Where Small Businesses Fail with Gen Y

By sethmsparks

I’m in a Unique Position

I’m not special. But I do recognize that I’m a demographic outlier. I was born in 1982, one of the very first Millennials. I’m an elderly enough Gen Yer to have an established, well-enough paying job that I have a little discretionary income.

But even though I’m a Millennial on the leading edge of Gen Y, my media habits are similar to those on the lagging end of the Gen Y pendulum. You see, being interested in technology and media, I’m all in on a culture where everyone has the ability to be their own independent publisher, with dozens of media streams and channels to voice their opinion. While most Gen Xers and Millennials now have a Facebook profile, Twitter stream, and LinkedIn account; Gen Yers manage those common presences, but more often have other outlets for voicing opinions, like blogs, podcasts, and stronger presences in forums.

It’s in these self publishing platforms you see Gen Yers reaching broader audiences than just their friends and followers. Through these channels, long form content has a life, and what might be a 140 character slam on a business by a Gen Xer becomes a well thought-out and researched post with links and analysis by a Gen Yer. And it’s this capability through these beefier channels that small businesses need to wake up to.

Small Businesses are Near Sighted

Small and Medium businesses are busy keeping the lights on. Maintaining the day to day. If they are lucky enough to have staff helping out with accounting, customer service, and marketing, the business owners might try to spend some time strategizing next quarters actions. Unfortunately, unlike corporations who employ thousands of people and dozens of consultants that spend time monitoring trends, small businesses are often uninformed or under-informed when it comes to the changes in culture that come with generational shifts.

In recent experiences of mine, the small and medium businesses I’ve worked with were neither prepared to work with nor satisfy the expectations of a Gen Yer. The three biggest failures of the businesses I experience were all too common in what I see from too many small and medium size businesses.

1) Communication

  • Failure to communicate enough

The amount of communication required to satisfy a younger audience has increased. If I’ve engaged with you to do business on something that will take more than a day or a visit, I want to know what is going on in the process and what is next. Things as simple as Dominos Pizza Tracker have created an inquisitive beast inside of us, and not feeling informed is a killer.

  • Failure to communicate professionally through preferred channels

The channel of communication is just as important as the message. Just Google communication channels for Gen Y and you’ll be hit with a bevy of articles and studies pointing towards the digital preference of communication for Gen Yers. Most companies of course will allow for email correspondence (more on my interesting situation in the transparency section), but few do it well. Small businesses using personal email address, allowing extremely long response times, getting replies from a variety of individuals… It’s chaotic and hard to manage as the consumer, and I would guess as the business too.

I actually had a small business warranty manager tell me he would no longer communicate via email with me. The issue we were facing was somewhat detailed, and there were no clear expectations of me in the situation. I tend to be a very documentative person, and I’m guessing that the warranty manager was scared to have anything from his end on email just in case this issue has to go to court. Failing to be honest and provide specific instructions to your customer is as close to an admission of guilt as you can get.

2) Transparency

  • A don’t talk about me unless it’s good stuff mentality

All businesses love the praise they get from satisfied customers. Few like the discourse that comes from someone who is unsatisfied. However, many Gen Yers will try to give honest opinions on the entirety of a transaction. This means there could be some good, and some bad. The tough pill to swallow for businesses, as they feel powerless to take the bad and make it good. For many businesses following a transactional relationship model, the purchase is the end of the line.

In my own history, I gave a factual recount of some ongoing issues I was facing (which the business was taking [a lot of] time to try to fix), and the small business took complete offense to my reflection on my blog. I’d actually clearly outlined that the business had corrected the majority of the issues, and only a few were left. The post likely did more to help accredit the businesses promise that they would fix customer issues after the purchase, but they were so fearful of honesty they came unglued.

    • People want to see the sausage being made

Gen Yers know they’re not experts on everything, but during the pre-purchase, purchase and post-purchase environment; they are likely to spend a lot of time researching, or binge learning as its starting to be referred to. This allows them to feel more informed on the process, and makes the product feel a bit more personal by being involved in the build & delivery. Many small businesses don’t communicate the on-goings of the transaction at all (see communications above) and if they do, they fail connect the “what’s” and “why’s” of the progress in the situation.

3) Speed

  • Gen Yers expect businesses to move quickly. This expectation is reduced a little as they experience the slow world around them, but they don’t tolerate slowness long. The speed imperative applies to everything, communications, implementation, delivery, etc. Don’t take three days to respond to an e-mail. Don’t promise delivery on a date and miss it without cause and communicating the reason. If you can’t do things quickly, first understand why, and then be able to communicate it to the individual so they understand.

It’s been said a number of ways but to reiterate it one more time; social media doesn’t make or break your business, it just speeds up how quickly it makes or breaks itself.

So if you’re a small to medium business (especially one selling big ticket items that require a significant time and emotional investment) and are unaccustomed to working with this new kind of customer, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1) Communicate often; educate, inform, remind

2) Communicate through the appropriate channels, from a professional and consistent email address

3) Understand that people will talk about the good and bad, and be prepared to assume accountability after the transaction to improve the post purchase evaluation

4) Understand that Gen Yers are researching the product and the process, and explain to them what is happening, when, and why (an informed Gen Yer is a quieter Gen Yer)

5) Find ways to move more quickly, simplify the experience, and remove bottlenecks from your system, there may be cost involved, but not meeting the needs of the customer segment could end up costing more

As Always, Change Isn’t Isolated to Gen Yers and Will Permeate Other Generations

Everyone can be their own media outlet. As even more channels for audio, video, written and image content are added, the mass population of other generations will adopt. Just as Facebook permeated society so much so that Baby Boomers have established themselves as Facebook’s fastest growing segment (and they have been for a while now), these digital technologies will slowly move their way through more older demographics. Not everyone will adopt and adapt, but as more and more Gen Xers, Boomers, and Lost Generationers are exposed to a culture that favors transparency, communication, and speed, the businesses that fail to acknowledge the need for evolution won’t be around to greet the futuristic solution-oriented (AKA, if you can’t help me or make the experience better, I’ll use a Makerbot to build it myself) hacker minded Generation Zers over the next decade.

And it might not be all that bad if that happened…