Here’s the story you already know. Millions of soldiers, sailors and airmen return from World War II to the embrace of millions of riveting Rosies, apparently very riveting, judging by the fruitful output of these couples during the postwar decades: 2.4 children per couple, the biggest generation America has ever seen. These kids, the Baby Boomers, grow up to transform the social and economic landscape of a nation.
Now, here’s the story you’ve heard less often: The baby boom has happened again, and then some. The Boomers themselves, in the fullness of time, have given birth to an even bigger generation. Their offspring, the millennials (also known as Gen Y), are the young adults and teenagers born between 1980 and 2000 who are poised to transform a nation once more.
Specifically, and of most importance to those of you in business, they’re about to become the most important consumers–customers–in history. Their wallet power, already significant, is rapidly expanding, and will soon equal and then eclipse that of the Baby Boomers. In fact, it’s estimated that Millennials in the U.S. alone will be spending $200 billion (or nearly that amount) annually by 2017.
[And to compound the effect, it’s far from only B2C dollars they’ll have at their disposal. Remember these young customers are also becoming decision makers at major corporations, thus controlling purse strings that affect the success and failure of those of you with B2B companies.]
These customers have had an upbringing that's different from that of previous generations in ways that are commercially significant. For their entire lives, broadband internet has been the norm. "Telephone" has by and large meant a smartphone. The economy has been global, and competition for their business has been only a click away in the event that their first choice of brand proves to be a disappointment. Parents, educators, coaches and mentors have invited them to participate, to have a voice, to collaborate–which they now want to do with the brands and companies from which they buy.
But enough with the history and sociology. As someone who will be dependent on these younger consumers for a significant portion of your revenue, and a large portion of your word of mouth, you need to know how they want you to serve them, the customer service and customer experience that they’re looking for. Here are five areas you need to look at, five changes in approach that are required.
1. Deploy human beings in ways that actually provide value to customers
Millennials, having grown up in a connected, app-ified, Amazon-defined world, have different ideas of where humans should fit into customer service delivery. The last thing they want is for human beings to gum up the works if they don’t add value. So make use of automated service solutions, self-service, algorithmically assisted service, in addition to deploying the brightest, most empathetic human employees you can find.
To put it another way: Be careful not to do a "half Zappos": If you decide to emulate Zappos, home of the warm and fuzzy 10 hour customer service call, be sure you also emulate their highly efficient, automated, algorithmically enhanced ordering process. Because this combination is required to win the millennial heart; the warm and fuzzies alone aren’t enough to do it if they’re combined with the slow and sloppy rather than the up-to-date and efficient.
2. Spice up the customer experience with adventure
The millennial generation of customers are particularly likely to view a commercial interaction as an opportunity rather than as a burden, as long as there are experiences, even adventures to be had along the way. New service models need to focus on helping customers discover and enjoy experiences, not just on getting them, figuratively or literally, from point A to point B. Take, as an example, business travel. According to Jay Coldren, who helms EDITION hotels, a cutting-edge hospitality collaboration between Marriott and Ian Schrager, “Millennials view business travel not as a necessary evil but as a perk and an opportunity to view the world.” Embrace and support this worldview and you win their business.
3. Stop controlling your customers. Focus instead on collaborating with them.
Allowing customers to control their own destiny needs to be a component of your new, millennial-friendly service model. Give up old notions of control and replace them with a transparent model that allows, wherever possible, your customer to be in the driver’s seat. Embrace crowdsourcing: You can’t control product ratings, product discussions, or much else, except by providing the most extraordinary customer experience possible and letting your customers, and your critics, hash out their discussions of it in public.
The crux of the matter is this: Millennials don’t necessarily see a clear boundary between the customer and the brand, the customer and marketer, and the customer and service provider. Alex Castellarnau at Dropbox, the popular file transfer service, put it to me this way: With millennials, “a new brand, service or product is only started by the company; it’s finished by the customers. Millennials are a generation that wants to co-create the product, the brand, with you. Companies that understand this and figure out ways to engage in this co-creation relationship with millennials will have an edge.”
4. Speed up your service, but never rush your customers
Millennials’ internal time clocks and customer expectations are shaped by the instant gratification they’ve grown accustomed to from the online/smartphone experience. They’re by and large superb multi-taskers who put a premium value on convenience. Speed and efficiency are of the utmost importance: in how quickly you respond to a customer, ship to a customer, and offer up choices of product or service to a customer.
However, the millennial generation is also a very social generation, yearning for face to face interaction and collaboration – from their peers and, often, from your more empathetic employees. So the combination of speed and leisure can be powerful, as Starbucks continues to show. While the millennial generation wants their custom-brewed coffee in their hand in no more than a few minutes, they also want the world to linger with them over coffee.
5. Make sure your customer service style is genuine and rings true. And never talk down to this generation of customers.
Authentic, caring communication is in, scripted service is out. Dress codes, prohibitions on visible tattoos, stiflingly choreographed customer service? That’s not what Millennials are looking for from service providers. The new generation is exceedingly informal, and has different words and methods of communicating. Jay Coldren from Marriott again: “The Millennials want to converse in their own language, according to their own rules. They speak in tweets, texts and Facebook posts. If you want to reach them, you have to speak in their native tongue. And you have to be completely authentic.” Candor and transparency are very important to millennials, and are used as a proxy for them for deciding overall how much to trust and ultimately engage with your brand.
Condescension is in particular a no-go with this generation. Boomer parents by and large avoid talking down to their children, as did the educators and even the television they watched as youngsters–Blues Clues, Barney, and Bob The Builder–which taught them a style of peer to peer, eye level communication that puts them on level with the society rather than being subordinate to it or in conflict with it. For this and other reasons, the best style to engage a millennial is a peer-to-peer, eye level style of service, rather than standing up on a haughty brand pedestal and looking down your company’s nose at them.
When I say "be genuine," I mean it, and I'm not just talking about funky looking fontography and the like. I'm also talking about behaving in a way that proves that your values match your stated claims. Values matter a lot to millennials; because of increased competition and increased transparency, millennials have more opportunities to engage in values-based buying than previous generations, and they exhibit a strong inclination to do so. When millennials do business with a company, they’re more likely than previous generations to care about the social values of that company: its social responsibility, green profile, and how ethically it does, or doesn’t, treat its own employees and those of its suppliers. They will reward your company if its behavior mirrors their own ethics, and punish your company if it doesn’t.