How to Communicate With Millennials in a B2B Environment – a Conversation With Liz Keene


One in five B2B decision makers is a Millennial. This will no doubt increase in the coming years. So, it is now more crucial than ever before to learn how to communicate and engage with Millennials. Director Nick Hague recently sat down with Millennials expert Liz Keene to talk all things Millennials with a particular focus on B2B.

Nick Hague: I think the starting point for today’s discussion is to positon our conversation. A lot of our clients have started asking questions and focus their attention on what we term ‘millennials’. Shifts are taking place in the business world, in terms of ‘who these decision makers are’ and therefore ‘who should we speak to’ and ‘how should we target them’.

Before we get into detail, I think it would be very good if you could just start off by giving a quick background on who you are Liz and your take on this topic because I know you are steeped in information around generations, how generations differ and what millennials or what ‘Generation Y’ looks like.

Liz Keene: So my name is Liz Keene and I am the lead founder, trainer and facilitator at the Training Studio and we started about seven years ago now looking into why and how businesses attract, develop and retain their talents. Initially it was to deal with millennials but it has now expanded into how to create, high performing, cross generational teams. Because each generation brings in some value to the business they work in and we are dedicated at looking at structures, processes, polices at how businesses work best to get the most out of different generations, across their spectrum.

As you alluded to, businesses are changing so much, so it’s one way at looking at team dynamics, looking at generations. There also a lot of different factors such as, why generations work so well together, why certain generations talk to each other a lot better and what we really do is to think about how we can get the best out of each generation. The reason why I really got into it initially is instinct. Just to touch on this, I was working for a very large retail organisation, successful employer; one of their benefits was looking at pensions and sabbaticals for long service, and I was going to lots of graduates and talking to them about ‘if you work for us you get this and you get that’ but none of it was really resonating with them in term of something attractive. They were talking about other employers who’d come to roadshow, who talked about free gym memberships or free fruit every Friday, and those were the things at the time was so simple but these big companies weren’t just moving towards what was attracting the younger generation and that was really why I got into it in the first place.

In terms of what is happening now, it’s interesting that only recently companies are starting to say “oh, let’s think about the millennials” or “let’s think about what young talent wants”. A big part of the push with where we have been working over the last couple years is with schools and universities. There’s a big disconnect between what we are talking to school aged children about like, ‘what the work place is like’, ‘what you are going to move into’ and ‘what they actually end up getting at the end of the university system, not quite sure what they are doing, where to go, how to get a job’ and the challenges they face when coming into the workplace.

Nick: It might be good actually at this point to talk in detail about millennials. When we talk of them and we have generation X, generation Y and baby boomers but when we talk millennials, are we talking about people aged under thirty-five?

Liz: Yes, in general and this is where it gets a grey area, there is fair amount of research about it. Looking at the four main categories there are; the baby boomers, generation X and Y and generation Z or Apple are trying to call them I gen, these are the guys currently at school. Even more recently looking at generation Y they have different fractions, so I generally talk about first generation Y and second generation Y, but that’s into the bracket you mentioned, but for clarification for this conversation millennials fall within the 18-30 age bracket.

Nick: I know we have done some research where we speak to lots of different decision makers, thousands every day for our research purposes. We have had a look at some of the data we hold, we have seen that at the moment, one in five are business decision makers that fall into that millennial category, but that will massively shift as we go through the years.

With regards to how millennials make decisions in business, are they different to what’s gone before generation X and baby boomers, do they place importance on different things when making decisions?

Liz: I think there are a lot of similarities but each generation definitely have different traits that are conflicting often with the recent generations that have gone before. I think the great pro that you get from decision making from millennials is that in general, they make very quick decisions, they speak their own language and there is a momentum.

Usually there is a lot of frustration with millennials in the work place in that things don’t get done quick enough. Everything just happens annually, it’s just very slow. The idea of wanting to move things through very quickly, that’s come from how they are brought up. They are massive multi-tasker’s because from the day they are born they have the TV on and the radio on, mobile phone on, everything is on all the time. So I think there is a certain speed in which millennials make decisions and certainly projects seem to happen quite fast. There is a real thirst for getting it done, and getting that to move through.

The negative side of that would be I guess there is sometime short-termism, in the sense that they want to get things done quickly and move on to the next. I find that generation X managers I work with quite a lot, get real frustration that these millennials are brilliant at the beginning of a project when it’s exciting and there’s lot’s to do and as soon as we start to move towards difficult waters and the project takes longer they tend to lose interest slightly.

They are not as confident in general. Millennials tend to not be as confident with conflict which is based face-to-face. A lot of research has been done and is certainly an area I am quite interested in at the moment is how technology plays a role on how we communicate and millennials tend to sit behind email or anything that gives them time to think instead of having a face to face conversation which means that meetings are much less effective because people say ‘let’s take this off line’ or ‘let me come back to you with my decision’ which slows things down whereas we might have a baby boomer or generation X member come in and get that decision made very quickly.

