Don't Ignore Generational Differences

By Jim Moody, CAE
CSA President

A couple of weeks ago I was at a conference with my counterparts who run other regional LBM associations. The theme of the conference was building a Next Generation Association.

We hear a lot of talk about generational stuff, but rarely do we get down to the level where we talk about how we need to change our businesses to adapt. It's much easier (and fun) to talk about the weaknesses of Gen X and Gen Y (sometimes called the Millenials). They have no loyalty to a company. Their work ethic is questionable. They always seem to be on their phones. They don't seem to accept responsibility well. If it's not fun, they aren't interested. You've heard them all before, and they are all true to a point. (There are also negative characteristics of "older" generations, but we never seem to dwell on those.)

The sad fact is that Gen X and Gen Y are the way they are because we made them that way. They grew up the children of divorce and saw that loyalty to a company often brought nothing but a pink slip. We turned into helicopter parents and sheltered them from consequences of their actions.

But fretting about what they are and why gets us nowhere. They are what they are. (Honestly, I should say "we" since I'm solidly in the Gen X age range.) They are not going to change. We must adapt as businesses who need to attract customers; as employers who need to attract and keep good employees; and as parents training up the next owners.

For associations, there are several key things that must be done to ensure survival. Here are a few (they might just be relevant to your business as well):

* Don't bury your head in the sand. Business must change to adapt to the younger generations, because there are more of them and less of us. It's not a stage of life thing. They aren't going to "be like us" when they get older. Ignoring the differences and preferences of your employees and customers is the first step to a "going out of business" sale.

* Get comfortable with technology. We've upgraded our CRM systems and online programs here at CSA. I've been shocked at how quickly people have embraced our online registration and other items. We almost waited too long. When your systems are old, not only does it make doing business with you more difficult, it makes you look old. I've had many dealers tell me they haven't upgraded technology because none of their builders would use it. Perhaps it's because the customers who embrace technology -- and that's more and more each day -- have moved to different suppliers. Do you really want to be stuck with the Luddites as your customer base?

* Specialize in a niche; don't attempt to be all things to all people. As membership shrinks because there are fewer independent dealers, we're tempted to broaden our base to capture more members. We should resist that temptation. Think about TV channels, radio stations and magazines. We gravitate toward the media that has only the stuff that interests us. In 1980, we wouldn't have been able to visualize a world with so many niches, but that's what the market demands today. The same is true in an association. For instance, few doctors feel a strong allegiance to the American Medical Association; it's a shell of its former self in numbers and in power. The real strength is in the groups that cater to specialties and sub-specialties. In many cases that's true in regular business. One-steppers are an example.

* Provide something meaningful. For us, that means focusing on the ways we help you grow sales, improve efficiency and reduce risk (as opposed to the nebulous "networking."). People don't stay members just for the sake of it. They have to see something meaningful, almost tangible. For your world, it may mean an increased focus on showing how your expertise makes custom home builders more efficient. As you well know, there's a lot more to the equation than just the price of the lumber.