Generational Conflict in Your Veterinary Practice

By Graham Garrison

August 14, 2019

Boomers, Gen Xers, millennials – how to get through the generational differences to a establish successful relationship with veterinary practice team members

Young and senior veterinarian examining a Labrador dog together.

Megan Brashear was managing a technician team at a veterinary practice and needed to make a change to a policy. The policy was confusing, but the solution to simplify made perfect sense. So, Brashear went through the traditional steps to make the change. She met with the hospital administrator and financial people, then completed all the background work. With the policy rewritten, all that was left was to distribute it to the team members.

“It did not go well,” Brashear says.

It was her first taste of generational conflict in the workplace. A large group of the employees were millennials. Brashear says they did not appreciate that the policy was given to them without input. “As a Gen Xer, when authority tells you to do something, you do it,” she says. “Millennials want to talk about it. They want to feel heard and have conversations.”

Brashear says she spent weeks backtracking. She had meetings, and learned how to be quiet and listen. “It wasn’t a waste of time, but it took a tremendous amount of time to get this rolled out,” she says. “This didn’t go the way I thought it would go at all. I wasn’t ready for such a battle. I wasn’t ready for hours of talking.”

However, it proved a valuable lesson. “I’d rather have the conversations at the beginning and have a much smoother roll out and not have people so mad at me for months.”

Brashear, CVT, VTS (ECC), small animal veterinary nursing manager at Purdue University Veterinary Teaching Hospital, discussed her experience in a presentation to attendees of VMX 2019 named “Why Do They Think That? Generational Conflict in Practice.” 

Understanding the differences

For Chip Espinoza, Ph.D., generational tendencies showed themselves in the classroom. A university professor, Espinoza says he began to notice differences in how students in the 1990s approached his class and syllabus when compared to how his students in the 2000s did.

“In the ’90s, if I had a syllabus, students threw it in their backpack and wouldn’t look at it again. In the 2000s, they’d go line by line through that syllabus.” For instance, if students spotted three books in the course for is a 3-unit course, they would tell Espinoza that’s too many books, too much reading.

“What I realized is they came in with a notion that everything was negotiable,” says Espinoza, author of “Managing the Millennials: Discover the Core Competencies for Managing Today’s Workforce.” “That’s one of the biggest points of contention for organizations that bring them in, they’re truly is an expectation that they’re going to negotiate things that have been non-negotiable for decades.”

Depending on how you categorize, you could count five generations in the workforce. Brashear says it’s important to understand the differences.

“That’s what’s going to get them on your side and that’s what’s going to keep them on your side,” she says. “If we just walk around in management or doing anything and think “Well, I’m pretty smart so they’re just going to do what I want them to do,’ employees are going to leave.

Boomers (Those people born between 1946 and 1964). Boomers are starting to retire, but they’re often-times still practice owners or practice managers. They are definitely pre internet and value face to face discussion and collaboration, says Brashear. “This group has put their entire lives into these practices sometimes. It’s important that we understand how much they put into that. That is their life that we are working in.”

Generation X (Those people born between 1965 and 1980). Because the boomers were working so hard building up their practices, Gen Xers were latch key kids, says Brashear. “We developed a huge sense of independence and like to be entrusted with projects and left alone,” she says. Gen Xers tend to have a pretty crazy work ethic. “Like boomers, we learned that you go to work and stay until the work is done.”

Millennials (Those people born between 1981 and 1996). Much has been written about this generation as it has established itself in the workforce. Brashear says millennials are starting to understand that work-life balance is really important. They’re asking themselves, maybe we don’t have to be at work all the time? “This is definitely the social media generation,” she says. “Not all of them were born in the time of the internet, but they grew up with a phone in their hand. Millennials don’t have as many face-to-face conversations as boomers or Gen Xers. “They’re much more comfortable with texting, email, but at same time they want to have this opportunity to feel heard.”

Generation Z (Those people born between 1997 and the present). These are the new hires that are just graduated from school. This generation is looking for more balance. They are going to choose a job that allows them to take vacation time. They’re going to spend time away from work. “They are definitely researching and choosing where to work based off of the online presence of the company,” Brashear says. They’re going to see a job posting and go directly to social media and YouTube to see what’s out there to help make their decision. Generation Z is looking for diversity in the workplace – cultural, and age. “They want to know where they’re working has this variety of opportunity and variety of experience that’s available to them.”

There is also one more generation to take note of – the silent generation. These are people older than baby boomers. There is a small percentage of them in the workforce, but “we can’t count them out.” Their traits are similar to boomers, but maybe escalated a little bit, Brashear says. “They lived through trials such as the Great Depression and World War II. They’re mentality is to put your head down and get it done. No complaining.”

Understanding the tension

Espinoza says the veterinary practice environment is experiencing greater tension with generation differences than other industries due to several factors. One is education. Anything where there has been a lot of preparation for a career, there’s going to be tension, he says. “So when a young professional walks in, they expect they’re going to be listened to, and they’re going to be a part of the discussion. And with the way veterinarians were trained 20-30 years ago, this dynamic creates all sorts of conflict.”

The young professional who is fresh out of school will normally challenge processes and ways of doing things, he says. “It’s their way of trying to make a contribution, to prove themselves.” However, the way it may get interpreted is that they’re arrogant, have hubris, and think they know more than the established co-workers, etc. “It backfires on that young professional, when really they’re only trying to be a part of what’s going on and not just the status quo. They really want to make a contribution.”

Espinoza tries to coach organizations to anticipate this mentality from young professionals, and in many ways to embrace it. “If you have young professionals that aren’t challenging the way things are, they’re not giving 100%.”