Another big millennial trait is that they perceive themselves to be risk takers, in that they have had their gap year and gone around the world and that sort of thing. Majority are however taking risks in a safe environment. They have baby boomer parents who will look after them if it all falls down. They have been told they can be anything they want in the whole wide world. Whiles they do take risks and tend to be from a place of ‘safety’, they do get challenged by having to take a risk outside of their safety net, which is conflicting to baby boomer that are known to make very challenging business decisions, of course not without thinking, but just moving forward in unchartered territory whereas millennials need just a bit more security to be able to make that decision.

Nick: Tied in with this I suppose, how they communicate, often our clients are asking, ‘how can we get the attention of these new business decision makers?’ and I suppose its common sense in that it would be in the digital form. But what do you think B2B marketers should take into consideration when trying to communicate to millennials? As you say, is it similar but slightly different in terms of using more and more digital?

Liz: I think digital is certainly everywhere and it’s the way they tend to naturally communicate, they are almost addicted to technology rather than depended on it. If you take away a mobile phone from a 22 year old it’s like they can’t function. A big thing certainly through the clients I am working with is that it is not necessary just talking but actually listening. A lot of marketing industry tends to be very advertising and push the message, and actually the ones that have made more impact is actually listening to the people they are trying to communicate with and not over advertising and not pushing agendas.

It is interesting to see at the moment the trend of people moving away from platforms like Facebook, who when they started advertising on they turned off a whole range of people who were enjoying in talking to each other but the minute there is an advert, even though it has been put there because it is something of interest due to their online activity, it gets in the way and invades their space. Recommendations from friends are still pretty high up there. Word of mouth amongst the millennials is still very important.

There has been a real boom in experience and emotional marketing in the sense of ‘you are giving me a message by showing me what I am missing out on by not doing this’ or’ how much better my life would be if I had this product or this service’. Millennials remember have a very short attention span so if it is something I can easily absorb, share with my friends and look good by sharing it, have a conversation around it, that’s brilliant. But in seven days’ time I might have forgotten what the key message was. So the emotional experience with marketing to millennials seems to really hit home. It does matter to them how they look, brands are important. Again there are different fractions in generation Y, we also have things such as ‘how much money they have’ and when we talk about brand it’s easy to assume that they are addicted to brands. I think they are in a way but it’s more like what their friends have so it’s like ‘all my friends have a iPhone, I want an iPhone’ and ‘ all my friends have Adidas, I want Adidas’ so brands are important. It’s interesting, I was thinking about it the other day, is that really different from previous generations. I was doing a presentation between cross generations and I was referring to the baby boomers as the John Lewis generation, but it was different as they were more about quality and service whereas with the millennials it’s more about showing off, than about quality and customer service, which is what you would get with the older generations.

Nick: That was actually going to be one of my questions. As every new generation comes about, then the generation that went before are very, very different but actually when you look at the heart of it all then we are all human beings and we all make decisions in the same way. Do you think there is this real difference in these millennials that is coming through, that we haven’t seen before with generation X or baby boomers back in the day. Or do you think it’s really about the way they network, the technology that is at their disposal these days that really is the differentiator?

Liz: I always talk about it in two different ways. One is of course is the life stage, so any generation in their teenage years act a certain way then when you get in your twenties and thirties and then you have a family. So your life stages will dictate the way you make decisions. For example, if someone has a mortgage you cannot be jumping around getting different jobs because you obviously have a responsibility. The differences are to think about generations when they hit 30s. Baby boomers who hit their 30s generally owned their own home, majority were married or in a committed relationships and majority had maybe one or two children, they didn’t have a student loan hanging over them. They certainly hadn’t travelled the world or any of the stuff that the millennials had.

If you look at a typical millennial and vast majority don’t own their own home, vast majority aren’t even married or in a committed relationship, vast majority haven’t even thought of having a family. So everything is being pushed back slightly. We do not know fully what the full impact of what that means when it comes to consumers or where businesses will go but what you are starting to see is with things like maternity where everyone is having children later and what a difference that will make when you are coming back to work place. The fact that millennials will never retire, they are not there sitting and thinking ‘between age of 25-60 I will work really hard and then retire. They are thinking I have got to find something I want to do forever because I will never be able to settle down or have my own property or only when my parents are able to help me financially. So you are getting people actually where 40 is the new 30. Millennials are at 40s where boomers are in their 30s and that’s where there is a significant shift. So yes, while there is a life stage argument and people do make decisions based on where they are in the life, the world you are born to makes a massive difference in the decisions you are making.

