chewing gumEveryone from Alan Trefler, CEO of Pegasystems, Inc., to Forbes, to everyone using #GenY on Twitter (and all the social media buzz in between) has made a point of trying to define the differences that exist between Gen Y and the rest of the world.  Now that the Baby Boomers are retiring en masse, and the Gen X’ers are wading into their mid-life crises, we look down at these Gen Y whippersnappers appearing in the workforce, and try to peg them.  Who are they? 

How do we…talk to them?  Those who do not get references to Seinfeld or Ghostbusters or The Breakfast Club or Saturday morning cartoons.  Or when we talk about the A-Team they think of the recent movie instead of the epic tv show that came on before the Dukes of Hazzard when it was also a tv show. 

How do we work with them? Those who sprinkle lol and rofl and LMAO!!!!! in their emails, which they rarely send because…Hello? Texting and Tweeting.  Same thing as a phone call, right?  I worked with one young man who didn’t know Nantucket was a real place, like, in real life. Only his beverage inspired him to ask, apparently.  Why keep geographic knowledge in one’s head when it can just be googled? 

And for the customer delivery side of IT, how do we sell to them? Those who were born when we were graduating high school, always having home computers, multiple televisions in the house, and grew up with phones in their pockets (not attached to the wall in the kitchen).  They were born into convenience, and we shouldn’t shame them for it by naming it “entitlement.”

It is a learned skill to communicate with anyone a decade or two or three apart in age, especially when you are trying to sell them something and they have a different set of expectations.  It works in both directions, too, when you need to provide a different sort of service for a more senior crowd.  bubble gum at office 1950

I see a lot of disparaging talk about the Gen Y folks, and I am disheartened by it because, it comes off very “get off my lawn” and “Grumpy Old Man” (to reference another 80s-ism the kids won’t get).  But because there is a “Grumpy Old Man” to reference, the proof is right there that discrediting the youth of the day is a common hobby of every older generation.  How can we forget our own experiences as the “new generation,” back when we were still fresh faced and dewy eyed without the aid of chemical peels and botox?  Of course, this happens for every generation—there is even a song that immortalizes the experience for all time:  “My Generation” by The Who, released in November of 1965.

It’s nothing new.  But for business, it is an aspect of work that must be addressed. 

Trefler has gone a step beyond Gen Y to Generation D, where “D” stands for digital.  This youthful group of members of our society are, he predicts, going to change the future of business, because they have high expectations and a far-reaching digital connectedness that they will use to air their dissatisfaction, should they experience it.  Here is an excerpt from his book, Build for Change:

“As you learn more about them, and realize how unprepared you are for their ascendancy, you may rightly think of that D as “doom” or “death” or “destruction.” To understand how they work, think of the D as standing for three things, depending on the moment: discover, devour, demonize.

panicFail a Gen D customer and you will be lucky to get something like the Facebook post from earlier in this chapter about the restaurant. More likely, the post will be something like this sent out on Twitter:
never doing business again with ________ bank totally f **ked my account went to _____ bank and switched accounts great experience recommended—you should do the same!
The tweet is then retweeted and seen by thousands. Before you can do anything about it, you have been demonized.”

His predictions are fairly dire—he makes these Gen D people sound like a bunch of vindictive monsters—but there is a nugget of truth, especially when it comes to all things digital.  When you are working with and for a group of people who are connoisseurs of technology, they are going to have some stringent expectations.  Including customer service.  And why shouldn’t things work as intended?

So, how do you bridge the gap between this generation and the next? 

  1. Get translators.  If you can’t understand Gen Y/D speak, motivations, pop culture, or desires, you need to hire some Gen Y’ers pronto.  You can mold these new hires to your corporate culture and have them be your insiders to the way the younger generation thinks.  Some Gen X’ers can also be paired with Gen Y hires to bring that extra layer of history to the table and to multiply the reach of the “younger” generation. 
  2. Preempt negative experiences by eliminating them. The cautious-making feature of today’s business that makes everything different than yesteryear is the instantaneous access to global networks that can spread the smear. When something is off, or goes awry, per Trefler’s warning, Yelp and Twitter and Facebook and whatever other application is hot, will be the broadcast of the bad experience. Train your people to understand the importance of avoiding this outcome. Create a product that has been thoroughly tested and that does what it says it will do.  After that, excellence in customer service is your frontline defense against problems. 
  3. Listen to any complaints and adjust.  You know how restaurants give out free desserts or appetizers when customers have a bad experience?  Sometimes they even comp the whole check.  Sometimes, you just have to suck up whatever error has happened, and fix it.  Do what it takes to make it right with your customer.  Talk to them.  Take your translators with you.  Find out what will make it right for them, and do that (within reason).  And remember:  This is not the advent of the negative feedback phenomenon. You create your reputation, and if it’s questionable, word gets around.  Millions of crappy businesses have gone out business because they were crappy, not because some 20-something posted about it on Facebook.
  4. Don’t fear the reaper.  You can’t make every single customer happy 100% of the time.  Aim for excellence and do your best to accomplish it.  Some people aren’t going to like what you sell.  And that’s just life.  They may indeed go rant on some public media.  BUT, here’s another truth about Gen Y (and all people, right?):  not every person who reads a negative Tweet or review on Yelp is going to just believe it and boycott your business.  They may ignore it flatly.  They may have tried your product and had a great experience.  They may even defend you.  Not every person venting on a social media feed is going to spur the devastation of an entire company’s reputation.  UNLESS, something really terrible happened.  In which case, refer to step 3 again.  
  5. Cut them off at the pass.  This is where the whole concept of “Build for Change” comes into play. Building products in a way that encompasses the capacity to evolve easily and readily, and allows for creativity, is your silver bullet.  Gen Y expects innovation.  They want “cool” applications that give them some new experience.  At the very least, they want things to work without glitches.  And don’t we all?  Deliver your best.  Do not settle for “good enough.”