Do generational differences impact the B2B journey? Yes. Our team increasingly hears from Sales leaders that B2B buyers don’t agree on their problems so they can’t agree on a solution — and often the associated change management is just “too hard” for some to overcome. This often leads to indecision. We wanted to understand how the different generations currently in today’s workforce might play a role in that inertia. So, we embarked on a research journey to find out how – and why – generational preferences, perceptions, and values factor so much in B2B decision-making journeys.

To get there, we developed archetypal personas for Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and Gen Z by sifting through the myriad existing research and insights out there. It’s a busy superhighway (thank you Boomers for inventing the internet) full of data, albeit at times, inconsistent. Our hope was to reconcile what mattered, connect the right dots in a meaningful way and help those who struggle with enabling buyer consensus. In addition to behaviors and preferences specifically related to content and messaging, our persona development applied a historical lens, looking at influential markers that included:

  • Introduction of different technologies and services
  • Evolution of media and communications
  • Shifts in family dynamics
  • Sweeping social movements
  • Labor and work life, C-Suite, start-ups, brands
  • Education, entertainment, and art
  • War, recession, inflation, and weather

Not another survey. The purpose of this initiative was to find select needles in many haystacks that would expand our collective knowledge about what makes our buyers tick — and also make that learning easy to apply in any number of disciplines — pitching, writing, design, communications, management, training, etc. Each archetype tells a unique story that might help us better understand why buyers don’t agree — and how to build better bridges to reach them. We think there is something in here for everyone, even if you are just curious about human behavior, like we are. Access the full guide here.

Executive Summary

According to western generational theory, there are four base archetypes that have been cycling since the 1400’s. Each one is further shaped by its unique past, present and future which are called “turnings.” Today, the four occupants in the workplace are Boomers, the Prophets (born during 1946-1964), Gen X, the Nomads (1965-1980), Millennials, the Heroes (1981-1996) and Gen Z, the Artists (1997-2010).

Sales will be the first to tell you that there is great disagreement on problems, systems, timing, budget, and methods between members of buying centers. Much of the disconnect between stakeholders is function-based, but generational gaps can exacerbate the issue. To illustrate, we shared a true story about a company in the energy sector that lost millions of dollars — and its CEO — due to manual reporting errors. A steering committee was established by the new CEO to find a cloud-based data analytics solution. Although it was deemed “mission-critical,” the implementation couldn’t get off the ground. Even third-party consultants couldn’t help. Why? The two primary stakeholders – a Boomer CFO and a Millennial from Operations – AKA a Prophet and a Hero – could not agree on the approach. With their distinct functional and generational perceptions of risk, impact and pain points, they couldn’t articulate an aligned business case. “No ROI, no funding,” says the Board.

Fundamental differences in approach can get in the way of achieving shared outcomes and ultimately growth – especially with Boomers and Millennials at odds. Just check your daily feeds on the continuing debate regarding inflation. Boomers blame Millennials for excessive spending. Millennials blame Boomers for hoarding wealth and pretty much doing most things wrong. Especially when it comes to the economy, technology and process – all things core to being Millennial.

So, what’s behind this legendary conflict? Well, a number of factors but here’s a prime example. Millennials were born in a world unraveling which feeds their sense of urgency and the need to do something about it right now. With their bias for action, strong work ethic and call to public service (the latter two traits shared with Boomers ironically), they are designated as hero. Boomers often rely on first-hand experience of recessions, inflation, market disruptions and societal discontent. Driven to impart lessons learned, thus their archetype is prophet.

The Great Recession of 2008 marked a major shift in the scheduled timetable of Millennial adulthood. The most educated and chomping-at-the-bit generation was delayed — and back at home. Disgruntled Millennials spurned prophetic lessons by Boomer parents and Boomer-run corporations. When Millennials finally got to work, they drove a flurry of major process, tool and communications changes, from message transmission and business etiquette to how physical spaces were laid out. Boomers held their ground – and their positions, preferring to hold on to their C-suite and senior level management jobs. (Secretly vowing never to retire perhaps?)

