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Blog: Who Says You Can’t Teach Old Dogs New Tricks?

By Bridget McCrea

Technology tends to come pretty naturally for Generation X and Millennial sales reps. Introduced to computers at a young age and then brought into the “cell phone” age without much fuss, these reps are quick to pick up and test out new devices and gadgets. They like to play around with software and mobile applications and – with some exceptions, of course – as a whole enjoy using technology to work smarter, better, and faster.

Inch up just a few notches on the age scale, however, and the disconnect between the technology haves and have-nots widens significantly. Baby Boomers (currently aged 49-67) who didn’t teach themselves to use technology and/or go out of their way to learn from a third party, for example, may struggle when new innovations and tools are thrown at them. According to the Pew Research Center, roughly 53 percent of Americans aged 65+ use the Internet, compared to 74 percent for those aged 50 to 64, and nearly 100 percent for those aged 49 or younger.

The good news is that older generations are making steady advances on the technology front. Pew reports that one-third of Internet users age 65 and older use social networking sites such as Facebook, and 18 percent do so on a typical day. Looking at gadget ownership, Pew found that a growing share of seniors owns a cell phone. Some 69 percent of adults ages 65 and older currently report that they have a mobile phone, up from 57 percent in 2010. Even among those currently age 76 and older, 56 percent report owning a cell phone of some kind, up from 47 percent of this generation in 2010.

Teaching the Golden Generation
Chuck Underwood, founder and principal at The Generational Imperative, Inc., in Miamisburg, Oh., says electrical distributors should play close attention to the inroads that their veteran sales reps are making on the technology front – and the value that these seasoned individuals bring to their employers.

“The Baby Boomer generation is, and will continue to be, the ‘Golden Generation,’ in the American workplace,” says Underwood, author of The Generational Imperative:  Understanding Generational Differences In The Workplace, Marketplace, And Living Room. “They’ve been harder workers, more loyal, more team-oriented, more willing to work the extra hours and go the extra mile, and more concerned about the entire organization than younger GenX (aged 32 to 48) and Millennials (aged 18 to 31).”

That said, Underwood acknowledges the fact that the two generations following the Baby Boomers caught the technology revolution “just right,” and as a result, benefitted from formal classroom instruction in computers and technology use. “These two generations are quick with technology and learn it easily, while many Boomers missed out on these early opportunities.”

As a result, older generations were forced to learn technology on the fly. Many are self-taught, Underwood points out, and only know how to get from Point A to Point Z with a given piece of equipment or software. “They don’t always know why,” he explains, “or the logic behind it.”

Closing that gap isn’t easy for sales managers who expect to be able to hand out iPads, introduce a new mobile app, or roll out a new customer relationship management (CRM) system to a roomful of willing and eager users. It takes patience, says Underwood, and a willingness to answer myriad questions not only about how to use the device or software, but also why the sales reps are being asked to use it. 

Why are We Doing This?
A dose of empathy can be extremely effective in helping older sales reps embrace technology and use it in their day-to-day routines. “Managers and trainers must understand how embarrassed this unique, career-driven generation is,” says Underwood, “and the fact that that technology is about the only component of their careers that they haven’t easily mastered.”

Fear of asking dumb questions, for example, can set a Baby Boomer back when it comes to using a new software program to track and report on new prospect development. “Instructors must be very sensitive to this Boomer reticence, and they must pull those dumb questions out of the veteran sales reps by making them feel good about their excellence in their careers,” says Underwood, “and by demonstrating that they do understand the challenges that those reps are facing.”

To distributors that are facing hurdles in this area and winding up either with frustrated learners – or, those that toss the new gadget in the corner and go back to their traditional methods – Underwood says the trick is to incorporate more of the ABCs about how hardware and software works into the training.

“If instructors are sensitive to these learners, they will be able to do this skillfully and without insulting them,” he says, adding that if Boomers understand the why behind the hardware and software, they will learn more quickly and remember what they’ve learned. “This will reduce the number of times they’ll ask a question they don’t want to ask:  ‘Sorry, but will you please tell me again how I’m supposed to do this?'”

A Generation Worth Fighting For
Knowing that younger generations already have the technology underpinnings in place to manage new devices, programs, and apps, electrical distributors that put a little extra elbow grease into getting their veteran reps comfortable will see the benefits of their efforts.

“Of the three generations currently in the workplace, only two can be expected to understand the hardware and easily learn the software,” says Underwood. “When you go through the extra motions to make sure you’re covering your entire team, the rewards will come. Your veteran reps hail from a generation that’s worth fighting for and that needs customized training in just one area:  technology.”

Editor’s note: Come back to tedmag.com Wednesday for a follow-up to this article, “Brace Yourself For Generation Y.”

McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.

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