Understanding the Generational Divide in B2B Decision Making
Three main cohorts are leading businesses right now – Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. Yes, Millennials are well established as decision makers in B2B companies, and even if not the decision maker, research shows that others are highly likely to seek a Millennial’s input. But there is a huge generational divide in how these groups make decisions.
All three groups have distinctly different levels of comfort around digital interactions and distinctly different preferences for how they want to progress through the buying process.
This presents a challenge. Companies can’t seem to reach all audiences without alienating one group or another.
The change in buying preferences brought on by generational divides is not going away, and will only continue to be a challenge as new cohorts rise in the workforce. So how can you implement a go-to-market strategy that supports all of these needs without isolating any portion of your prospects? By providing a flexible model of engagement.
First Things, First: Be Honest About Where You Are
When it comes to accommodating generational divides in the buying process, most companies fall into one of three categories. They’re either:
- Unaware that there are generational differences in their buyers
- Aware there are differences, but unsure how to cross the divide
- Somewhat accommodating generations, but still not getting it quite right
Be honest with yourself about where you fall in those three stages. Understanding how your go-to-market currently serves (or doesn’t serve) the three generations we’re talking about is the first step to knowing what you need to better understand the decision makers you’re dealing with.
If you’re in the “unaware” stage, it’s time to do your research. If you’re in the “unsure how to cross the divide” stage, you need to dig into buyer preferences and build a flexible engagement model. If you’re “still not getting it quite right,” you need to assess your current situation holistically to provide even more flexibility.
Here’s what the breakdown looks like.
3 Steps to Understanding the Generational Divides in B2B Decision Making
Your starting point may depend on which stage from above you most identify with, but the guidance remains the same: research, understand, and then build.
Step 1: Research your buyers to understand their differences
It’s easy to make assumptions about your prospects, your buyer personas, and your target companies, but this approach is counterproductive.
Instead, you need to put in the work to truly understand who your decision makers are. A few points to keep in mind on this front:
- Don’t assume that you’re selling to one generation over another. Just because you’re selling a product that prioritizes the digital workplace, for example, doesn’t mean you should go all-in on Millennial-friendly messaging.
- Go deep with your research. Start with customer and prospect interviews to understand not just what matters to them from a business standpoint, but also how they prefer to communicate and which sources of information they’re most likely to interact with. From there, validate your findings with third-party research around your industry and the industry you’re selling into.
- Things might have shifted dramatically. Keep in mind: the makeup of your pipeline and customer base may have changed over the past two years as the demographics of the workforce have shifted. In other words, even if you’ve conducted research somewhat recently, it’s worth revisiting your findings.
The goal is to understand the motivations, pain points, and decision making process from the perspective of your decision makers.
What you find might be surprising. For example, research shows that Millennials spend more time in the research phase (followed by Gen X, then Baby Boomers). At the same time, Millennials tend to move through the purchasing motion quickly, while Gen Xers want to take the time to prove business value to colleagues. Meanwhile, Baby Boomers don’t want to self-educate at all and instead expect a salesperson to guide them through the entire process.
Knowing how this maps to purchases of your own solution will help you support the needs of each decision maker at each buying stage through effective content.
Step 2: Understand how each group wants to engage with you
Start by rethinking how you define relationships.
Traditionally, salespeople might think of relationships as building connections in-person with activities like lunch meetings, tee times, and site visits. This is a very valid approach for older generations that still prefer direct email, phone, and face-to-face meetings.
But younger generations prefer to build relationships digitally. They strongly believe that digital purchasing channels lead to more personalized solutions. So, they engage with a wider variety of digital channels like live chat, social, and online meetings. This preference is so strong that research shows companies that ignore these digital channels are less likely to be selected by Millennial buyers.
Then, of course, there are those in the middle: those who prefer a mix of in-person and online opportunities for relationship building. These buyers see value in both avenues and appreciate a balanced approach to engagement.
It’s critical that you see all three viewpoints as equally valid. Moving to 100% digital channels when you have a subset of prospects that still want in-person connection is just as big of a mistake as ignoring digital channels altogether.
At this stage, ask yourself (and your team): how does each type of decision maker want to engage and at what point does it make sense to contact them?
Millennials want to self-educate for their pre-purchase journey. They’ll balk at overly pushy salespeople trying to get them into a conversation. But, when they are ready to talk, they expect a sales rep to not only be available but also be able to pick up right where the digital journey ended. Conversely, Baby Boomers expect a salesperson to walk them through most of the education phase. Contacting them earlier on (and being patient in the process) might make the most sense.
Step 3: Build a flexible engagement model that offers choices
Once you’ve established who your decision makers are and how they prefer to engage with you, how do you actually tailor your approach?
You won’t know if it’s a Millennial, Gen Xer, or Baby Boomer researching your product and submitting forms, so the question arises: how do you serve each audience without knowing who’s engaging with what? The key is to provide choices for your buyers to self-select the journey that makes the most sense to them. A few ideas that we suggest are:
- Offer plenty of content for Millennials to self-educate, but also serve an immediate path-to-contact for a Baby Boomer to speak with a salesperson
- Create resources that help a GenXer prove value and get buy-in from fellow stakeholders
- Provide both live and recorded options for late-stage engagements like product demos
- Train your inside sales reps to look for insights in a user’s journey before reaching out so that they know if it’s appropriate to head straight to a phone call, or if it would be better to continue sending educational resources
- Enable sales teams to support the needs of older generations by training them on how to appropriately distribute personalized content
Make it your goal to let your prospects decide how and when they want to engage, no matter their age or level of experience.
From there, you can start to optimize: work to understand which choices indicate the likelihood to prefer one type of relationship over another. Use these insights to truly meet your buyer where they are (and give them what they want).
Remember that this is a holistic solution
It’s tempting to make these changes with a piecemeal mindset: tweaking your content to be more inclusive of age, testing out an engagement channel here or there, or talking to your sales team about how to shift their approach in their talk tracks.
Effectively understanding the generational divides in your prospects and developing messaging and touchpoints that resonate requires looking at the entire landscape. You won’t achieve results by adopting piecemeal changes, you have to look at the entire picture to understand what’s working, what’s not, and what you need to adjust.
This process will require cross-functional collaboration, buy-in from your sales leaders, from your marketing team, and even from senior leadership. But it’s worth it.
Take the time to do it right, and you’ll stand out as the company that “gets” your prospects and your customers.
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