On the flip side, Espinoza recommends that young professional master the organization’s way before they suggest another way. “If you’ve put in the time and figured out how they’re doing it and are doing it their way – and then come with a suggestion – it carries a lot more weight and is respected more.”

Today’s culture of organizations and the way things are done have been shaped predominantly by the baby boomers for about three decades, Espinoza says. Generation X, sandwiched between the millennials and baby boomers, weren’t as dominant as a group in terms of numbers. “They really just had to put their head down and kowtow to the baby boomers because boomers were the dominant group in the workforce,” Espinoza says. “So while they had a lot of different values than the baby boomers, they didn’t have the numbers to move the needle to get the baby boomer to adapt to their values. What happened is they had to adapt to the baby boomer values.”

Millennials, though, are a large enough group that both the baby boomers and Gen X are having to adapt to them, he says. “That’s what you’re seeing. We’ve changed the layout of offices with open space floor plans, flex schedules, work-life blending – all of those things are the result of the largest part of the workforce now demanding their work adapt to them, and that’s what’s happening.”

Consequently, some baby boomers have had trouble adjusting to the shifting dynamics. “The reality of the situation is that if you’re going to get millennials to work for you, then you need to adapt. The big challenge is attracting more millennials. I think a lot of companies have gotten good at it in their messaging, but the problem is delivering on that messaging once they get them.”

A new buyer’s mentality

Part of that adapting involves the way goods and services are purchased, and working with who is making the purchasing decisions. Espinoza says that about 65% of buyers in the workplace are now millennials. The problem Gen Xers and baby boomers face is that they may still be trying to sell like they are selling to each other, “but when you sell to a millennial it’s a very different engagement,” he says. “Millennials probably know as much or more about the product than any other buyers. They come in with a set of information and knowledge, and the expectation is that it’s going to be a fast turnaround, and execution of the sale.” Today’s buyer doesn’t want a dog and pony show, they want a short sales cycle, and they want to be taken seriously with their questions and discussion.

The No. 1 issue millennials face when transitioning into career or moving up in career is lack of experience, says Espinoza. “In the sales cycle, what a lot of salespeople have been taught is they’re the expert and they need to educate the buyer. A lot of times that comes off as condescending and not really respecting the knowledge of that buyer. Millennials are tuned into whether people are being dismissive with them or telling, selling or educating them on something they already believe they are educated on.”

While researching the biggest barriers to career transition for young professionals, Espinoza came across an interesting parallel. The barriers – lack of experience, not getting respect, and not being listened – coincided with issues that today’s buyers have with the sales cycle. “What was fascinating was when you looked at it from the sales cycle for lost sales, it was for that very same reasons.”

Espinoza recommends using a concept he calls “Learning With.” Sales reps can ask the buyer, “What is your problem, and how can we solve it together?” “When you approach the buyer in that way in a sales cycle, then they’re golden,” he says.

Communication strategies

With so many generational tendencies to keep in mind, how should a sales rep approach communicating with various members of a veterinary practice team?

Liz Myers, territory sales manager, Midwest Veterinary Supply, says it is hard to lump everyone in the same generation into one group, as there are always the exceptions to the rule. “I think listening and watching body language is very important,” she says. “As a boomer, we usually feel the need to get to know the person and decide if we like and trust them before we are ready to do business with them. Boomers are relationship based.”

Millennials are very organized, educated and want to complete their task and move on, whether it be working with reps or doing their job, says Myers. “They want the facts and bullet points. I have found that if I provide the information they need and follow through with things I said that I would do, they are more interested in getting to know me and forming a relationship.”

One question Myers always asks is what is their preferred method of communication? Phone, email, text? From there, she builds her communication style around them. “I’ve never forgotten advice my manager gave me years ago which is the need to ‘be a chameleon and blend in’ with their style,” she says.

Brashear says sales reps can take advantage of face-to-face interactions even if that’s not how they will always communicate with their contacts. From there they can better gauge the best way to move forward. “I’m a big proponent of asking for what you need, and asking for what they need.”

She agrees with Myers that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. Lunch-and-learns may be effective in some veterinary practices, but not all. Reps used to be able to walk in and see a hospital full of Gen-Xers working really hard, and if they bought them lunch and told them something about a new product or service, the team members were going to do it. Reps now have to step back and ask what’s going to work best? “How do you want to learn?” In some cases it’s a video that team members can watch, and then following that with a conversation about what the practice’s goals are. “If the sales reps are coming in and saying ‘This is where we want to go with this, how do you want to make it work?’ and asking for their ideas, they’ll be successful.”

Myers says it’s important to acknowledge all team members. “I want them to be able to at least put a face to the Midwest Veterinary Supply name,” she says. “If a clinic brings in a new product, I always offer staff training. Lunch and learns are not always easy for clinics to schedule, so I offer to talk with team members individually. Clinics are busy and it is important to be sure that everyone is always on the same page. We can help with product knowledge and tools to get the pet owner comfortable with the product and the benefit it brings.

Boomers want to see how a product, service, rebate or program going to help them see more clients or make more money – or both. You might have to have a different meeting with management than you do with the employees and tailor those to what each group is trying to get out of whatever meeting you’re going to have, Brashear says.

No assumptions

Flexibility, and listening, are a big part of successful selling into today’s marketplace. Don’t prejudge your buyers, Myers says. “Do more listening than talking and find out what they need. Don’t ‘assume’ they need what you want to sell. Sell what they need.”

It’s critical for reps not to get stuck in a rut and do what they have always done, Myers says. “Be open to change. If it still works, continue doing the same thing. But, recognize if what you used to do doesn’t get the same results, and be willing to explore new ideas.”

In: August Vol: 11 Issue: 4Topic: Trends

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