Wait, did we forget to mention Gen X?  It wouldn’t be the first time.  But as it turns out, Gen X could be pivotal to reaching consensus. As a nomad, Gen X can move between the different groups, having enough shared history and empathy to both relate and translate. Their influence might not be as evident on the consumer side (particularly in the west), but it is powerful in B2B.

Take IT, for example. Gen X fills many decision-making positions in that function, like Software Architect, which is a central cloud IT decision-maker (ITDM) and buying center influencer. You can also find them in director level positions across key corporate functions (like HR and Marketing) in middle market and large enterprise and they have begun to populate the C-Suite in force. Besides the healthcare sector which still has predominant Boomer executive leadership, most CIOs are Gen X. In small businesses and start-ups, Gen X is often the owner/founder or President. Who created the modern global social media landscape? Gen X. Who else listens to and follows Gen X? Gen Z.

Gen Z is the shiny new segment that has us all curious. In reality, it’s not that big of a mystery. Gen Z’s look for ways to express themselves and do what they love. These artists mainly create on the internet for their followers. They are eager to work and they want their corporate experience as close to “normal” as possible (maybe that’s why they are not so sure about hybrid). But they do believe technology at work will hold them back. They know how to create safe spaces and believe in the notion of protection as a right. You’ll find many Gen Z’s newly graduated with cybersecurity degrees, placing them on highly involved and relevant corporate security teams. Cyber Security is a new area of study in computer science. You can imagine how different their take might be versus a more experienced security colleague with field knowledge that come up through IT. Gen Z is the most diverse generation yet and they do not tolerate inequity. It will be interesting to see how they – and we – evolve because of their values.

So, how does this impact customer journeys? Notably, the way each generation engages with vendors is different. Purchase intent, pain points, social and traditional channels, trusted sources, format preferences and messaging appropriateness can be unique to each generation. This guide establishes some key do’s and don’ts when it comes to engagement.

As user experience goes, it is critical that brands get their digital AND SOCIAL houses in order. Did we say social? Everything is social for the two younger segments. And Millennials equate a disjointed UX to brand trust. For Gen Z, brand distrust is a “sixth sense” and they view the internet as one big experience – not separate. Think more fluid, less friction, social only and mobile first. Tone and imaging really matter. There is much work to be done in this area.

It takes a balancing act to appeal to, and not alienate, each group. There is some attitudinal alignment that might help when it comes to communication, relationships, and teamwork. Some of it might surprise you; some of it is more validating. Which two segments have a sense of entitlement? You guessed it – Boomers and Millennials. Who puts the most stock in online reputation? Millennials and Gen Z. Who owns the most stock? Boomers and Gen Z (whoa!). Do they all want to be rewarded and recognized differently? Yes. Do they value different things? Absolutely.

An interesting picture is emerging of the impact each generation has on modern buying centers and B2B decision-making. And like any marketing research journey, it isn’t one and done. We will continue to watch and expand our knowledge base of these archetypes. The Beta generation is on deck, a new crop of Prophets that are expected to experience early autonomy due to technology (Great Scott!).

Get the whole story here. We also updated our Generational Buying Center Matrix 2022 cheat sheet which should dovetail with any current work you are doing in that area. It’s a great tool for teams. If you are interested in expanding your content and messaging strategy to include generational factors and insights, drop us a line.

Happy reading!

Jennifer Voisard

Jennifer Voisard

Senior Consultant

Jenny is a digital content strategist, who leads customer-centric engagements that focus on understanding B2B buying behaviors and developing custom roadmaps.

Her expertise is creating buyer personas and mapping digital content journeys to assess the multi-channel user experience. She helps clients operationalize plans across workstreams and identifies processes to create efficiencies in marketing operations. Jenny also has extensive time under her belt developing and managing customer advocacy programs and community building.

She has helped a diverse group of organizations including Cisco, VMware, Verizon, Microsoft, Dell, BMO Harris, Capital One and many others become more customer-centric.