There is a monumental shift occurring in our economy right now, spurred on by the COVID pandemic, and it is permanently altering how people prefer to buy and sell goods moving forward. And as a business owner, if you don’t adapt to this shift, you will fail to capture customers from future generations, stalling your growth. In fact, this may already be happening, and you just don’t realize it.
We are moving away from a manual process of buying things; physically, in-person, or on the phone, to a less personal but more automated type of buying; through websites, apps, texts, and emails. It’s not because the old ways don’t work, it’s because the new ways are more efficient, easier, cheaper, and safer.
And the tools that guide us in our decision making are changing too – and have changed for many already. Older generations – like the Baby Boomers and Generation X for example – still may kick the tires, or take a test drive, listen to a pitch from a salesperson, sit through a PowerPoint presentation, or check references on the phone.
But future generations, starting with the Millennials, Generation Z, and many people from older generations, prefer buying from companies who supply helpful content, and make purchasing easier through automation.
This content can be in the form of customer and editorial reviews, images and videos, recorded or live audio, publicity or press clippings, e-books, guides, and tip sheets.
And this helpful information should be available on a centralized hub, like your website. And this type of content is what fuels organic search engine success when people are searching for products and services in your category of business.
The automation part simply means customers don’t have to make a phone call, meet with somebody, or even print anything in order to complete a purchase. Everything can be done online through a computer or smart phone.
Just think about how you buy something on Amazon. You go to their website where there is a wide array of products to choose from, but also an abundance of helpful content to assist you in your decision-making process. And when you’re ready to buy, all you have to do is click a button to complete the purchase.
Amazon provides reviews from other customers along with ratings on each product. You can view each product from a variety of angles, in different colors, read samples of books, view video, and hear audio products.
They also supply an abundance of independent editorial content. For example, if you are looking for new bedding you can read reviews from a company called Sleepopolis, the self-proclaimed leading resource for sleep information, whose team has tested and reviewed thousands of products, independent of Amazon, all to help you complete your purchase.
Amazon gives you every reason to complete a sale on their platform. And as more and more people get accustomed to shopping this way, it’s imperative you make some adjustments in your own business to serve future generations of buyers.
If you look at the three primary generations of adults alive today, they all have different habits in how they shop and purchase goods and services. The source of my insights come from a variety of books and studies noted at the end of this chapter.
Born Between 1981 – 1996, Estimated Population = 72 million, Estimated Buying Power = $300 + Billion Annually
- They harness the internet and technology to make better and more informed decisions
- Rarely buy anything without peer reviews or testimonials from other customers, also heavily influenced by what their friends buy
- Most traditional brand adverting will fall on deaf ears, whereas user-generated content from other customers, word of mouth, and social selling are much more persuasive
- Very price conscious and base purchasing decisions on getting the utmost value out of a purchase, price is one of the most significant forces powering brand loyalty
- Researching online, shopping in-store, or purchasing on a mobile device or home computer, tech enables them to purchase how and when they want.
- Their personal and professional lives revolve around their smart phones, with very little talking on the phone, rather it’s texting, chatting or emails.
Born 1965 – 1980, Estimated Population = 65 million, Estimated Buying Power = $357 + Billion Annually
- Very responsive to email marketing, they use email in their personal and business lives frequently
- This is the generation that stopped using the phone book in favor of online search, and they rely heavily on search engines to conduct their personal and professional business
- Still influenced by traditional media channels like television, radio and print, and direct mail
- More tech savvy than given credit for, they embrace technology to help buy and sell more efficiently
- Facebook is the primary social media channel
- Very loyal to products and service providers who have performed well in the past and are prone to still do business manually – over the phone or in-person – but increasingly comfortable shopping online
Born 1946 – 1964, Estimated Population = 72 million, Estimated Buying Power = $548 + Billion Annually
- This generation values in-person customer service and the in-store shopping experience
- The basis of their decision will rely heavily on the personal interaction with the someone, and the perceived reputation of that company in their local community
- Very price conscious and fiscally conservative
- Heavy traditional media users, particularly TV
- Some still use what’s left of the yellow pages in favor of online searches, and most Boomers have computers and are spending more and more time on them
- Blind loyalty to those who have provided good service or experiences in the past
- Most have smart phones, but only the younger end of this generation really knows how to use its full capabilities. My Aunt Vennie is 94 years old, has the latest iPhone, but only uses it to talk to people. Doesn’t even text.
How to Sell to Every Generation
In Habit #2, I urged you to start creating offers or ways of appealing to consumers in every stage of the buying process for your product or service. Some people are ready to buy now, but more are not ready, and are open to absorbing helpful content related to that purchase. You can supply this type of content in exchange for their contact information, giving you an invitation to directly market to them at a much lower cost.
