The g.m. of a restaurant from a well-known chain recently shared this story with me: “When he first came in for his interview, this kid, let’s call him Frank, told me, ‘Oh yeah, I eat here with my parents all the time.’ Usually that’s a good thing. If you know what it’s like to eat a meal here, you might have an idea of what it’s going to be like to work here.
"As soon as he started working here, Frank’s parents started coming in a lot more often, and would often order something for Frank too, even though he was working. They would come in, Frank would take their order, and when his parents’ order was up, he’d bring it to their table and sit down to eat with them, sometimes for 10 or 15 minutes. I’d walk by the table, and they’d all smile at me like there was nothing weird about it at all. A few times Frank’s mom invited me to sit down with them. She actually said to me, ‘Isn’t Frank just the greatest employee you’ve ever had? He’s so busy with school and everything else. This is the only time we get to catch up with him. We have to pay to see our own son.’ She actually said all that to me with a straight face,” the manager continued.
“I explained to Frank that he couldn’t just take a break in the middle of a shift to have dinner with his parents.” What did Frank say to that? “He asked me why I spend so much time sitting with customers at their tables. So I explained that as the manager, I check on customers and sometimes sit down with my regular customers to make a personal connection. Frank says, ‘Well, I’m bringing in customers here too. My parents are my number one customers. I’m just doing the same thing you do, making a personal connection with my regular customers.’ Then he says, ‘You know, I’m a regular customer of this place too. Maybe you should keep that in mind.’”
The restaurant manager explained that Frank wasn’t just being difficult: “I think Frank was much more comfortable in the customer role. It’s just that we don’t pay our customers. They pay us. Frank really had a hard time transitioning out of that customer frame of mind and realizing he was in a different position when he was working here as an employee.”
Millennials have a customer mentality
Frank’s story may be a little out of the ordinary, but the example is instructive because it highlights something our research points to over and over again, which is the strong customer mindset of Millennials. Millennials think like customers. Why? The marketplace has extended its reach beyond malls and into their homes through the web. At the same time, because millennials have had more buying power at a younger age than any other young generation in history, marketers have targeted them more aggressively than any new consumer market in history.
One might ask: Once they reach school, don’t millennials think of themselves as students as opposed to customers? Yes and no. As the so-called customer service revolution has reached across the private and public sectors, institutions ranging from hospitals to universities have sought to incorporate the logic and practices of customer service into their standard operating procedures. Indeed, one professor at a small liberal arts college told me recently that the entire faculty of his institution was required to attend a customer service seminar led by an alumnus who is a retail entrepreneur. The goal of the seminar was to teach professors to treat everyone, students included, more like valued customers. Said the professor, “They want us to figure out the customers’ needs and expectations, say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ more often, and ‘go the extra mile for our customers.’ If I know my students, that means giving them very little homework and lots of A’s. But that couldn’t possibly be what the administration has in mind, could it?”
This may seem like the exception, but our research shows that this sort of thing is increasingly common, and apparently it’s working. Here’s what a millennial had to say about his college experience: “I had one professor who missed three classes in the fall semester of my senior year. I figured out the lost value: three out of 28 class sessions out of five classes I was taking. It was almost three percent of my semester tuition. I made up a bill and gave it to her and told her I wanted a refund for that much. She was pretty surprised and kind of laughed, I guess. I used to skip classes, of course. But I’m paying tuition, not the other way around.”
Playing the customer or consumer role is usually millennials’ primary experience in the public sphere prior to arriving for their first day of work as employees. Many have little or no experience on the other side of the marketplace transaction, as vendors. “It carries over into their entire way of being,” said a senior loan officer in a large financial services firm. “They come in the door with this expectant look on their face, like, ‘Are you ready to give me a good job experience now? What’s going to happen to me first? What is going to be done for me?’”
For their part, millennials tell us they are ready to work hard, and do whatever is asked of them, within reason. They look at their own time, dedication and best efforts as a kind of currency. They bring to the table their ability and willingness to work hard, and they want to know what they can buy with it. What kinds of success and rewards can they buy from your organization? What kinds of interesting experiences and conditions can they earn with their currency? They are on the edge of their seats, expectant indeed.
When you are at work, everyone but you is your customer
What’s a manager to do? In our seminars, we teach managers to embrace and use millennials’ customer mindset to give millennials the basic context of the employment relationship. Explain: Employment is a transactional relationship, just like a customer relationship. This is the ultimate source of your employer’s authority, plain and simple. This is the source of your obligations at work to everyone: your coworkers, your boss, your subordinates and actual customers. The senior loan officer I mentioned takes this approach: “I tell them, ‘You’re not paying us. We’re paying you. You are not the customer here. The company is. I am. You are on the other side of the transaction. When you are here at work, everyone else is the customer. Not you. Get it? Think about how you want to be treated, and treat everyone else that way. When you are at work, everyone is your customer.’”
“This is supposed to be the most entrepreneurial generation in history, right?” said one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world. “They all think they want to be in business for themselves. The funny thing is, they are already in business for themselves, whether they know it or not. They may be working for me, but how they present themselves, what kind of work they do—all that is going to have a bigger impact on their life and career than on me or my company. Who do they think they are representing when they come to work? Me? My company? Perhaps—if I let them anywhere near my customers. But mostly, they are representing themselves. What they need to understand is you’ve got to sell yourself, sell your services. What makes you valuable? What value are you adding right now? Why should someone pay you?”
Trumpet this message to your millennials: Every person you deal with is your customer—coworkers, employees, managers, suppliers, service people and actual customers. What makes you valuable to each customer? Every unmet need is an opportunity to add value. Deliver and go the extra mile; get it done early; add the bells and whistles; and tie a bow on it.
This article is excerpted from Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials by Bruce Tulgand. An advisor to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader, Tulgan is the founder and c.e.o. of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as Rainmaker Thinking.Training, an online training company.