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What Millennial and Gen Z Customers Can Teach You About Everyone Else

The youngest consumers are today's trend-setters. Win them over, and the rest of the market may just follow. To do that, here are six things you need to know.

Millennials (born 1980-1996; 23-39 years old) and Gen Z (born 1997-2013; 6-22 years old) are increasingly becoming two of the most important customer demographics in the marketplace for two key reasons: 1) for their direct economic importance; and 2) because these younger consumers are serious trendsetters. Whatever it is they want from your business today, you can expect older consumers to start asking for tomorrow; their preferences and behaviors are spreading to, and being paralleled by, older consumers at a fantastic rate of speed. If you can please the first, you’ll soon be pleasing the latter as well.

So, what are the expectations of these younger consumers and how should your business adapt to serve them? Here are four things companies need to consider when adapting to this younger customer demographic.

1. These new generations are what I call “the enemies of stupid.”

To serve Millennial and Gen-Z customers successfully, your customer-facing technology needs to be intuitive and it needs to simply work. These younger consumers have grown up with digital devices that bundle communication, entertainment, shopping, mapping and education all in one. From an early age, smartphone use has been the norm. They’ve always had Internet at home and in school. MP3 players (initially) and streaming (most recently) have long offered them ubiquitous music options. Naturally, then, Millennials embrace and align themselves with technology.

But that technology has to work—and work easily. Consumer technology has become far more user friendly during these young customers’ lifetimes, compared to what previous generations encountered (and endured). The relentless focus on simplifying the user interface at Apple, Amazon, Google and other technology players has set a new standard of intuitiveness across the tech industry that Millennials have come to expect. So if your business is asking customers to use your technology, everything needs to be simple, and needs to simply work, from the log-in process onward.  Businesses should be careful not to throw clunky, alienating technology, systems, or processes at these customers and expect patience or understanding as customers struggle to find a workaround.

2. The customer experience is now a social experience.

Younger consumers express their sociability online as well as offline, particularly in the many arenas where online and offline activities and circles of friends overlap. Offline, they’re more likely than older generations to shop, dine and travel with groups, whether these are organized interest groups, less formal groupings of peers or excursions with extended family, according to Boston Consulting Group data. Online, their sharing habits on Facebook, Snapchat and other social sites, and the opinions they offer on Yelp, TripAdvisor and Amazon reflect their eagerness for connection, as do their electronic updates to friends and followers (via Foursquare et al.) that indicate where they are, where they’re coming from and where they’re headed.

This social behavior has big implications for those who serve customers. Younger customers tend to make buying decisions collaboratively, and they don’t consume food, beverages, services, products or media in silence. They eat noisily (or publicly) and very visually. They review, blog, document, update and post to a variety of social sites. Often these posts concern their consumption activities, interests and aspirations. All told, as Boston Consulting Group reports that “the vast majority [of Millennials]…report taking action on behalf of brands and sharing brand preferences in their social groups.”

3. Your brand needs to be open to customer collaboration and co-creation.

Younger consumers enjoy the possibility of collaborating with businesses and brands, as long as they believe that their say matters to the company in question. They 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. You need to offer self-service and crowdsourced customer service options.

Building the right experience for this new generation of customers requires you to think hard about an uncomfortable subject: where human employees are helpful to customers, and where they just get in the way. Today’s customers often do want you out of the way. Younger customers hold different ideas about where human-powered service fits into the customer experience. These customers, through years of experience with online and self-service solutions, have grown used to the way technology can reduce the need for human gatekeepers to ensure accuracy and manage data. The last thing they want is for your employees to gum up the works without adding value.

5. Paradoxically, Millennial and Gen Z customers also crave a true, authentic, personalized experience.

Younger consumers crave the joys of adventure and discovery, whether epic or everyday. They often view commerce and even obligatory business travel as opportunities rather than burdens, due to the adventures that can be had along the way. I’m reluctant to chalk up this phenomenon to youthful wanderlust alone, because the breadth of experiences this generation craves suggests there’s something more at work. For example:

• When shopping, they prefer an “experiential” retail environment, where shopping is more than a transaction and the pleasure of being in the store isn’t limited to the goods they can take home.

• When they dine out, they’re often in search of something exotic, adventuresome, memorable or new to explore during their dining experience. This has helped transform cuisine searches (“tastespotting”) into an adventure—and food truck-following (a concept sure to evoke fears of stomachache in some of their elders) into its own culture.

6. They care about your values as a company.

They integrate their beliefs and causes into their choice of companies to support, their purchases and their day-to-day interactions. More than 50% of Millennials make an effort to buy products from companies that support the causes they care about, according to research from Barkley, an independent advertising agency. And they’re twice as likely to care about whether or not their food is organic than are their non-Millennial counterparts, according to Boston Consulting Group. When you consider how money-strapped many younger consumers remain, their willingness to put a premium on such issues is striking.

One thing to be careful about here is to typecast all members of the Millennial or Gen Z cohort as exactly the same in their consumer desires. Their interests dictate the tribes they identify themselves with, what’s important to them first and foremost, and how their buying decisions are impacted. But their collective consumer behavior can provide clues to help you identify trends across your entire consumer base and create a seamless experience for all of your customers—no matter what age they are.


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