Millennials: How to engage the next generation of service staff

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More than 1.1 million people are employed in UK contact centres, and a substantial number of them are from the millennial generation. In just five years’ time, millennials will form 50% of the global workforce and their career expectations and tech know-how will shape the workplaces of the future.  

But millennials can also be an extremely valuable asset to the workplace in the here and now, not least because they challenge traditional ways of working, and offer an alternative view that can help drive the business forward.

“These employees help to understand the emerging customer base and how they want to do business, as well as shape the thinking of the future,” says Gail Partridge, consultant at customer management consultancy PeopleTECH. “Too often we try to plan for the future using thinking from the past, and millennials give organisations insight into new ways of working, which will help them become an employer of choice for their generation.”

A highly engaged and motivated millennial employee will also willingly promote the team’s values and successes, which in turn can boost reputation and help to develop new business opportunities for their employer.

“They can be fierce protectors of the brand’s reputation and can serve as an early warning system that organisations are not living up to their values or reputation,” comments Ben Kingsmill, head of brand engagement at communications agency INVOLVE. “A wise manager will understand that utilising their talents can generate significant goodwill within many communities and help drive business growth.”

However, there can often be significant differences between millennials and previous generations, It's crucial that you have a clear understanding of what drives and motivates each demographic if you are to retain key talent, and there are important factors that need to be understood about millennials and what makes them tick. 

Gaining loyalty

The corporate world is in a state of intense, constant change, which can often make older generations feel uncomfortable. Yet millennials have never known anything different; they are used to change, but this can mean it is harder to gain their loyalty.

However, Kingsmill believes that once they are engaged with brand values, millennials become the most vocal and dedicated ambassadors.

“They have at their disposal a myriad of social channels through which they can support and promote those values, so they can become excellent brand advocates.”

Millennials are also used to living in a world of immediacy, where their curiosity or thirst for knowledge is instantly satisfied.

“If they don’t know the answer to a question, they Google it; if they hear a piece music they don’t know, they Shazam it,” comments Partridge “They are also less afraid of failure or risks – gaming has taught them that if you fail you just go to the beginning and start again, learning from previous mistakes.”

Jean Martin, talent solutions architect at advisory firm CEB, believes that the strongest motivational factors for millennials are competition, progression and personal growth.

“The perception that they are all focused on collaboration and networking is a myth – they are actually more competitive than other generations; and while both millennials and generation X value work-life balance highly, what sets millennials apart is a greater emphasis on future career and development opportunities.”

Indeed, research published last year by Xactly found that almost half of millennials enjoy competing directly with their peers, compared to 21% of the older generation; while  16% feel that achieving personal targets takes priority over customers’ interests, compared with just 3% of the over 55s.

“Today’s business leaders need to recognise how to blend millennials’ tech-immersed lifestyle seamlessly into the workplace to inspire performance,” comments Tom Castley, general manager EMEA at Xactly. “This needs to cover everything from recruiting through to retirement. Understanding this will be key to creating an engaged and motivated workforce.”

Challenge the norm

The younger generation are likely to challenge traditional ‘9 to 5’ thinking and expect the flexibility to integrate work with life, says Partridge.

She adds: “They want to work for ethical companies and they want leaders who will encourage them to think for themselves and not tell them what to do. They like to take risks and try new things, they don’t want to be constrained by ‘old’ ways of doing stuff, and they absolutely expect access to the internet and social media.”

Millennials also tend to have high expectations of their workplace when it comes to pay and promotion, with CEB research revealing that 80% expect to be promoted within three years.

“They are hungry for progression and personal growth, but this need not come from outside the company,” advises Martin. “Millennials are perceived as being more likely to leave their job than their older peers but the reality is they crave new experiences, not necessarily a new employer; they want to experience-hop as opposed to organisation-hop.”

They also expect to have a two-way relationship with their employer, that is based on equal exchange, where their values and thoughts are not only listened to, but acted upon.

“Gone are the days of lip service – they expect to influence the direction of the business and co-create their career alongside their managers,” comments Kingsmill. “This means that, more than ever, businesses must communicate clearly their values and purpose to ensure everyone is driving to the same goal.”

In response to this influx of millennials, business leaders are now realising that, if they want highly motivated and engaged employees, they have to assess and re-evaluate their people management approaches.

Values and authenticity

“Millennials will leave a company if they are not constantly acknowledged, rewarded and engaged,” remarks Jeremy Hamill-Keays, product manager at workforce management solutions provider Teleopti

“They want to feel part of their community, whether at work or at play. The best way to engage with them in contact centres is to create a work environment where agents feel involved and a part of everything from the company mission, to their fellow team members and the customers they serve.”

And Kingsmill notes that millennials also place great importance on the values of the organisation they work for - and whether or not they are genuine. "Millennials are likely to sense when a brand’s values are just words, and are not acted on in an authentic way," he says.

“You need to use language that will engage people of that age group, and display behaviours that they will relate to. They will quickly spot if there is a disconnect between words and behaviours, so you must be consistent and authentic if you are to get them to act as long-term brand ambassadors.”

Lara Ponomareff, practice leader at CEB, believes it is about realising that the customer contact landscape has changed, as frontline employees are no longer focused on efficiently moving through the queue resolving issues; rather, they prefer to use their judgment to work together with customers, guiding them to the best outcome.

“Contact centre management needs to create a culture and climate that supports and encourages its frontline employees to deliver tailored, low customer effort service interactions – an outcome that drives better working environments for key talent and maintains their engagement, while meeting the needs of today’s customer base.”

About Lucie Mitchell

About Lucie Mitchell

Lucie trained as a journalist in 2003 and began her career in journalism as a Reporter for SecEd magazine, a weekly publication for secondary school teachers, before moving on to become Deputy Features Editor for General Practitioner, where she wrote, commissioned and edited numerous features for the business section of the magazine. She has also written articles for The Guardian, EYE magazine and MedEconomics magazine. Lucie joined Sift Media as Features Editor in February 2007 and became Editor of HRzone.co.uk in June 2007.

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