War of the Worldviews: CX for Millennials, Gen X, and Boomers

My friend Rhonda works in IT for a business-to-business (B2B) firm, and she had had a rotten day. “First, customer service puts a client through to me even though I usually don’t deal directly with the public. He wanted to complain about how awful our website was. He said he couldn’t find any information, that the ordering system wasn’t intuitive, and that we should just go back to paper catalogs and phone calls with sales representatives. I told him I was sorry, and I asked him what I could do to make the website better. He just growled, ‘send me a real catalog’ and hung up. We haven’t even had a ‘real’ catalog for almost 5 years.”

She ordered another drink and drummed her fingers on the table. “Then, I got an email from another customer complaining that our website needed to include more self-service options. He complained that we use paper too often and that he should never have to pick up the phone to resolve a question.” She sighed loudly.

“So I checked the comments and reviews we’ve been receiving on our site, looking for more details. Do you know what I discovered? Every single one of them is positive and gives our site a five-star rating. There isn’t a single complaint. How is this even possible?” she moaned. “How can I give our customers what they want when what they want keeps changing?”

Being All Things to Everyone

Rhonda’s problem is a common one. Right now, the U.S. workforce is divided between Baby Boomers (born roughly between 1946 and 1964), Generation Xers (1965-1980), and Millennials (1981-1997), and it seems like each group has its own way of doing business on the Internet. She wants to create an online customer experience (CX) that appeals to everyone, but she needs to find a way to meet the contradictory needs of three generations who approach technology in entirely different ways.

Part of Rhonda’s problem is that, as a Gen Xer herself, she doesn’t really understand the generations on either side of her. She’s approaching clients as defective members of her generation rather than as typical members of their own. She can’t ‘fix’ the Boomers and Millennials to make them interact with her site in the proper way. Before she can straighten out her online CX, she’ll need to develop an idea of what each generation wants and needs.

Bombastic Baby Boomers

Rhonda sees Boomers as clunky when it comes to technology. Her mother still forwards chain emails without checking Snopes.com, and her father composes emails as if he’s sending them by telegram. Her parental interactions blind her to the strengths and weaknesses of the Boomer relationship to technology in the business world.

Baby Boomers are at the top of the corporate food chain. Their parents may have retired at 55, but many Boomers plan to keep working as long as they can. They’ve been in charge for a long time, and they’re used to people doing what they ask. Think of them like dragons atop a Tolkien-esque treasure heap. As long as you please them, you’re golden, but if you bore or annoy them, you’re the roast meat at dinner.

When it comes to technology, Boomers are a diverse group. Some have only adopted computers when forced by younger coworkers. Others have been working with them since the days of mainframes and punch cards, and navigate technology as well as their younger peers do.

Most Baby Boomers have smartphones, but miss their Palm Pilots and Blackberries. In fact, they use their phones as replacement Blackberries. They see them as work devices that can also make phone calls. They’ll occasionally use them to show a video of the grandkids, but they feel guilty about it, as if they were using their work computer to watch stupid cat videos.

When they’re browsing, Boomers still prefer paper catalogs to websites. They ignore email offers but read the junk mail that comes from the postal service. If they run into a problem with your site, they’ll call your customer support team for help. They aren’t in the habit of using Google to troubleshoot.

Boomers haven’t really figured out social media. They use Facebook sometimes, but mostly to keep up with their kids and grandkids. They see LinkedIn and Twitter as a way to self-promote, and often come across as stodgy and unnatural online.

Boomers put a high value on respect in online interactions and CX. They enjoy correcting errors. If you’ve screwed up, their condemnation is swift and merciless. From their perspective, they’re helping you improve and you should be thankful for their criticism. However, they’re unlikely to comment when you’ve met or exceeded their expectations.

If Rhonda wants to deal with Boomers, she’s going to need to start by seeing things from their perspective. They’re always right, and if they’re wrong, it’s because your website is defective.  

X Marks the Spot

It’s not just Rhonda—everyone loves Gen X. (I may be a bit biased here.) Gen X is in the middle of their work years and the middle of the pack. Eventually Boomers will start retiring and we’ll move up the chain, but we’ll only work until we die if we need the cash. Boomers were yuppies and define themselves by their work. Xers prize work-life balance. They want to go in, do the job they came to do, do it well, and then get out.

Since members of Generation X are so results-focused, they prefer a CX that makes self-service easy. They don’t want to spend a lot of time talking to your sales team or your customer service representatives. They want to check the task off their list and move on. Gen X also likes online catalogs and communications. They started working when Google did, and they believe that the correct combination of search terms will always find them what they need.

Generation X has embraced the smartphone, but in their formative years most didn’t even have cell phones. That means that they’re able to put it down and walk away when they don’t need it. They also grew up doing most of their work on desktops and laptops. They’re less likely to send professional communications from mobile devices if there’s another computer handy. They’d rather do business by email than by telephone, but find texts too constrictive to share big ideas. They use social media, but, again, they can walk away if they need to. They are the last generation to have a time before their lives were online.

