Raised on technology, millennials can’t get enough of their phones. They use them to take pictures, rate restaurants, get directions and cash checks — everything, it seems, except talk.
The reason: poor phone skills.
That disconnect is putting a strain on workplaces where baby boomer bosses expect new recruits to use the phone to present the company’s face to the public, bring in new customers and forge relationships with clients.
“There are countless studies on the benefits of face-to-face or voice-to-voice conversations that you can’t get out of e-mails or texting,” said Stephen Blair Venable, a St. Paul management consultant. “So, like it or not, you need to learn how to answer the phone and be good on the phone.”
The amount of time we spend talking on the phone has been on the decline for a number of years — from an average of 3.03 minutes a day in 2006 to 1.8 minutes in 2012, according to the wireless industry association.
But Americans crossed a threshold in 2007, when we sent more text messages than made phone calls. The tap-happy fingers of today’s new college grads led the texting tsunami, according to the research firm Nielsen.
“We’re seeing tons of communication misfires,” said Ryan Jenkins, 29, an Atlanta-based blogger and business consultant on millennial issues. He describes the clash as a “battle royale” among the baby boomers who want face time, the Generation Xers who prefer e-mail and the younger workers.
“They would rather fire off an instant message or text to someone sitting in the next cube … than walk over and talk,” Jenkins said.
A lack of skills in basic business protocol is enough of a concern that Jayden Myles is teaching them to high school students.
“Phone etiquette definitely comes up,” said Myles, 27, a program coordinator with Genesys Works. The Twin Cities nonprofit helps inner-city high schoolers get internships with IT companies to improve their long-term job prospects.
“It’s hard to say, ‘Put down your cellphone,’ especially when you’re talking about young people,” he said. “But students need to learn the best approach to communication and to gain a range of skills in how they approach others.”
Operators are standing by
At U.S. Bancorp, millennials now make up 57 percent of the call center workforce. The Minneapolis-based bank has discovered it needs to modify its training. For a younger generation used to fast-paced visual stimulation, the old classroom lecture no longer holds up, said Jeannie Fichtel, a baby boomer who leads the company’s 24-hour banking group. Instruction now incorporates multimedia training, and the bank leans on coaches to help young hires get up to speed. The message seems to be getting through.
“Quite frankly, they come to us knowing it’s a job,” she said. “You are going to talk on the phone.”
Carla Bergseth, director of operations training at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, said training for “phone tact” is nothing new. But younger workers have a different style — they are more informal, they don’t engage in pleasantries and small talk, and they get right to the point. That’s not necessarily a problem, she said.
“They come to us as pretty outstanding communicators,” Bergseth said. “They have been communicating in some way or another pretty much every waking moment — texting or e-mailing — and that seems to translate into some comfort and confidence in communicating.”
Jenkins agrees. Younger workers don’t have phone phobias, he said. They merely consider it an outdated and inefficient mode of communication.
“It’s not that everyone needs to bend to the whim of the millennials,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is social media is not a fad anymore. Texting is not a fad.”
Jenkins makes the case that texting is more considerate and efficient than calling. Receivers respond when it’s convenient and don’t get sidetracked with an unplanned call. Texters are forced to put their thoughts into one place, and less time gets lost playing phone tag.
It takes training
Training new workers is essential, said Venable, the corporate consultant, and the burden is on companies.
“Millennials do need to do some adjusting,” he said. “But at the same time, corporations need to understand it doesn’t serve any of us well just to sort of complain that ‘They don’t know.’ No one is better suited to teach them than the corporate entity itself.”
That doesn’t put Mark Helgren at ease. The Edina resident and parent of two teens and a tween said he can’t help but think ahead to kids vying for summer jobs, filling out college applications and eventual self-sufficiency.
“Everything is texting, Twitter, Snapchatting,” he said. “You need to be able to speak to someone on the phone or speak face-to-face with people — have a conversation, an exchange of ideas. They’re just not familiar with it.”