The Millennial Dilemma

They think differently. They buy differently. Here’s how you can rethink your strategies for selling your services to them.

With the average age of a shop owner in America at 55, they’ve been through many generations of customers. But when considering marketing to millennials, many shop owners say, “I’m not sure who they are, and I’m not sure anyone else does either.”

Well, whoever they are, there are 80 million of them, and they’re important to the future of your business. At AAPEX in 2016, I attended three different workshops, all dealing with millennials. Each workshop was full of attendees looking for answers. I’m by no means an expert, but in this article I will add what I’ve learned about a question that many believe remains outside their reach.

When I began asking shop owners about this article topic, there were a lot of different responses. Some are shared here:

“Marketing to millennials? I’m not even sure what that means, exactly.”

“Is it possible to market to them? They seem so different.”

“I don’t take time to market to them. I don’t think they even have cars, or like them.”

“They’re always on their phones, so how do you market to them there?”

It’s true that the millennial generation is different. They grew up differently, and they live differently. But they do care about things, just not the same things earlier generations typically care about.

In fact, they’re often defined loosely in comparison with other generations. Wikipedia, for example, says that they’re “also known as Generation Y or the Net Generation” and that they’re the demographic that directly follows Generation X. For many shop owners who are in their 50s or 60s, those who have seen two or three generations of new customers enter the consumer market, there seems to be a better understanding of Gen X.

I remember all the workshops dedicated to the topic of Gen Xers when I was earning my Accredited Automotive Management (AAM) designation. What I think is different now is that during the past five to 10 years, while shop owners have been learning all the new technology – it takes to run their business, which includes so many advances in vehicle technology, scan tools, refrigerants, electric drive and connectivity – the millennials were coming of age and becoming a consumer force to be reckoned with.

Millennials now represent 25 percent of the U.S. population, and they represent 21 percent of the consumer-buying base. Millennials love new technology, but only if it makes sense to them and adds convenience to their lives. This fact is important to remember when you’re dealing with them in your shop.

I asked Matt Johnson, sociology professor at Worcester State University, to shed some light on this demographic. “I’ve seen some young folks who are very motivated about things that make good sense and are environmentally sound,” he said. “They like to contribute, and they like jobs that are socially responsible. They like a sense of contributing to a common good. Services and products need to meet these needs, or they will not participate.”

Also know this: To millennials, there’s no differentiation between online, offline and mobile. In fact, they’re mobile most of the time. Some studies show that as many as 55 percent of this demographic uses only mobile. So you’re marketing to a moving target

Without a connection to the internet, millennials feel somewhat helpless. They believe that’s where they’re sharing their culture, and they expect you to participate. That is why connected companies do well with this segment of the population. Millennials use Uber, Lyft, Meetup groups and social media to help make their busy lives easier. So to figure out how to reach them on their level, you must appeal to their core values. And the hard sell is gone!

When they first contact your shop, either online or in person, you might not think your message comes across as a hard sell. But remember, millennials tend to make decisions on their own. What you tell them in your marketing, or in person, might provoke some pushback on their part.

According to Entrepreneur magazine, “This group does not like to be pushed in any way. They are sensitive to this is in a way you may not have felt before. They like things that make sense, things that are safe and things that are straight forward.” The magazine goes on to suggest that you give them time, ask them how they like to do business and send your estimates to their phones. In other words, think outside your box.

At one of my AAPEX events, I learned a simple truth: Before they bring their car to your shop, they’ve already researched how they want their vehicle’s problem solved. They’ve asked family and friends, as well as family friends, for recommendations. They’ve also checked you out on the web to see what others have said about you, and they’ve likely visited your website to determine if you support any social causes or espouse a philosophy that resonates with them.

By the time they actually contact you, you’ve already been selected. It’s important to know all of this because their calls aren’t cold calls to try on your brand of marketing. You might be one of a few shops they’re calling, or you might be just the one. But you’ll know pretty quickly based on how the conversation goes.

Facebook, too, is a necessary part of their decision-making process. And it needs to be an essential part of your marketing plan. Statistics show that 44 percent of millennials have a huge Facebook presence, with more than 200 friends. If you’re not on Facebook, you’re not reaching them. And your Facebook campaign must be consistent.

Say you post on Facebook every Tuesday and Thursday. Try to think of something fun, a hook to attract their attention. For example, several shops use a device called Throw Back Thursday. They simply snap a photo of something old with their cellphone and share it. It’s also easy to re-post some newsy or entertaining item you’ve read or discovered online in just a few sentences, with a link to the original.

The information technology provider for our Automotive Careers Development Center (ACDC) does a lot of marketing workshops, and he suggests posting a news headline with a brief comment as you begin easing into that twice-a-week discipline. Also, any post that highlights your participation in a charity or community activity will help. Run a food drive for a local volunteer service pantry or animal shelter. Sponsor a summer book drive for the local kids. Take a photo of your donation box and update your postings about the drive, and don’t be hesitant about publicizing your charitable contributions. Fifty percent of millennials are willing to make a purchase if it supports a good cause. It’s part of their culture.

In addition, Snapchat and Twitter are expected to double their users by 2020. And if you think these two social mediums are just for teenagers, think again. The average ages of people who participate on these two social media sites is 18 to 34 years of age. This is the digital demographic you should be trying to reach, and accomplishing it demands new strategies that complement face-to-face techniques. Having such a presence is not debatable; you’ve got to do it.

Millennials are just now reaching their peak earning years. Many of them are becoming parents and will appreciate even more the safety that comes with a well-maintained car. As you reimagine your marketing strategy, you might need help. You could hire an agency, but consider this approach instead: Set up a few meetings with a group of millennials. Choose the participants from families you know. Or, better yet, choose them from the families of your customers.

Invite them to your business for a brainstorming session. Set up some food and drinks and set a time limit (this generation likes to know the boundaries). Remember that these young people are vegans, vegetarians or pescatarians, and they like craft beers, fancy cocktails and designer coffee. So spend some money. It’ll be worth it to talk directly to these potential customers.

Then, make the conversation interesting and relevant. They want the truth, and they want value. They may have different definitions of these qualities than previous generations, but if you’re serious about reaching this group, you need to think outside your box. Actually, you’ll need to get into their box.

“Millennials respond to companies that build a relationship with them before trying to make a sale,” says Kelly Pfiffner, a digital content consultant at EBP Business Consulting. “Take the time to invest in your inbound marketing, digital content and customer experience, and millennials will become your most loyal and valuable customers.”