more than just profit, and work plans that clearly show contribution towards organization goals. The retail sector has always struggled with providing a sense of purpose beyond corporate profitability.
  • Workplace Flexibility: Millennials are used to working anywhere, anytime. They are results-focused vs. process-focused and may want to use their own approach vs. a company approach. They are also used to immediate recognition. This may play in the favor of sales careers, where commission based jobs provide strong incentive.
  • Innovation and Technology Usage: Millennials have less understanding of the need for face-to-face purchase and a different idea of customer service. They also expect to be able to use technology rather than traditional sales approach, leading to a different level of communication skills. As consumer purchasing behavior changes, the employees are changing as well.


How do careers that involve repetitive work, commission-based reward systems, face-to-face or polished communication fare with the Millennials? I invited Bill Latta, President of Focus On Performance, LLC, a sales training company, and 30+ year veteran of the sales industry to give us his thoughts on how to engage and motivate Millennials in sales careers.

From Bill Latta - President, Focus On Performance:

Careers which require person-to-person communication, whether face-to-face, via telephone, or (now) electronic communication such as the on-demand “chat” option for many websites have presented challenges to maintaining satisfactory employee retention for many, many years.   Please note that these challenges to employee retention are not new, but seem more pronounced with the Millennial generation.

The nature of this work, which is often used as entry-level for many companies, can be repetitive, confining, inflexible, not seen as offering an opportunity for growth (personally or professionally), offers little connectivity to the “greater good” of the company or of society, and as perhaps not taking advantage of the “latest” in technology.  The uncertainty of an incentive-based (commission in whole or part) compensation plan adds additional complexity.

How, then, can a company engage Millennials in a way that would encourage them to stay with their company (the entry level position) beyond the first few months, or even the first few years?  Consider these three strategies.

Strategy 1: Reduce the Disillusionment Probability

First, make sure that the “right” person is being hired for the job.

Use of selection tools such as Strengths Finder, DISC, etc. are very helpful in supplementing the interview process when selecting the right “match” for the job.  For example, look at how the attributes for an outside sales person and a call center customer service person would differ.

Outside Sales

Call Center Customer Service

Strengths Finder






Strengths Finder















Even when selecting the “right person” for the position, make sure that the Millennial completely understands and accepts the nature and requirements of the job for which they are being hired…the good, the bad and the ugly.

In a call center environment, the employee must sit at a workstation for 7-8 hours a day with one 15-minute break and 45 minutes for lunch… “the ugly.”

On the “good” side, however, explain how the call center job contributes to the overall profitability of the company by influencing customer service scores and customer satisfaction.

The hiring discussion should include specifics on:

  • How “success” is defined - The Millennial wants clear definition on how they will be graded or judged.  They want to know what is expected and what it takes to “succeed” in this position.
  • How the job contributes to the department/company’s overall success - The Millennial wants to know that he/she is “making a difference” or contributing to the “greater good.”  No matter how menial the job, help them understand how the job fits in with the overall success of the company.
  • If/whether the job provides an opportunity for personal/professional growth - Be very frank about timing of pay raises, promotions, etc. and what the Millennial can do to influence (speed up) the progression.  If, perchance, there is little opportunity for vertical growth in the department, say so.  But be sure to explain how the Millennial can prepare themselves for other opportunities within the company.


The on-the-job surprises encountered by the new hire must be eliminated. The company should never hear, “Gee, I didn’t know it would be like this.”  Or, “this job isn’t what I thought it would be.”  If disillusionment surfaces early on, the odds of the Millennial remaining with the company for any appreciable time is greatly reduced.

 Strategy 2: Focused Training/Guidance

Second, the millennial should receive focused training/guidance during the first days, weeks and even months of employment.  Although one would say this is required for any new employee, former generations were more content to “figure it out” if necessary.  Not so the Millennial.  They want to be shown EXACTLY how to be successful in their new job/career.

For example, if the Millennial is entering a salary + commission position, with the emphasis on the up side commissioned earnings, comprehensive training up front is critical on how to achieve upside commission earning goals.  Focused on-line learning  (product/service training) supported by classroom training (how to sell the product/service) is a great combination for Millennials.  It gives them an opportunity for self-paced learning supplemented by an opportunity for questions/answers/rehearsed scenarios, etc.  Beyond the basics, the curriculum should include regular follow-up sessions (on-line, teleconference or in person) to give the Millennial continued support and confidence.

Regular guidance and support for the incentive-paid Millennial is critical.  For the first few weeks, daily contact with the leader is critical, both for critique/training and for feedback on “how I am doing.”  Contact can be by phone or e-mail, but an in-person chat is far-and-away the most effective.  The Leader must be focused on the Millennial during these sessions…no distractions.  The Leader must demonstrate that they truly care about the Millennial’s progress. These interactions should continue monthly at a bare minimum or based on the frequency requested by the Millennial.

Strategy 3: Career Development and Retention

The definition of “career” is different between Millennials and the older generations, especially Boomers.  Boomers see career as (1) same company with many (progressive) jobs or (2) same occupation with different companies, hopefully with increasing responsibility as companies are changed.

The Millennial is wired for the short term, based on what they have seen: decreasing company loyalty to employees, fast-paced innovation and growth, and an uncertain long term future. They are a generation of e-mail, instant messaging, information at the fingertips, continually evolving (better) ways to accomplish tasks, etc.  Theirs is a world of continual change, and they are very comfortable with that.  A career to the Millennial is defined as achieving “personal and professional growth,” defined at an individual level.  And that growth, or an opportunity for growth must be explained during the interview process and demonstrated on the job.

The Millennial will eagerly offer suggestions on ways to do the job better/quicker/more efficiently.  Listen to them.  Embrace their ideas whenever possible.  Give them an opportunity to contribute on short term committees/task forces focused on solving a specific problem.

Consider for a moment the Millennial who is confined to a call center workstation 7 hours a day, which gets “old” quickly, even if they do understand their contribution to the “greater good.”  Find a way to get this person involved in an assignment, task force, committee, etc. to improve processes, streamline procedures, etc.  Explain how this will prepare the Millennial for future opportunities within the company.

Take advantage of what the Millennial has to offer.  Are their ideas, thoughts and suggestions 100% “spot on?”  Rarely.  The 10% of the time that their ideas can be used, however, not only improve the company, but it builds loyalty for the Millennial.  He/She IS making a difference!

 Thank you Bill for contributing your thoughts on Millennials in the Sales/Customer Service Industry. These strategies can also be applied to other repetitive task type roles or those in which strict procedures must be followed as they have many of the same challenges in engaging Millennials.

Bill has over 36 years experience in sales, sales management, marketing and customer service, spending 19 years with MetLife in a variety of positions from agent to Territory Vice President before beginning an 18 year career with AAA where he had executive oversite of a variety of departments all supporting AAA Membership acquisition, retention and service, ending his career as the Senior Vice President, Motor Club of The Auto Club Group, AAA’s second largest club.  He formed Focus On Performance in September 2013 to use his expertise to help professionals in sales, sales management and customer service close gaps between actual and desired results. He can be reached at or 813-728-2671.

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