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Don’t blame your service woes on Gen Y

NotEveryoneTrophyI recently read the book Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y by Bruce Tulgan and was reminded of this generation’s reputation of entitlement. As the title suggests, children from this generation who played sports generally received medals or trophies for participation rather than merit.

Although the exact parameters may differ, there is a general consensus that Generation Y encompasses people born between 1978 and 1990. This generation has also been referred to as Generation Me, a generation that has never known a world that put duty before self and believes that the needs of the individual should come first.

I am not from this generation, so I won’t pretend to be fluent in its unique generational perspective. Having said that, I also recognize that each generational stereotype is a social scientist’s best attempt to define an indefinable group of people—complete with generalizations and inaccuracies. It’s with that caveat that I’ll proceed…

Because I work in the field of hospitality, I was especially interested in what Tulgan had to say about Gen Y and customer service. He obliged in chapter six, Get Them to Care About Great Customer Service. The chapter opens with a provocative quote:

“I get that they really want us to kiss every customer’s (expletive) and swallow my pride and pretend I really care. Rest assured, if this were my business, I’d feel the same way. I’d want my employees to kiss my customer’s (expletive). I can try really hard to pretend, but it’s not my business. If you care so much about your customer’s (expletive), why don’t you kiss it? It’s your business.”


Later, the author rationalizes this generation’s reputation for apathetic customer service:

“Because they spend entire shifts with their coworkers, Gen Yers often care much more about attending to their relationships with coworkers than their relationships with customers. Instead of the customer service mission, their relationships with each other become the context of the job for some Gen Yers.”

One Gen Yer offered this perspective: “You have to understand. I’m here all day. We are here all day. This is my job. My coworkers are my friends, and we are hanging out together all day. Customers are just passing through. They come in here, probably don’t buy anything, or maybe they buy something. But they are just passing through. That’s how I look at it. In a way, to be honest, it feels like they are interrupting my day.”


Personally, I think that attributing these customer service attitudes to millions of employees based on their birth year is an injustice to the great majority of frontline employees who “get it” and understand that it’s hypocritical to say that they’re unwilling to accommodate customers properly unless the business belongs to them. Most employees are savvy enough to know that before they can expect to ever have a successful business of their own, they must first perform successfully in another’s business.

Most employees also “get” that customers are not an interruption in their day, they are the reason for their employment. Without customers, there are no jobs. It’s pretty simple.

Tulgan acknowledges that most customer service complaints arise because “the front line is overstaffed—leading to a lack of urgency—or understaffed—leading to a lack of coverage. But usually the cause is that nobody has taught Gen Y employees the basics or convinced them to care about great customer service.”

Let me repeat that last part: Customer service complaints usually arise because nobody has taught Gen Y employees the basics or convinced them to care about great customer service.

I really like the direction Tulgan takes regarding performance management (i.e., coaching, counseling, discipline, recognition) of Generation Y. In fact, it applies to every generation represented in your workforce:

“Never squander the teaching opportunities presented by customer service failures. When these problems occur, it is your responsibility as the manager to intervene immediately and forcefully. Take time with all employees involved in a customer service failure and treat the instance as a crisis: Debrief those involved, identifying the learning opportunities within, and review the steps that should have been taken….

Reward those who succeed, and just as important, withhold rewards from those who fail. Use small rewards and use them frequently, and make sure you tie every reward directly to specific instances of performance.”

Generation Y is integral to perceptions of customer service because its members spend a lot of time in front of customers. Younger workers are disproportionately represented in frontline customer service roles because these roles tend to be entry-level positions.

It’s every leader’s job to accept responsibility for the development of his or her employees, regardless of generation. If you happen to encounter one of the flawed attitudes reflected in the Gen Yer quotes above, first of all, examine your selection process because someone slipped through… Second, ask the employee these questions: What makes you valuable? What value are you adding right now? Why should someone pay you?

Questions like these will force employees to put their job roles and the importance of customers and customer service in their proper perspective.

Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.
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