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To Serve and Detect
Different generations have wildly different definitions of customer service.

by Lynne Lancaster & David Stillman

T om, a Traditionalist (he was born prior to 1946), strolled into a clothing store to buy a holiday gift for his Generation X son and immediately became irritated. He couldn’t think over the pulsating rap version of “Jingle Bell Rock,” which seemed to include words never heard in the original version. As he scanned the shelves of clothes, he found himself baffled: Was he in the men’s or the women’s section? His blood pressure began to climb as three young sales clerks made eye contact with him, then wandered on by as if they had no intention of actually helping him. Finally, he was stupefied to read a sign posted above the check-out desk: “Our customers come first.”

At the other end of the mall, Beth, a Generation Xer, walked into the handbag section of an upscale department store and is immediately approached by Dorothy, a Traditionalist, who robotically spouted the same greeting Beth received in housewares moments earlier. She grew even more annoyed as Dorothy followed her from one display to the next, extolling the virtues of every handbag brand. As the Muzak swelled with an accordion rendering of “Saturday Night Fever,” Beth rolled her eyes heavenward, only to be met with a prominent sign: “Customer service is our Number One goal!”

Virtually every company knows ‘tis the season to be marketing. What they don’t know is that it has become virtually impossible to create satisfying experiences for customers without taking generational differences into account. Whether in retail, travel, or financial services, organizations can learn valuable lessons by ceasing to ponder the question, “How is our customer service?” Instead, they need to ask “Who is our customer?” and “What does service mean to them? As customers like Tom and Beth will tell you, each generation has its own definition.

Traditionalists, who grew up being taught that hard work was its own reward, expect salespeople to focus on personal service. To them, a clerk who stands back and waits until a customer asks for help is implying that he or doesn’t care about providing service.

Traditionalists are also extremely price and value conscious. The last thing they want is to be rushed through a sale or to be met with rolling eyes when they ask for a comparison between two T-shirts that are a dollar apart in price. The best ways to provide service to this generation is to be willing to spend more hands-on time in the sales process and to make sure the sales staff is knowledgeable about all aspects of your product or service.

Land’s End’s Wisconsin-based telephone center excels at this method. Its service reps have been known to put a caller on hold, go into the back room, grab the shirt or sweater in question, and bring it back to the phone so they can discuss its characteristics more thoroughly with the shopper. This suits Traditionalist customers to a T.

Baby Boomers, on the other hand, are the generation with the least amount of disposable time. They aren’t interested in trekking up and down the aisles discussing everything from a product’s warrantee to its country of origin. Sure, they want choices, but even more they want help wading through them. If you really want to serve a Boomer, do whatever it takes to present him or her with a few good, solid options. And unlike their predecessors, the Traditionalists, Boomers don’t necessarily make price the top criteria. They’re more interested in quality, indulgence or lifestyle attributes, even if it means they have to pay a little more. Bottled waters like Evian and premium ice cream like Ben & Jerry’s are prime examples.

In contrast, Generation Xers hate to be sold to. By the age of twenty, the average Generation Xer had watched 23,000 hours of television. They’ve seen it all, and they aren’t interested in hearing a slick sales pitch. They also have a very sensitive B.S.-ometer that is set off by unproved claims about a product or service. Xers tend to know what they are looking for and resent being told that a particular item is the one they “should” have. The bottom line: Sales clerks should serve as information resources when asked. It’s perfectly acceptable for sales and service personnel not to know the answer to every question, as long as they know how to find out. At Abercrombie & Fitch, which gears its stores specifically to younger Xers and older Millennials (those born in 1982 or later), clerks simply “hang out” until someone needs them. They avoid any appearance of being “in your face” or of seeming too “salesy.” While potentially annoying to a Traditionalist or a Boomer, this laid-back style works fine in the casual, hip, and youthful environment A & F’s stores strive to create.

Want to revamp your customer service efforts? Consider these two steps:
  • STEP #1: ANTICIPATE
    Anticipate where generational collisions are most likely to occur. Designing products and services that suit each generation is only part of the equation. Making them succeed in the marketplace requires taking a deep look at how they will be presented to the intended audience. An insurance company may roll out a program aimed at newly single Traditionalists only to staff a call center with Xers who cannot relate to that particular life stage.

  • STEP #2: EDUCATE
    Next, educate employees on how to relate to the different generations and their expectations. A discount store might thrill an older customer by planting greeters at the front door. But the harried Boomer mom who battles her way past welcoming hosts in the first 10 feet and then can’t locate a single clerk throughout the rest of the store will be ticked off.

    Any training process should begin by helping salespeople, clerks, and customer service reps uncover the customer’s goal. A Traditionalist shopping for a computer may have no intention of walking out the door with a hard drive, mouse and monitor that day and may only be interested in gathering information. The sale might made after several visits. You can imagine the collision that occurs when the younger salesperson focuses only on high- tech features and ignores price. Or when an older salesperson leads an Xer to the least expensive machine—when the Xer is focused on his or her wish list of high-tech features.
At the end of the long shopping day, both Tom and Beth needed to make sure their bank balances would cover their purchases. Traditionalist Tom stopped at the bank to talk with a teller, while Beth, the Generation Xer, headed home to her computer, where she could check up on her account on-line.

Both sing the praises of their banks. Good thing the banks asked themselves not “How is our customer service?” but “Who is our customer?” Baby Boomer Lynne Lancaster and Generation Xer David Stillman are partners in BridgeWorks, a consulting firm that focuses on the collisions between generations in the workplace and marketplace. In 2002, their book When Generations Collide. Who They Are. Why They Clash. How to Solve the Generational Puzzle at Work. was published to rave reviews by HarperCollins.

Copyright Lynne Lancaster & David Stillman. All Rights Reserved.

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