Multiple generations are making decisions in today’s marketplace. Find out how to tailor your communication style for each one.
There seems to be a growing number of claims about factors that influence human behavior. Some claims that have been around for a while are likely familiar to you: Genetics, birth order, phases of the moon, birthplace, and premature potty training are all believed to impact behavior. More obscure claims purport that our behavior is affected by: aliens, electromagnetic fields, blood type, diet, microbes in the gut, fluoride in the water, sunlight exposure, and hair color. Many of these claims are supported by scientific evidence. Others are based on superstition or pseudoscience and have yet to be validated by sufficient research. Marketing jargon has also found its way into the mix: “Blondes have more fun!” (Really?)
Generational variances: One size does not fit all
In business circles these days, there’s a lot of chatter—founded and unfounded—about how each generation of the workforce is uniquely predisposed to certain behavior because of the social and economic influences that prevailed when they were growing up. Much of this commentary and analysis focuses on the defining characteristics of Millennials entering the workforce, and much of it is contradictory. These young adults may have a sense of entitlement, or they may be driven by altruism. They may be lazy, or they may be robust multitaskers. As age diversity in the workplace increases, many businesses are tailoring their work culture and marketing styles accordingly to accommodate a variety of generation-specific behaviors. Some companies are installing perks like napping rooms, free meals, and kegerators (beer fridges) in hopes of attracting Millennials. Is this really necessary?
Anna Liotta, author of Unlocking Generational Codes, believes understanding what shapes and forms each generation is vital. “One message delivered one way will not resonate with everyone. Each generation brings their own set of attitudes, values, and beliefs to the workplace, and to the way they do business. They make choices of who to buy from and who to work for, based on these values and beliefs,” affirms Liotta. She explains that whatever was happening in our formative years, ages 8 to 18, influences us in ways in which we may or may not be aware. “This is when we determine how the world works and what’s possible. The events, icons, and leaders we see, experience, adore, and dislike during this time shape our world. These influences set the paradigm for our decision making, both personally and professionally, for years to come.”
With four generations routinely mingling in the workplace, it’s likely beneficial for all of us to recognize and understand each generation’s unique mindset, work style, and ways of communicating. Names and birth-year ranges vary—along with the designated percentages—depending on the source. But generally speaking, Traditionalists (born 1927-1945) currently make up 5 percent of the workforce. Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) make up 38 percent, Generation Xers (born 1965-1979) make up 32 percent, and Millennials (born 1980-2000) make up the final 25 percent. These percentages are shifting rapidly as Traditionalists and droves of older Baby Boomers retire, and Millennials continue entering the workforce and migrate toward management positions. Projections vary, but most reports assert that Millennials will comprise more than half of the workforce by 2020.
We are more comfortable dealing with people within 10 years of our own age because we share common life experiences, culture, and history. We inherently have similar communication styles and a greater understanding of context and language. When communicating with a colleague or client from another generation, expect that he or she likely has different communication preferences and interests and proceed accordingly.
Businesses that understand and adapt to various preferences are more likely to attract and retain customers across the age spectrum. In a buyer-seller relationship, it is especially important for the seller to take the lead from the buyer regarding method of communication. Rather than make assumptions based on the following generalizations, ask about preferences, offer options, personalize your style accordingly—and be flexible.
Millennials—Gen Y (Gen Why?), Gen Next, Echo Boomers, the Baby-on-Board Generation, and Screenagers—now number more than 80 million in the workplace. Also referred to as the Internet Generation, these kids are technically savvy, almost as if they have a digital sixth sense. A wired, connected world is all that Millennials have ever known. Want to engage Millennials? Go to where they roll—on the Internet, or, more specifically, on their smartphones. They prefer texting to talking on the phone, and are more interested in the Apple app FaceTime than actual face time. They will respond to an email, but don’t bother leaving a voicemail if your message is important.
When Starbucks wanted to boost sales and loyalty with Millenials, it created a buzz and engaged them by rolling out an innovative mobile app that enables customers to pre-order and pay for their coffee selection on their smartphone. Using technology to gauge the customer’s distance from the coffee shop and expected arrival time, the program alerts the barista to prepare the drink at the optimal time to ensure the place-and-pay patron gets a fresh hot cup of coffee. Upon their arrival, they enter a designated cue for pre-orders, thus avoiding the long lines during the morning rush. This rollout is working well, and other retailers are rapidly following suit.
“The buying power of Millennials is on the rise. They have grown up with hyper-customized marketing, so they think they are unique and special and expect to be engaged on a personalized level with highly targeted messaging rather than indoctrinated with blanket marketing,” Liotta explains. When it comes to making purchasing decisions, they increasingly look to eWom (electronic word-of-mouth) for guidance. “They check with their online networks for reviews and recommendations, and this greatly influences their buying decisions,” she adds.
Want to engage Millennials? Go to where they roll—on the Internet, or, more specifically, on their smartphones.
Generation Xers: Blunt and Concise
Also known as Gen X, Post Boomers, and Baby Busters, as children, Generation Xers heard anxious parents and teachers lamenting about recession and inflation. They watched authority figures—President Nixon and Reverends Baker and Swaggart—publically fall from grace. Consequently, they tend to be skeptical (their BS radars are in good working order). They are stepping into upper management roles increasingly as Traditionalists and Baby Boomers approach retirement.