From an execution standpoint, you should be doing the same thing, making it easier for every generation of buyers to do business with you. And you don’t have to be Amazon to do this successfully. You don’t even have to sell anything online, but you should automate as much of your selling process as possible.
Most businesses have the Baby Boomers and Generation X covered with manual ways of completing a sale. Like in-person appointments and printed estimates, in-store shopping or sales appointments in an office, or via the phone. But fewer have optimized for future generations, who prefer a more automated buying process.
During the summer of 2020, in the middle of the COVID pandemic, I bought a new house. And while working from home, my list of home improvement projects kept growing, and I started engaging with dozens of home service companies. I met with plumbers, electricians, HVAC people, landscapers, painters, tree people, fence people, lawn services, garage door people, roofers, gutter installers, and more.
As a proud card-carrying member of Generation X, I initially clung to my generational habits of buying. Starting with a search on Google, leading to me visit a variety of websites, and then calling to arrange an appointment, ending with an approved estimate for work.
But after a while, all of this manual work became a drag. For example, I found most businesses were unable to answer all of their in-bound calls, sending me to voicemail. Then I’d often have to wait a few days for a return call, and often I would miss their call, and phone tag would ensue for several days. What, a, waste, of, time.
And whenever I scheduled appointments, in almost every single instance, the service professional would call me before our appointment, sometimes hours before, and ask if they could come out earlier, because other jobs finished up sooner than expected.
This may be good for them, so they could cram more appointments into a day. But it made me feel like their time was more valuable than mine. It also involved a lot more phone tag to reschedule. Again, waste of time.
And when it came time to buy, and hand over my money, most of the vendors in this industry accepted credit cards, but had to call into their office to run my card over the phone, often adding a surcharge of 1 – 3% to cover the merchant fees on credit cards.
Here I was, a 47-year-old member of Generation X, longing to embrace a better more automated way of engaging with this industry. Part of it was in response to the pandemic, but also in how accustomed I had become to buying things from the likes of Amazon. I had become addicted to the convenience of automation versus the manual process of phone calls or in-person appointments. And I am far from alone in this.
It was obvious that very few of in the home services industry had adapted to how future generations, and older generations, were preferring to do business. They were very much stuck in the Baby Boomer and Generation X era.
The Story of ABC Fence
I’ll focus on one example, my experience of buying a new fence from the ABC Fence Company. That’s not their real name, and if there is an ABC Fence out there, I’m not talking about you.
In my hometown of Indianapolis, ABC is one of the most successful residential and commercial fence builders in town, grossing over $10M in annual sales. And you would be shocked with how hard it is to do business with them. From an operational standpoint, doing things like sourcing wood, hiring labor, and constructing fences, they excel. But when it comes to customer relations and the selling process, taking some simple strides toward automation and content creation will have dramatic positive impact on their future profits.
About 10 years ago, ABC built a fence at my old house. I hired them because they built my neighbor’s fence. I spent over $5,000 on that project, and since that time, I haven’t heard one word from them. Not a postcard, an email, or a letter, nothing. But I was happy with their work and wanted to use them again. Still, after 10 years, I forgot their name.
So, I had to go back to my old house, and hope that little sign was still attached to my old fence. This remains the only marketing tactic I can see that the fence industry invests in … tiny signs attached to their finished product, hoping the homeowners don’t remove them.
And without question, most people, especially anyone under 40 years old, wouldn’t have gone to this trouble. The fact I did was a direct result of my generational habits, I valued the good work, I had a sense of loyalty, and knew they would do a good job. Price really wasn’t an issue.
So, I visited their website, hoping to schedule an appointment without having to make another phone call. And on their homepage there was a lot of information about how the owner built the company from scratch. But nothing really helpful to a person considering a project of this size, with thousands of dollars at stake.
Even after having done this before, I still had many questions. Like how do we deal with the neighbors? Do you remove the old fence? What about the brush and trees that have overgrown the fence? What type of material should I use?
And here are two indisputable reasons why my concerns, or the questions of any potential customers, should be addressed with helpful content accessible without having to talk to a salesperson.
- By not addressing it, you will repel a good number of future generations who visit your website in their quest to find a vendor.
- And this type of helpful information, by the way, is exactly what propels any business to the top of organic google searches in your category of business.
Finally, down at the very bottom of the home page, after scrolling through all of the unhelpful content, I found a tiny link where I could request an appointment. And after two days, someone finally called me back. But of course, I’m not available when they call. After a few days of phone tag, we finally land on a date where they’ll send one of their salespeople out to my house.
Their salesperson arrives at my home, and he does a great job of explaining a variety of solutions for my fencing needs. Why couldn’t they translate some of that knowledge into helpful content on their website? Heck, I’m just happy he stuck to our scheduled appointment time and didn’t try to come out earlier.
About 5 days later, and I get an email with my estimate. But the email doesn’t come from ABC Fence, it’s not even from the name of my salesperson, the email comes from an email address called “office”. Notice how another home improvement company just above my fence email identifies who they are, this is super simple stuff.
Amazingly, this email doesn’t go into my spam folder, and out of sheer curiosity and with some fear I might be clicking on malware, I open the email and realize it’s from my friends at ABC Fence.
I download the estimate (1), print it out (2), sign it (3), scan it (4), upload into another email (5), then send it back to the “office” email address (6). And now I need to pay a 25% deposit to get on their calendar, and the options are to either mail a check or call and give the receptionist my credit card over the phone (7).
When I call, of course nobody answers and I leave a voicemail, then phone tag ensues for a few more days until finally we complete the sales process.
In summary, it took more work for me to do business with ABC Fence than it did for them to build the darn fence! The process to approve an estimate and pay them alone required SEVEN different manual actions on my part.
Nobody in future generations will ever stand for this, and when all of us Baby Boomers and Gen Xer’s pass away, a business who doesn’t provide helpful content and automation to their selling processes will assuredly pass away too.
Here are the 5 things any business should start doing to appeal to future generations:
- Stay Directly Engaged with Past Customers: You must collect a database of past customers and stay in touch with them, through regular mail and email. Regardless of what type of business you are in – even if you’re average customer only buys a fence from you every 10 years, they are still your best prospects and best source for referrals. Send a Christmas card, invest in some inexpensive email software that automatically sends them emails, do a newsletter, just do something to stay directly engaged with your customers and don’t rely on social media to do this for you (see Habit #1).
- Give Customers Multiple Ways of Interacting with Your Business: Several times while trying to set up an appointment to get an estimate, I got a voice mail. As you know, in-bound calls are the lifeblood of any service business. Sending potential leads to voicemail should be avoided at all costs, putting them on hold would be better. But how do you do this without adding a bunch of staff and labor costs? I would automate the process by giving customers the option of filling out a detailed questionnaire about their project needs on your website first. Many will embrace this option, residential or commercial, especially buyers from younger generations. And those who don’t can still call. But having this option will reduce the number of laborious calls and capture more overall leads. Think about this for a moment, there are probably several hundred potential customers visiting your website each year who won’t call – but would fill out a questionnaire to start the sales process. Properly executed, this will weed out unqualified prospects, reduce labor costs, and increase your closing ratio by allowing your salespeople to focus on the jobs that are the most profitable – giving you more control of the sales process.
- Develop some truly helpful content and put it on your website. Start with something simple, like a report or tip-sheet. It doesn’t need to be a novel, and it doesn’t even have to be well written because customers know it’s not coming from a professional writer, it’s coming from a business owner. But it does need to offer some truly helpful inside knowledge. Share what you’ve learned in your years of experience. You don’t even have to write it, hire someone to interview you and write it out for you. Or just record a video of someone interviewing you. Just do something and then feature this content on your website. It should be the centerpiece, and people who want to read it must provide an email address before they download it, giving you leads for your sales team to follow up with. After a few months challenge yourself to find more ways of developing helpful content – start capturing testimonials and quotes from customers, take photos and videos from actual jobs and point out the unique ways you conduct your business. Build layer upon layer of content. It doesn’t have to look slick, or professional, but it does have to be helpful.
- Automate Your Estimate Approval Process. Remember when ABC Fence sent me me an email from “office” to approve a $5,000 job? They aren’t alone, most home services businesses are using email to send estimates, but many of them are doing it poorly. Emails should come from the business, not the employees, unless they are salespeople who have established a relationship. Even then, their email addresses should have the name of the business in them. And more importantly, allow for a customer to complete the transaction automatically. If you require a signature on a piece of paper in order to move forward with a job, don’t make a customer print, download, scan, upload and send another email. There are services like DocuSign that allow for signatures to occur digitally and automatically, and it doesn’t cost much. This will reduce labor and the time it takes for money to enter your bank account.
- Automate the Payment Process: It’s so easy to automatically collect thousands of dollars with no effort and no labor. There are dozens of digital merchant solutions available so customers can pay online – ideally by clicking a link on their estimate. And instead of adding a surcharge to cover merchant fees, bake it into the existing price, and offer a cash discount instead. This is what gas stations have successfully done since the Baby Boomer generation.
Sources of generational buying behavior:
- Millennials Are Not Aliens, by Gui Costin
- Revel Systems Study of The Generational Breakdown of Purchasing Patterns. https://revelsystems.com/resources/generational-breakdown-purchasing-patterns/
- Synchrony Financials study Balancing Multi-Generational Retail Strategies, Winning over Millennials without losing Boomers
- Epislon’s Guide to Cross Generational Marketing https://us.epsilon.com/resources/cross-generational-marketing