As a member of the Baby Boomer generation, my age group (and possibly yours, too), has held a firm grip on the buying process at industrial companies for decades. This is changing rapidly as many of our cohorts reach retirement age and the Millennials – people in the 25-40 age range –replace us. As this demographic shift continues, my team and I are finding it enjoyable to work with this new generation who bring fresh ideas, new skill sets and a new mindset to the purchasing of industrial products and services.
This change in perspectives and expectations requires us to understand an underlying shift in the sales cycle. At times we find it may take longer than it used to because there’s more information available for people to consider before making a purchasing decision. Also, Millennials want to know as much as possible about what they’re sourcing and from who they are sourcing before they begin talking to us.
We’re adjusting to this new reality through innovations in how we go to market. On many fronts we are doing this quicker than I ever dreamed possible. We are motivated to be more aware of trends in the industries we serve so we can anticipate the needs of customers and make suggestions to people who have different perspectives than their predecessors and generally are much more open to suggestions.
Educating & Engaging Have Replaced Traditional Selling
When prospective customers are researching new suppliers, something I’ve noticed is that Boomers, Gen Xers (40-55-year-olds) and Millennials alike use company websites and online searches extensively. What’s changed in recent years however is a trend that is likely to continue for some time to come. Millennials use social media instead of a company sales rep as a primary source of information.
By social media, I’m referring to online product reviews, posts on LinkedIn and Twitter and interactions derived from electronic newsletters or targeted e-mails. With such a high level of comfort researching potential suppliers and even purchasing high-value products online without talking to a sales rep, Millennials are leading us to be more proactively consultative in our approach to winning their business. They want to know that we care about their needs, speak their language and know our stuff before trusting us with their purchasing dollars.
Channels for engagement are also changing because Millennials prefer the flexibility offered by digital technologies. Specifically, they want to get information and make purchases through websites on laptops or desktops, as well as on mobile devices and on timetables that are convenient for them rather than during the “normal business hours” industrial companies and their sales reps have traditionally kept.
A big component of being educational and engaging without being excessively promotional is the use of online marketing through E-newsletters and targeted e-mails explaining what we’re offering and how it adds value. Such engagement requires ongoing development of content, but it’s something that we’re finding to be worth our time. Why? Because it allows us to establish the necessary credibility with the Millennial buyers who value knowledge and approachability more than Boomers and Gen Xers who generally are more price-driven and less inclined than their Millennial successors to solicit others’ opinions of their beliefs or assumptions before making that buying decision.
Despite this growing authority of Millennials in the buying process, Boomers and Gen Xers still wield a lot of clout and often must sign off on Millennials’ recommendations. In numerous instances, I’ve noticed that Millennials’ curiosity and desire to engage has rubbed off on their older colleagues. This shift has led us to become even more accommodating of requests for prototypes and trial runs because taking our word for something – as truthful and experienced as it may be – just isn’t good enough anymore, and that’s OK.
Other areas where we’re experiencing different expectations from Millennials than from Boomers and Gen Xers include the need for peers, not just superiors, to be pleased with a purchasing decision. Millennials also desire to work with partners committed to sustainability (environmental stewardship has been in our DNA since we opened our doors nearly 25 years ago) and a desire for post-sales support, which is something we’ve always provided at various levels based on customers’ needs.
As the saying goes, “The only constant is change,” and we’re comfortable changing with the times. We do our best to accommodate the needs of customers, specifiers and influencers that span multiple generations and that all grew up and advanced professionally using different methods to become educated buyers.
The result of this passing of the torch from one generation to the next is that purchasing decisions, and the messaging we use to facilitate them, require more nuance than in the past. Millennials value flexibility and collaboration while older buyers, still significant but declining in numbers, place greater emphasis on price and value.
Turning Perception into Reality
As buyers become younger (i.e., Millennials), they appear more inclined to buy direct from manufacturers than through distributors. It’s something we’re experiencing in talking to younger buyers, and it’s also borne out in an Industrial Buying Dynamics Study that UPS conducted earlier this year. This tendency to “buy direct” requires us to work harder than ever to communicate and demonstrate our value proposition regardless of selling direct or through another channel. Flexibility is key.
Our strength in service customization dovetails with Millennials’ affinity to customized products and services. The challenge is to create – through social media -- the level of trust required for them to buy from us rather than from a competitor. And in using social media, companies must decide how much expertise their willing to provide before generating the first dollar of revenue from that Millennial customer.
Based on years of experience, we’ve found a happy medium between playing our cards close to the vest, as the expression goes, and giving the store away. Although the specifics vary from one customer to another, the common elements are honesty and a willingness to do whatever it takes, onsite or offsite, to help the customer solve a problem or relieve pain and make sure after the sale that the problem or pain doesn’t recur.
What’s more, we pride ourselves on making time for customers on a moment’s notice based on their needs. Such flexibility allowed us to build our business and it resonates particularly well with Millennials who, as a generation, value agility and spontaneity more than previous ones.
Because we explain things in as much detail as a customer desires, we take the risk out of doing business with us, and that’s something I’ve discovered younger buyers appreciate, and many of them have told me that it’s one of the key reasons they chose us rather than someone else.
By taking the time to note key differences among buyers of different generations and creating or adapting strategies for responding to each generation’s “hot buttons” we have been able to remain competitive in a business environment that is becoming more dynamic and more competitive every day.
The conventional wisdom is that Millennials have no loyalty and that they’ll buy from a source that’s most convenient. Although that statement may ring true in some instances, our experience has been different because we’ve committed ourselves to meeting a growing percentage of our market on its own terms rather than expecting it to meet us on ours.
Our ability to work with buyers of all ages, levels of technical understanding and support requirements is the result of a conscious effort that all of us at Tru-Edge have made to treat our customers as family and to regard their businesses as if they were our own. We have always been a customer centric company.
This attitude, and the underlying values that we have held since going into business when the oldest Millennials were learning how to drive, should serve us well for many years to come.
Although we consider ourselves to be in the tool life management business, we’re really in the business of manufacturing trust that allows us to put our expertise to work for customers. With buyers from the Millennial generation, winning their business is exemplified by an expression you’ve doubtless heard many times: “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
What has it been like for you and your team to meet the needs of Millennial customers?