Yesterday, waiting for my lunch appointment to arrive, I watched a young man behind the counter texting to a friend between customers. My first reaction was dismay. Shortly after, I realized it is his generation who will be teaching our generation about customer relationships. A little scary? Maybe.
It only seems scary because we’re used to an older generation assuming the mentor role in work environments. Traditionally, it’s the high-seniority professionals showing the younger, less experienced mentees the ropes.
However, if you’re of the Baby Boom Generation, you’ve probably noticed a reverse mentoring trend happening in the workplace. It’s essentially Gen Y (also known as Millennials) mentoring the well-established, more experienced workforce, as opposed to the other way around. The trend is most noticeable in professional fields where technology is an integral part of the work environment.
What Gen Y is telling us
Although no one seems to agree exactly where Gen Y starts and stops (late 1970s – late 1990s), it is a fact that it is the largest generation (approximately 80 million) to hit the American market since the Baby Boomers.
Gen Y are digital natives, meaning digital technology already existed when they were born. They can easily multi-task between searching the Internet, listening to music on their MP3, texting on their mobile phone, while TV is playing in the background.
Growing up amid a high-speed bombardment of information has produced a generation with short attention spans, no doubt. But, it has also produced a sharp generation who understand how to effectively market themselves and products using social networks.
Why Boomers should listen
Because of the emerging influence of Gen Y, it’s important we understand how they’re different in order to monetize marketing strategies in a Web 2.0 environment. When marketing to them, remember that:
- Mobile phones are like an extension of their arm
- They don’t care about ads, but what their friends think
- Television is background noise; Internet TV is better
- Social media networks equal relationship building
- They expect work tools to mirror Web tools
- They value work-life balance; flex-time, an ability to work from anywhere in a “fun” work environment; a need to “buy in” to an idea (aka “Generation Why?”)
An environment where everyone wins
If we can embrace the concept of reverse mentoring, and recognize the positive changes Gen Y brings to business, everyone can benefit. Boomers can learn from Gen Y’s ability to adapt quickly to changing work environments, and at how easily they give and receive feedback. Having grown up during the Enron era, they are skeptical about concepts such as company loyalty, and appear to have an almost built in expectation of company layoffs.
With recent talk of a flu pandemic preparing to invade the Northern Hemisphere in just a few weeks, wouldn’t you like to spread something good virally? Then, a dose of pay it forward may be just what you need.
Novelist Lily Hardy Hammond wrote, “You don’t pay love back; you pay it forward.”
The pay it forward concept involves repaying kindness by performing random acts of kindness for others. Sociologists refer to it as “generalized reciprocity.”
Whatever the phrase actually means, it’s likely most of us picture it as a little kid with a big idea in the film with the same name. That was the extent of my knowledge, until last week.
I waited patiently in the drive-thru at our local Starbucks for my usual non-fat Caffè Mocha. I scarcely noticed a woman in the car in front of me as she paid for her coffee and drove off.
I moved up to the window to pick up my coffee, when the barista said, “Never mind paying, your coffee was paid for by ‘Anne,’ the woman who was in front of you.” I gave her a surprised look and she continued, “Yeah, last week we had 10 cars in a row that did the same thing, one after another.” Still a bit stunned, I looked into the rear view mirror and noticed there was no one behind me. She looked at me and said, “Just buy one for someone next time.”
I was happy, yet puzzled that someone I could NEVER thank would do such a nice thing for me. It soon turned to curiousity about how this whole thing started.
When I got home, I plugged some keywords into Google and found that Starbucks has been virally spreading this concept on and off since about 2005. A nice gesture apparently started from an angry one. An impatient Starbucks customer began honking and yelling at the driver in front of him. This driver, a tai chi master, responded with a bit of Zen, and bought the angry man’s coffee. This set off a chain reaction of drivers buying coffee for the person in the line behind them and so on. (Although, many think that Starbucks uses it as an undercover PR campaign.)
Whatever its reason for promotion, if social communications can bring an idea to life that sparks real people to do real nice things for each other, should we care?
No matter how you do it, by all means, do it. If you don’t drink coffee, or frequent Starbucks, here are five other ways you can pay it forward.
- Give life to others at the next Red Cross blood drive
- Take a stressed-out coworker to lunch (and listen)
- Donate your time or funds to help a local animal rescue shelter http://www.romeothecat.com/
- Become a Big Brother or Big Sister http://bit.ly/5MkE
- Give to a true pay it forward organization http://www.heifer.org/
Wildflowers are at their peak in late summer in Ohio. As I walk along the trails near my home, I wonder if the wildflowers I consider to be beautiful are thought of as weeds to others passing by.
This difference in perception reminds me of a story a friend talked about recently involving his experience with a company.
Prior to losing his job, he worked at only a handful of other companies during his 40 years in business. He last job-hunted when resumes were sent by mail or hand-delivered. He never considered the idea of building a positive, one-on-one relationship with a company to be outdated.
A recent telephone interview he had with a corporate recruiter ended with her comment, “I will call you with the result, either way.” After some time passed without hearing anything, my friend tried various ways to contact her. Since he didn’t have her direct phone number, he decided to call the company’s main number. He asked to speak with the recruiter and was told, “We do not forward calls to the HR department from people applying for work. She will call you back if more information is needed.”
Imagine a customer service representative from your company telling a prospective client: “Don’t call us; we’ll call you if we need you.”
It’s understandable with the number of unemployed workers these days, that companies use online means to filter candidates. And, granted, most job candidates understand the new rules (if your follow up e-mails are ignored long enough you’ll eventually take the hint). However, when your company does get that occasional call or person stopping by, wouldn’t you want to leave them (a potential customer) with a better impression? How did this company brand itself with my friend? Not only was he put off by this experience, he told everyone he knows.
Social media is all about building customer relationships and is the digital equivalent of word of mouth. We’ve seen how it can enhance a company’s brand or just as easily create a public relations nightmare. We all know bad news travels fast. We also know that word of mouth is now real-time information spread via social media channels. It is a steeper slope to reverse public perception of a company branded as a weed.
In short, anyone who calls on your business is a potential customer, and should be thought of as a relationship opportunity, not a problem.
This concept brings to mind a similar blog post by Seth Godin entitled “All I do is work here.” Employees don’t often see themselves as branding the company’s image to passersby. It’s easier for an employee to claim, “I just get a paycheck …” than to take any real responsibility for protecting their company’s brand.
As Seth so aptly put it, “You don’t just represent them, you ARE them.”
Considering the power of social media tools and the transparency of business these days, how do you want virtual passersby to brand your company — as a wildflower, or a weed?