Selling across the generations

By John Powell | September 24, 2010 | Last updated on September 24, 2010
5 min read

American journalist and author Sydney J. Harris said it best.

“The two words ‘information’ and ‘communication’ are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.”

To connect with any client you must understand them as people and pinpoint what’s important to them. Although much time and effort is devoted to recognizing them as individuals what many advisors fail to acknowledge are the generational differences and how they can have a far-reaching effect on how a potential client processes and responds to their message, whether it be a face-to-face pitch, an introductory email, a company brochure or even an ad or commercial.

Speaking at the 2010 IIAC conference at the Design Exchange in downtown Toronto, Generational Insights founder-president and author Cam Marston, pushed home the significant role generational boundaries play in today’s business world.

“You don’t want to be giving a Baby Boomer pitch to a Generation Xer. You want to deliver a message that makes them interested in you and want to lean forward across that kitchen table,” he advised.

Presenting a crash course on how the nuances of the four different generations have a profound impact on commerce to the audience on hand, Marston broke down today’s population into four dueling and distinct groups: the Matures, Baby Boomers, Generation X and the Millennials, focusing mostly on the final three.


“They have the affluence and the influence. They are in collusion with the pharmaceutical companies to stay alive – forever,” joked Marston describing the qualities of those between 44 and 63 years of age.

The most competitive generation of the quartet, Marston claims what matters to Boomers is the history of a particular company, the perceived quality of the brand represented and the years they have been in business.

“Those things tend to build confidence in the boomers, especially when they know you are not going to evaporate tomorrow,” he said.

Making up 28% of the population, Marston termed the Boomers as workaholics and strong team players who are very proud of the ‘Walls of Fame’ they have in their offices.

“There are certificates, plaques and photographs of themselves with important people on their walls. Certificates that congratulate them on completing the Microsoft Word 1.0 course in 1987. They are competitive and they want to win.”

The busiest of all the generational groups with children they want to push out of the family nest and parents who are trying to climb back in, Baby Boomers are always looking for ways to optimize their time. Marston cautions advisors though against promoting technology as a way of doing so. Overwhelmed Boomers are not as open to technological solutions as their generational counterparts.

Marston also suggests capitalizing on the Boomers’ need for face time and meetings by making every effort to be a “part of their team” and rewarding them with “badges” and “trophies”, here and there.

“Get them a pen that lights up or causes lightning…or something like that. It is a trophy item and Boomers like them better than most.”

Generation X

Raging in age from 31 to 45, Generation Xers make up 25% of the population and have been raised to question everything and everyone.

“If you have a series of commas after your name and designations, it gives them all the more reason not to trust you at all,” said Marston. “Once you have their trust though, they are the most loyal customers of any generation.”

Gen Xers don’t really have too many heroes and were the first generation who were raised to be friends with their parents. You won’t find a ‘Wall of Fame’ in their offices either. All of their awards are sitting in the bottom of a drawer somewhere as they don’t place much meaning or value in them.

One of the biggest distinctions between Gen X and Baby Boomers is that Gen Xers aren’t really fond of meetings of any kind. They are more likely to pass on a friendly, getting-to-know-you game of golf as they don’t see the usefulness of spending four hours with someone they might never see again. They value their time and would rather discuss things over the phone or better yet, in an email thread so they can immediately weigh their options. They have a hands-off, live in the moment lifestyle that can cause them to butt heads with the Baby Boomers in their lives.

More than any other group, Generation X confers with and takes to heart the opinions of their peers when it comes to products and services. They also investigate things fully with every means at their disposal. After your first meeting with a Gen X client, don’t be surprised if the first thing they do is “Google” you and your company, advised Marston.

“I will use the example of a Gen Xer wanting to buy a new toaster. They will go online and spend hours comparing toasters. They will create sophisticated spreadsheets about toasters. They will call friends and get as many referrals about toasters that they can. They do an extraordinary amount of work before spending their money.”

More Gen X advice

  • Emphasis the short-term.
  • Make shorter, smaller goals.
  • Make it known that you have a Plan B and C waiting in the wings.
  • Know that they are highly skeptical of the advertising and marketing. They respect and want the steak not the sizzle.
  • They ask “Why?” more than anyone else.

The Millennials

The most optimistic of the groups, the Millennials are those 29 and younger who have set huge goals for themselves but are clueless when it comes to how to achieve them.

Raised on a steady, uncompromising diet of MP3s, instant messaging, downloadable content and mobile phones that shoot HD video, the Millennials are all about instant gratification and technology. They are highly adaptable and bounce in and out of situations and relationships.

“Remember those ‘Baby on Board’ signs? Well, now those people are here. The Millennials represent an enormous population,” said Marston.

The Millennials have been told by their parents, teachers and mentors, that they are special and different. They are pushing back time and their life goals. They want to get married later, have children later and believe they have time to establish themselves.

They are more individualistic than earlier generations and demand autonomy in their opinions and behavior. Right now, they emphasize personal activities over social and labor considerations.

When pitching services to them, Marston recommends underscoring uniqueness to get their attention.

“This is what are services are going to do for you. This is how they are going to change your life. Here is how we are going to make you different. Here is how we are going to make you unique. Here is how we are going to make you stand out.”

Targeting your message

In an age where a customer can go online and complain to not just a few of their friends but perhaps hundreds and there is more competition than ever, Martson believes one of the best ways to grab a client’s attention is to speak directly to them: to communicate with them and then inform them.

Reminding yourself which generation you are conversing with and remembering their quirks and qualities might just give you and your company the edge over others.

John Powell