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Learn How Generational Shifts Impact Customer Service

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Describe some traits of the four generational types.
  • Explain generational shifts.
  • Manage a multigenerational workforce.

As a society, we’re witnessing a huge technological shift brought on by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. At the same time, we’re also going through a massive generational shift brought on by aging baby boomers moving into retirement. As millennials and Generation Zers come to dominate the cultural landscape, customer service is moving more and more toward digital channels. 

While these new generations are coming up, baby boomers and Generation Xers are still on the scene, which means contact centers must deal with a mix of different service preferences for the foreseeable future. This unit explains how advances in technology affect these four generations and change their expectations around customer service. 

Understanding Generational Shifts

There are a number a competing ideas in business and academia around generations, but everyone generally agrees that a generation spans 15–20 years. The exact dividing line between one generation and the next is debatable, but generations are thought to begin and end with historical turning points. For example, people usually say that the baby boomer generation began at the end of World War II and ended with the assassination of President Kennedy. 

Dramatic events in world history create a shared experience and sense of destiny for each generation. This common historical experience generates similar beliefs and characteristics for members of the group. As each generation moves through the stages of life (adolescence, young adulthood, working years, and retirement) the group reshapes what it means to play that particular role in society. Trends in consumer behavior and employee expectations can be related to generational shifts—and that’s part of what’s happening in the contact center now.

Baby Boomers (born 1943–1960)

Once the largest generation in the United States, the baby boomers have had a huge impact on society. Numbering more than 70 million, they are very aware of the power their size gives them and have been at the forefront of a number of social and political movements. Growing up in a time when the telephone was the fastest means of communication, members of this generation often still prefer to use the phone to resolve service issues.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, baby boomer’ participation in the labor force peaked in the 1980s and today makes up a quarter of the workforce, a number that is declining as more and more retire. As many of the most experienced managers or agents move to part-time status or retire altogether, the need to find qualified replacements intensifies. For the time being, leadership should recognize the strong interpersonal skills often found in this generation and create opportunities for younger workers to learn from their boomer coworkers in this area.

Generation X (born 1961–1981)

Originally referred to as the baby bust generation, Generation X is a much smaller generation due to declining birth rates in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s. Growing up during a time of political and cultural upheaval, this generation learned to be self-reliant at an early age. This generation had a front-row seat for the unfolding of the third industrial revolution and is comfortable using a variety of channels—both old and new—to access customer service. That historical reference point combined with their strong independent streak has put Generation X at the forefront of entrepreneurship in the US. Many top tech companies were founded by members of this generation. 

In the labor force, Generation X is down from its peak of 54 million in 2008 and are now being tasked with filling the larger shoes of the baby boomers. This generation was the first to demand more workplace flexibility—and they were willing to go someplace else if they didn’t get it. Because they change jobs often, keeping Generation X inspired and motivated at work can be a challenge. This generation wants opportunities for continuous career development as well as considerable autonomy in the contact center.

Millennials (born 1982–2004)

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, millennials will overtake the baby boomers as the largest living adult generation in 2019. Born into the most prosperous and technologically advanced society the world has ever seen, the millennials were the first true digital natives. As such, members of this generation are oftentimes more comfortable complaining about a service issue using Twitter than calling on the telephone. Digital channels are very important to millennials.

Millennials already make up the largest share of the US labor force. In the contact center, they often represent the majority of agents given their age range. This generation will be the next wave of management, and they know it. That means they expect expert coaching and career development in order to stay engaged. Overall, they’re quite literate in digital technologies, so they are perfectly positioned to help propel your contact center forward in that regard. A company culture that supports teamwork and a sense of meaning are more important than a laundry list of job responsibilities. Recruiting this generation depends on a strong online presence, including videos and positive reviews on websites like Glassdoor or ZipRecruiter.

Generation Z (born 2005–present)

While experts are still debating the exact birth years for the start of Generation Z, there is general agreement that a new post-millennials generation is emerging. Born around the beginning of the 21st century, Generation Z is coming of age in a much more uncertain world. Like the Millennials, this new generation grew up in an environment where technology was everywhere. They’ve grown up with digital channels as their main communication method, and they will insist on a wide variety of channels being available in the contact center. 

In the workforce, Generation Z will be taking entry-level positions and, much like millennials, they will have strong tech skills but may need extra coaching when it comes to telephone and face-to-face interactions. Generation Z is likely to be an invaluable group when it comes to helping employers navigate the transition to digital customer service channels.

Managing a Multigenerational Workforce

A blend of the generations makes a strong team. Knowing generational traits gives managers a framework for understanding each generation and their typical strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, each employee still operates as an individual and is likely to behave in a variety of ways in different situations, regardless of generation. It’s important to refer to generations as a guidepost and remember not to typecast someone based on the generation they belong to.

As a manager, try to allocate different tasks to different groups in the contact center based on skill, not generation. Just because a millennial can text faster than a speeding bullet doesn’t mean the content is what you want your customers to receive. Training has to be consistent and on brand so your overall training program is the same for everyone. However, it can be designed with some assumptions based on generations. You might design a buddy system with the seating arrangement in the contact center to allow agents with complementary skills to support one another or incorporate role playing that pairs different generations together.

When it comes to incentives, understanding motivation is always the biggest challenge—another area where generational traits provide a useful guidepost. Variety is the key. Design a number of different incentives that address the different generational types on staff. Gamify when appropriate, offer some monetary incentive, and try public recognition programs. As the current generational shift unfolds, it is important to have something that appeals to staff with a variety of motivations.  

The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the accompanying generational shift are changing the way both consumers and employees behave in the contact center. By now you have a better understanding of these interrelated shifts, and how to navigate them. Each generation needs different things as employees and as consumers; having a mix of service channels available is important so you can cater to the needs of a variety of customers and recruit a strong pool of employees. 

Enter Trailblazers for the Future

Both generational and technological shifts are creating challenges for companies looking to connect with their customers. At Salesforce, we love helping companies cultivate meaningful relationships with their customers. That’s why we’re so excited about Trailblazers for the Future, a new program designed to help contact centers embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution and all the changes that come with it. 

This Trailhead module is just one part of the training we’ve developed with contact center experts. To ensure your success, we’ve created additional trails that we encourage you to check out. We're also taking Trailblazers for the Future on the road, presenting workshops across the country to build a community and help contact centers succeed in this new era. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is here, and Trailblazers for the Future is the first step on your journey into a new world of opportunities.

Resources

Pew Research Center — How Millennials today compare with their grandparents 50 years ago

Nielsen — The Nielsen Total Audience Report

Pew Research Center — Millennials are the largest generation in the U.S. labor force

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