Grow Your Firm

Millennial Clients Want You to Want Them

Caleb Newquist Editor-at-Large, Gusto 
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September 24, 2020

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Programming note

On the Margins will be off next week, returning October 8. And now, the newsletter.

Serving millennial clients

I am not a millennial. However, I am millennial adjacent in many key ways. My wife is a millennial. My brother is a millennial. Many of my closest friends are millennials, and virtually all of my co-workers are millennials. And, perhaps most importantly, I was an early avocado toast skeptic only to come to my senses a few years ago.

I never quite understood the whole “understanding millennials” phase that mass media went through during the last decade. I was especially confused by all the explainers of how to deal with millennials in the workplace. Anyway, I’m thinking about all this because the mysterious millennial is now firmly ensconced as a force in the entrepreneurial world as evidenced by Xero’s Young Entrepreneurs report. Its premise is to help advisors (i.e., accountants and bookkeepers) understand and serve this segment of small business owners “because millennials are extremely different from previous generations in one key way: they’ve been online almost all of their lives.”

Apparently, online nativism and the expectation that things need to “just work” has given millennials a bit of a reputation. However, the Xero report dispels this notion in the very next breath:

Many accountants and bookkeepers see millennial small business owners as difficult, but they’re actually surprisingly easy to satisfy. All you have to do is take regular action.

Right now, apparently, that isn’t happening. The report says that “one third (33%) [of the business owners surveyed] say that they receive insights from their advisor twice a year at most” and that half were “likely or very likely to explore replacing their existing accountant or bookkeeper in the next year.”

I suppose there are those two ways to look at this:

1) Millennial business owners are needy, lack confidence in their abilities and decisions, have unrealistic expectations, and have no sense of loyalty when they are dissatisfied with the service they receive.

Or:

2) Millennial business owners know that they can’t know everything. Furthermore, they know that people with a particular set of knowledge and skills can advise them, and they are willing to pay those people for that advice. However, they expect a high level of service from those people.

Like most things, the reality is probably somewhere in between. The fact remains, however, that accounting firms serve their clients, not the other way around. And because there will continue to be more millennial-run businesses in the future, firms that don’t rise to meet the evolving needs of those businesses will probably wind up with fewer clients, not more.

This shouldn’t be a problem. Millennial-age folks—or millennial-adjacent folks, like me—are starting to become firm owners and partners. This may raise the question: Should millennial business owners simply work with accountant advisors who are also millennials or close enough? It seems like common sense: Advisors and clients can talk business over avocado toast and overpriced lattes (all on Zoom, of course). But a millennial-ish advisor will lack certain advantages. It isn’t their fault; they just haven’t been around as long as a non-millennial-ish advisor who has accumulated experience and knowledge. That may just be what the millennial business wants and needs. Plus, who knows, maybe they can convert another avocado toast skeptic.

Unsolicited life advice: Be on time

One of the most perfect things I’ve read recently is this Albert Burneko essay: Be On Time For Things. Why is it perfect? Because it is correct. Chronic lateness is a symptom of the self-absorbed and/or frantically overwhelmed, trying to maximize all of their time at the expense of everyone else. How do I know this? Because I used to be one of these people.

Years ago, a friend I regularly met for coffee told me that she intentionally scheduled our meets 20–30 minutes later to account for my tardiness. This 20–30-minute grace period was a universal approach to my life, whether it was arriving to work, at a party, or the airport. I refused to account for the unpredictable circumstances that are inevitable in life. This made me late for everything. But I didn’t feel too bad because it didn’t cost me any friends (that I’m aware of), and although it caused stress occasionally, I only missed one or two flights.

Eventually, however, I grew tired of the close calls at the airport, and I started arriving earlier. I spent the extra time eating, reading, or both, which I realized I might enjoy more than anything else. Plus, the solitude of being around so many strangers is comforting to me. Then, at some point, I met my future wife, who was early for everything and despised my lateness. In the interest of our relationship, I gradually made some adjustments, and I came to appreciate how being on time for stuff really makes your life easier.

No one notices when you’re on time. Virtually everyone notices when you’re late because they’re all waiting for you. And not in a good way. It’s not like waiting for Jerry Seinfeld to walk out on stage and start telling jokes. No, it’s more like, “Bob is late for this meeting about TPS reports. Man, I hate TPS reports. Hurry the hell up, Bob, you selfish jerk.”

Over time, it dawned on me that although I wrote many things on the internet that made people mad, I wasn’t a selfish jerk. I had a modicum of empathy to know that I wasn’t the center of the universe and that people—friends, family, total strangers—didn’t deserve to be kept waiting. Their time was and is just as valuable as mine, and that I should start respecting that. So I did, and now I’m an on-time person. I’m not perfect, but things are much improved, and I’m happy to be here. Better late than never.

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Updated: January 22, 2021

Caleb Newquist
Caleb Newquist Caleb is Editor-at-Large at Gusto. In 2009, he became the founding editor of Going Concern, the one-of-a-kind voice on the accounting profession, serving in the role for 9 years. Prior to Going Concern, Caleb worked as a CPA for nearly 6 years in New York and Denver. He lives in Denver with his wife, two daughters, and two cats.

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