By Stephanie Dismore
When journalists Neil Howe and William Strauss first coined the term “millennial,” it was 1991. Howe and Straus, both scholars of inter-generational change, had research predicting that the emerging generation, native to the coming technological wave, would be far different from their baby-boomer and Gen-X cohorts. These “digital natives” would hold different values, cultivate different relationships and communicate in different ways.
To some extent, this wasn’t anything new. Every generation rejects norms and behaviors of the group that came before. But even compensating for predictable change, Howe and Strauss foresaw something tectonic: that millennials, the oldest of whom were barely middle-schoolers, would forge an entirely new relationship with the world around them.
How right they were. Sixteen years later, this generation is characterized by sophisticated consumption and social consciousness. They expect authentic interactions with brands, they demand personalized service, and they treasure their individuality. While these observations stem from social context, the same priorities translate into their corporate lives.
Following Howe’s and Strauss’ bracketing, the oldest millennials are now 35. We’re moving beyond a time when we can think of millennials exclusively as a new type of end-of-the-chain consumer. They’re gathering influence and reaching seniority in the businesses in which they work.
In fact, a survey of 262 businesses by the Arketi Group found more than half of millennials describe themselves as decision-makers for technology purchases within their organizations. One-third report having the budget and/or sign-off authority for enterprise technology purchases of $10,000 and up.
Just as consumer-facing businesses have changed to embrace Millennial consumers – flocking to Instagram and expanding their corporate social responsibility initiatives – so must channel companies adapt to the growing corporate clout of professional millennials.
The most important difference between millennials and older IT decision-makers is that they value experiences more than possessions. Experiences aren’t necessarily outcompeting physical products, but millennial IT decision-makers are likely to weigh the experience that surrounds a product or service more heavily than their predecessors. That’s the new challenge that channel companies face in the “Experience Economy.”
Experience is more than just the wrapping of a product. It’s the smile that accompanies it. Starbucks first started writing first names on our coffees back in 2012, a move that is as inexpensive as it is ingenious. They were early in their appreciation of the importance of individualized service — a key driver of a positive experience for millennials.
Millennials treasure their individuality. Not that boomers and Gen Xers don’t, but their sense of identity is more acute. In part, this is a reaction to the broadening of their peer groups and communities. But this refined sense of self means that millennials don’t like being treated as one of many. Quite the opposite. They seek and expect personalized service from the brands with which they interact. To achieve this, loyalty rewards should be tailored to the executive’s buying patterns and personality. Would she prefer a discount or something more social? One-to-one communication and relationships are also key. Customer-service representatives should know the person they are speaking with.
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The good news for businesses is that social media has facilitated personalization and customer intimacy on an unprecedented scale. Sixty-two percent of millennials are more loyal to brands that communicate with them via social media, according to data from Elite Daily’s Millennial Consumer Study. Social media injects a persistent human element into transactions. An active, well-managed and reciprocal social-media-based relationship with corporate customers is something all businesses must pursue; channel firms are no exceptions.
Social media also seems much more effective than marketing as a communications conduit. Data from the same Elite Daily survey tells us that only 1 percent of millennials consider themselves influenced by conventional marketing. In fact, millennials have an aversion to anything that is purposefully designed to sell them something. It has led some companies to swap the tested “Always Be Closing” ethos for the faddish “Always Be Helping” mantra.
Channel companies must be very sensitive to this aversion. Rather than explicit advertising, they should invest in engaging content. Good content works differently to advertising. It doesn’t directly “sell” something. It doesn’t entice a potential customer into a purchase. Instead, by entertaining its reader, it inspires trust in, and familiarity with, the brand. With millennial IT decision-makers, trust and familiarity are the key routes to sales.
While this represents a major shift in the communications strategy in many channel companies, it is an important one. Trust is vital to substantiate interactions with millennials. The good news is that, once a company earns a millennial’s trust and loyalty, it isn’t easily lost. In fact, millennials are incredibly loyal to brands: More than half count themselves as extremely or quite loyal to their favorite products, says the same Elite Daily survey.
Despite their avid use of product research and third-party reviews, social media is broadcasting peer adoption, which is reinforcing positive brand image. Once again, we see the critical importance of social media’s role in influencing millennial behavior.
Loyalty, though, can be impeded by millennials’ impatience when it comes to dealing with technology. They are not only technology-native, they are technology reliant. They presume technology will work well and quickly. If a technology-rendered service doesn’t perform, they will happily move to another one.
This raises the benefit of a channel provider assembling an omnichannel solution — holistic and interoperable service offerings that work on different devices and in different locations. Channel companies should consider omnichannel arrangements to appease their millennial customers.
And, they should move fast. Like any disruption, the emergence of millennial decision-makers is creating opportunities for channel companies to differentiate themselves competitively. But high inherent loyalty among millennials means sticky customer retention. The greatest financial rewards for embracing millennials as ITDMs will only be there for companies that can capitalize quickly.
Stephanie Dismore is VP and GM, Americas Commercial Channel for HP Inc. Stephanie oversees commercial channel sales in the Americas, as well as partner development and programs. A 16-year veteran of HP, she is the lead driver of the new channel program for HP Inc., the Fortune 50 publicly held Printing and PC business that launched on November 1, 2015. In her work with the channel, Stephanie operates on one very simple formula: The strength of the channel equals the health of HP.
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