The Boomers tried to saddle us with a ‘slacker’ label, but it didn’t stick. Xers are competent, businesslike, and efficient. They’re hard on people who make mistakes, but lavish praise on those who go beyond the call of duty. However, if you’re merely meeting expectations, Xers have nothing to say to you. They expect people to meet expectations, and don’t waste time on praise unless an action was truly unusual.

The problem with focusing on Gen X is that we’re a sandwich generation. The generations on either side are much larger and have more influence. Designing just for Gen X is like creating a beer that only appeals to science-fiction-loving organic farmers who wear flannel and ride bikes everywhere. (OK, yes, so like being a microbrewery. Which is something else Xers love.) Sure, it’s fine if you want to stay small and cater to a specific niche, but most companies strive to serve all generations, not just the coolest generation (again, biased).

Mysterious Millennials

The millennials are still fairly young. They’re still trying to figure out who they are, but more importantly, we’re trying to figure out who they are. That’s why there are so many contradictory articles about them. Millennials, in popular culture, are simultaneously lazy and workaholics, relaxed and stressed, goal-oriented and directionless, fearless innovators and mindless followers of parental directions. No wonder Rhonda can’t figure out what sort of CX will suit them. She can’t even figure out what makes them “them!”

There are a few things, however, that seem to define Millennials. They grew up using technology that worked smoothly and seamlessly. They don’t fear the ‘blue screen of death,’ and they’re comfortable backing up data to the cloud. (Gen Xers still remember the days when a floppy would suddenly fail and delete weeks of work, so we’re more paranoid.) Millennials are attached to their smartphones and comfortable using the same device for both work and recreation. In fact, the two often blend and mix in odd ways. Millennials don’t talk about work-life balance as much as just plain old balance, and they hope to find jobs that are a source of passion rather than simply a source of income.

Millennials, as a generation, are extroverted. They seek new experiences, empathy, and emotional connections, even in their business dealings. You can see this in their tendency to choose companies based on corporate values rather than deal-shopping. They want everything they buy and use to reflect their values, and they see their choices as a way to make the world a better place, one purchase at a time.

Millennials also respond to personal contacts with your staff more positively than Boomers or Xers. Those contacts don’t have to be face-to-face or over the phone, though. Email, text, and social media can all help you reach out to this generation, and they respond to your outreach with a wave of positive emotions.

One oft-repeated trope is that Millennials demand constant praise. However, they also give constant praise. It’s as important to their generation as respect is to the Boomers and efficiency is to the Xers. This praise differential is one of the biggest sources of intergenerational conflict. Millennials truly believe that if you can’t say something nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all. They give and receive praise even for basic proficiency, but they turn silent in the face of failure (unless you venture into a YouTube comment thread—which I don’t recommend). When Xers and Boomers criticize, it feels to Millenials like an aggressive attack, because they avoid critical speech at all costs.

The Millennial silence is part of Rhonda’s problem. In her world, silence signals expectations met, but for Millennials, silence is an expression of a disappointment so overwhelming that they can’t find words for it.

Helping Rhonda Improve CX

Once you understand generational differences, Rhonda’s confusing morning in IT makes perfect sense.

The Baby Boomer called to complain because, in his mind, he shouldn’t have to deal with the website at all. Rhonda can solve his problem by making customer service information easier to find online. For instance, she can add a banner to the main page that reads “Prefer to order by phone? Contact our service representatives at 1-800-XXX-XXXX.” Even though only a subset of Boomers loathes self-service sites, this simple change will show people who prefer phone orders that you’re a service-oriented company.

The exasperated Xer needs better self-service options. His email is a plea for more efficiency and functionality. If she stops hearing from him, Rhonda will know she corrected the problem. It’s easy to ignore Xers since no news is good news, but if they start complaining, your website needs serious work. If it’s not working for the Xers, it’s not working for the Millennials either. Rhonda and her staff need to do some serious testing and debugging.

Rhonda’s going to have a harder time figuring out what Millennials need, since they only give positive feedback. She needs to make a list of her goals for the site, and then see if she’s received comments suggesting that she’s met her mark. She should focus on good self-service and more mobile options, reading their comments carefully to see what they appreciated and what they never mention. One benefit of designing for Millennials is that all three generations appreciate Millennial-friendly design.

Rhonda will know when she’s achieved a forward-looking, Millennial-friendly customer experience because she’ll receive lots of feedback from younger users and hear nothing from Xers and Boomers. As an Xer herself, she’s a little flummoxed by this method of testing. “You mean I’ll know that I have it right when it’s getting flowery thank yous for doing what it ought to have been doing all along?” She sighs and takes another sip of her latest microbrew obsession. “You know what? At least they’re appreciative when I finally do figure out what we need.” She raises her glass. “Here’s to Millennials!”


Interested in keeping in touch? Sign up for our newsletter.