“Gen Xers don’t like canned, overly packaged corporate messaging, and they appreciate the facts relative to the bottom line. Provide them with information to do their own research and product comparisons. Don’t waste time initially schmoozing and trying to develop a relationship. Be direct and cut to the chase—show them where the value lies,” Liotta advises. “They prefer quality over status.”
Ryan Sauers, a Gen Xer and a business consultant, notes that Gen Xers tend to be adaptable and apt, both technologically and socially. “We have a great deal of respect for how things have always been done, but at the same time, we strive to stay up with the latest technology and trends: We don’t want to get left behind.” If you are marketing to a Gen Xer, Sauers, author of Everyone is in Sales, says that you should send an email or leave a voicemail that states clearly what you want, and how that will help them. “We will not only go online and read what you say about your products, we will investigate your company—reading your Twitter feed carefully to determine what other people are saying about you before we will buy anything from you,” he adds.
Gen Xers will investigate your company, reading what other people are saying about you before they buy anything from you.
Ever Looming Baby Boomers
Baby Boomers (76 million strong) have called the shots and shaped the world in recent decades. Reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that in 2011, there were more people 55 and older active in the workforce than at any time in the past 30 years, and they continue to hold most of the managerial positions. Baby Boomers tend to have a strong work ethic, good written and oral communication skills, and emotional maturity. They are seasoned workplace veterans committed to being robust lifetime learners as well as caring mentors.
Although they are often as Internet savvy as their younger counterparts (there are more than 111 million LinkedIn users age 50 and older), they prefer to do business with familiar faces rather than faceless corporations, and they enjoy intertwining relationships and business. When communicating with a Baby Boomer, phone calls and personal interaction are usually more effective than emails or text messages—and schmoozing goes a long way toward getting your foot in the door. Give Boomers information and documented expert advice with options so they can make the right decision for themselves. Tailor your message to their individual needs. And if you really want to score points, drop them a hand-written note (with proper grammar and punctuation, of course) and make sure your customer service is extraordinary.
“For Baby Boomers, the whole process of selling is about relationships. They love the networking, the bonding, and the schmooze conversations. They enjoy attending charity events, association lunches, and spending time volunteering in high profile places to establish their network of professionals whom they know, like, and trust,” Liotta, CEO of Resultance, adds.
Give Boomers information and documented expert advice with options so they can make the right decision for themselves.
You may be surprised to learn that more than 89 percent of Traditionalists, also referred to as the World War II Generation or GI Generation, regularly use email (according to Nielsen). But like Boomers, they prefer face-to-face meetings and phone calls to emails and other forms of digital communication. This generation that grew up during The Great Depression built the infrastructure of modern American business, and their values and work ethic will continue to influence policies and procedures for decades. When addressing a Traditionalist, words and tone of voice should be respectful, with good grammar, clear diction, and no slang or profanity. Language should be a bit formal and professional, and the message should relate to company history and long-term goals. Honesty, sincerity, and attentive interactions build trust. Get to know these folks personally. Learn about their lives, their families, and their accomplishments. Maintain regular contact during and after the sale, and you’ll not only have a long-time client, you’ll have a referral source. Traditionalists are brand loyal.
“Traditionalists like to move at a slower, more dignified pace in the timing of their communication and relationship building. The tendency to push to the close quickly and move on to the next pressing task will often leave the Traditionalist feeling mistrustful,” advises Liotta.
Maintain regular contact with Traditionalists during and after the sale, and you’ll not only have a long-time client, you’ll have a referral source.
Bridging the Gap
Although these various generational characteristics are well founded, Sauers, a specialist in communication style adaptation, warns that you shouldn’t make too many assumptions based on these blanket observations. “We can all benefit from increased empathy and awareness of generational influences, but we have to remember that everyone is unique—even within a specific generation, one size does not fit all. We should ask questions, listen and pay attention, and continually adapt our style so that we can communicate more effectively with our intended audience, whatever age they are.
Liotta says that it is essential to not only recognize but respect our differences. “Everyone wants to be respected for how he or she sees the world. While one generation may not like, understand, or believe in the effectiveness of another generation’s preferred communication style, failure to be aware of the differences in styles and to meet one another across generational lines will only result in a breakdown in communication and a lack of productivity in the workplace,” she affirms.
If you look for differences among the generations, you can find glaring disparities. If you look for similarities, you will find them, too. Research conducted by Ben Rosen, PhD, professor of organizational behavior for the Kenan Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, suggests that generations may have more in common than previously thought. Rosen reported that all generations share the same top five expectations of their employers:
1. To work on challenging projects.
2. Competitive compensation.
3. Opportunities for advancement, and chances to learn and grow in their jobs.
4. Fair treatment.
5. Work-life balance.
“My research findings reveal that there are some work expectations and leadership perceptions that the generations have in common,” reports Rosen. “That doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t cross generational friction as well, but I believe the starting point for bridging any possible generation gap is to build on the similarities.”