I had a very interesting conversation the other day with a millennial guy on the idea of security and he was talking about whilst the world hasn’t ever been 100% safe, if fact boomers were born nearer war times than the millennials were, you wouldn’t hear about it all the time. The news wasn’t saturated by it. Whereas a millennial today that would watch any type of news program, there is continual discussion about security and risk ‘don’t go here’ and ‘don’t go there’ all of this is bad news. He said that it has really affected his decision making on where he goes and who he talks to and it is that massive consumption of messaging all the time. You can get content all the time, anywhere, on any device. Even bus stops have moving adverts on what’s happening in the news and I think that’s making people making them more insecure in the long term decision making.

Nick: Thinking again with the fact we are business to business and thinking about the different industry sectors we are working in and our clients from many different walks of life. In what industry sector do you think millennial business decision makers have you seen have a greater penetration where there are more of them?

We do a lot of work in the construction area or in the IT software industry so we can see higher percentages of millennials in those particular areas. Have you seen any trends within certain industry sectors where you feel millennials are becoming more and more important as decision makers?

Liz: Yes, certainly in creative industries plus retail, technology. I always describe it as often their jobs and industries that are very difficult to explain to their grandparents. They have more of a traditional, finance, banking, and higher proportional baby boomers in those industries, where you have software programmers and SEO content managers, I work with huge amount of companies who have maybe one or two generation X and the rest are all millennials. They are obviously hugely populated in start-ups, innovation, anything to do with technology and recently more so on science, healthcare and well-being. But there is definitely a divide between traditional, old fashioned organisations such as insurance and things like that tend to have older generations and they are struggling to recruit the younger generations.

Nick: You have already answered that question, who’s already got higher propensity number of millennials in their workforce, but do you see is there any particular industry sectors that are more generation aware? Is it the creative sectors therefore because of their workforce make-up and thus they are aware of these differences?

Liz: I think they have adapted to it quicker. Interestingly I have client who has come directly to me on harnessing the power of baby boomers because they have loads of younger talent that are not communicating properly with each other, staying there for two years and then leaving, making bad decisions and need some grown-ups to come and help us. Interestingly a lot of the millennials put their parent as the number one person they go to for advice. They get that promotion at work they tell their parent, they are their confidante.

Certainly millennials understand the technology and are strong in any kind of industry that has that skill there. What they don’t necessarily have is the sort of longer term business experience, which is so vital but we absorb all the great stuff they have. What I’m a big advocate of is not to go in and change everything to the millennial way and only market to them to only make them happy. They don’t have a huge amount of spending power compared to the baby boomers and they are the stuff we spoke about today, need each generation to be seen as valuable to make a business or industry that works because each has a skill set. You need to be generation friendly, because we all need to work together.

Nick: In bringing our discussion to a close today, you talked about experience and emotion marketing and we have defiantly seen a lot of consumer companies tapping into that emotion to speak to us through advertising. What do you think B2B brands could or need to learn from our consumer cousins on how they have engaged with the millennials? Do you think in a B2B or industrial context it is possible to?

Liz: I think it is. One of the biggest things I have seen with the millennials, where in the past generation they had a work self and a home self and they would communicate differently and feel different. With millennials they are usually themselves both in work and at home, it’s going away from how do we speak to the consumer or how do we speak to them at work as they are the same person. A lot of the millennials are hugely emotionally invested in their work life, their work-life balance doesn’t really mean anything because they make sure they work in a position that means as much to them as their free time. So if we are talking about how we think about them professionally B2B or B2C it’s the same skills, same channels, same messaging, whether you are talking to them as a consumer or trying to talk to them as a business owner or a decision maker.

Nick: I think that makes a lot of sense. I know we often say ‘people don’t leave their emotions at home’ and I think the millennials are showing that.

Liz: We talk about emotional intelligence and it can be a great thing to be emotional but what millennials sometimes have a slight inability to do is to say ‘when do I need to use the emotion in a good way and when I’m actually caring about this more then I need to and this is only business and I will be okay in the long term’ and that’s where they struggle, because everything is so much more project based and short term. You find less of a struggle in the higher end and in the baby boomer level.

Nick: Well I think just from a brief conversation today Liz, it’s clear to me that the millennials they are more tech savvy we know that, they are more joined up, they are more emotion driven, calculating risk takers and definitely reliant on brands but that’s just to put them in a good light with their friends or their network and if they are in need of help they might turn to their parents or maybe that word of mouth recommendation is really important to them. So how people engage with millennials it maybe does need a new way of thinking and to thinking differently on how to tap into their behaviour attitudes or needs. So, whoever does do that, listens and therefore responds to their needs will be the winners in the next decade or so.

Liz: Definitely listen and then use your marketing or communication based on what you’ve listened to without them knowing you have done it. It sounds so needy from the millennial point of view it’s like ‘I want you to listen to me and I want you to market to me but I don’t want you to be overhearing my conversation, so I want to feel like I have made my own decisions’. But they are incredibly complicated as have the other generations before. I think it’s great that the conversation now is accepting them as a different group of people. I think it’s great that people are starting to really target the different way they are talking and communicating. So the first step is to listen, really truly listen and then make decisions from there.

Show me: