Understand Young Buyers

Communicating with – and selling to – millennials can be a huge challenge. Here’s how to break the code.

Having trouble deciphering the language and behavior code of Generation Y? You’re not alone. Clearly, there’s a unique dynamic at play, especially with millennials who make purchasing decisions. “They want you to share ideas with them,” says consultant Cam Marston, “but it generally can’t involve meetings or in-person appointments.”

Marti Tarmichael, a senior account manager for Summit Group (asi/339116) in Bloomingdale, IL, sees this frequently firsthand. “So much of our communication is email, because trying to get in front of the few decision-makers is hard,” she says. “They are very wary of being sold – even with relationships that are under contract, sometimes there is still a perception of, ‘you’re trying to push something on me.’”

As a result, Tarmichael starts a project by sending several ideas from different categories via email. “The more options I give up front, the faster I figure out the direction they want and can start developing other elements like packaging,” she says. “But I do include in that initial presentation the packaging and wider concepts for a few of the products, because it’s tough to get into a room to explain that we’re partners and we should talk this through.”

One email presentation tactic that Marston suggests: Embedding a video where you can display several product and packaging ideas from all angles. Besides being more enlightening than photos, brief videos have currency with the under-35 crowd – and a video could serve to build a bit of personal connection with the buyer.

Some of young buyers’ skepticism in dealing with reps stems from their own ability to research product and apparel possibilities online and compare those prices to a distributor’s quotes. But to drive home the value of her consultative services, Tarmichael reiterates in every email or phone conversation exactly how the added elements will make the program more meaningful to recipients, and how she’ll ensure the decorating and shipping tasks go seamlessly. “This process is definitely labor intensive, but we have to overcome their hesitations,” she says.

Ryan Small, a Gen Xer who’s president of Blue Dog Merch in Nashville, notes that most of his accounts with younger buyers are strongly tech-based relationships. In fact, he encourages his clients to use the internet to research items at the start of a project. “If you refer them to a user-friendly website – something that’s mobile-enabled or has responsive design that adapts its look to whichever device they’re using – they are happy to do that,” he says. “Many of them come to us with retail options they know they could not find on their own in the promotional world. They’re counting on us to find something similar that works.”

Once Small finds the right items, he uses technology to customize them and maximize the client’s interest. “We see a higher closing rate when we apply their logo to a product in a virtual way,” Small says. “So we’re able to maintain the relationship and the value proposition of using our firm versus them trying to go online and do all the work themselves.”

Even with their preference for technology platforms, millennials find product samples to be a central part of their buying process. “They want to touch and feel things to get a measure of quality,” Small says.