Communicating with Younger Clients

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Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst Photography

Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst Photography

On a daily basis, many of us interact with younger clients, ranging in age from young Pony Club or 4-H participants to those in their mid- to late 20s. These are the young riders born after 1980, although the chronological boundaries are not exact. Many of these “kids” have grown up in our practices and are used to who we are as equine practitioners and our methods of doing things.

But for newer young clients who might not know you as well, do you ever find yourself wondering if you are communicating in a way that gets through? For familiar and unfamiliar younger clients alike, do you find yourself in the middle of an explanation about medical care for their horses while the young client is glancing at a cell phone, reading a text message and composing a reply? How do you get their attention?

Fortunately, a lot of research has been done on multi-generational values and communication variations, so perhaps a few insights can lead to more satisfying interactions with younger clientele. Although there are always exceptions to a general trend, and even though younger clients in your practice own horses and might present a slightly different demographic variation, still they are part of a generational culture shared with their contemporaries who pursue different hobbies.

Who Are the Young Clients?

First, we need to set the stage as to who this younger generation is and what drives this generation’s communication skills. The group discussed here is often termed the “Millennials”—a name coined by Neil Howe and William Strauss in 2000—and sometimes called the “Net Generation.” This generational group numbers around 30% of the U.S. population. Based on a 2010 PEW Research Center report (go to and search for "millennials confident connected"), there are some generalizations about traits that characterize Millennials, and many of these traits are relevant to how they communicate. For example, a Millennial is a person who:

• is very connected via social media and the Internet;

• likes constant “communication” contact;

• expects services instantly and doesn’t appreciate delays;

• views technology favorably for “making life easier”;

• is a team player and very social;

• is often self-confident due to intense helicopter parenting that emphasized positive reinforcement—“You are special, you are the best, you are a winner”—and nurtured high levels of self-esteem; • seeks constant appraisal and approval;

• seeks a good work-life balance—especially applicable if horse management recommendations interfere with their fun time.

Some other pertinent facts in the PEW Research Center report regarding Millennial communication skills are worth noting:

• 97% own a computer.

• 94% own a cell phone.

• 95% use text messaging, often with constant surveillance of incoming messages.

• 52% use email.

When this generation of people want to “talk,” they are more inclined to do so via digital media—texting, email or social networking— rather than using the phone as a routine voice interaction device or meeting with a friend face-to-face. Because this generation has grown up with a plenitude of digital devices, the devices used to generate this form of communication are tools used as an intuitive extension of the person rather than considered a separate piece of technology. Growing up with the technology makes these people “digital natives.”

As members of the Net Generation, the Millennials are bombarded all day long through information coming from multiple media sources. This encourages them to be proficient at multi-tasking, but also leads to a short attention span. With a plethora of information thrown at them continually, it is easy to see how they will overlook anything that doesn’t immediately pique their interest. Millennials do focus on their ability as visual and experiential learners, preferring to learn through interactive discovery rather than accepting someone’s word at face value. Their weak point: Through rapid attention shifts, there is a tendency not to look into information in depth.

How Does This Apply to You?

Often, our ways of doing business are ingrained by habit—how we contact a client, provide medical information and give instructions on follow-up care of a horse by the owner. As a practitioner, you might find it helpful to consider modifying your method of educating this younger demographic group. In general, about 34% of Millennials are college educated with a bachelor’s degree; probably even a higher percentage of horse-owning Millennials have a college education or higher learning. They are quite capable of processing medical explanations. It is “how” information is provided to them that is critical, and in this case, the medium informs the message.

Rather than relying on strictly a phone conversation or—heaven forbid—leaving a voice mail message, your Millennial client is likely to prefer an explanation via email or text. Find out what the young client’s preferred method of communication might be and remember to use that media avenue for contact. If you can reach that person in his or her comfort zone, then the Millennial is more likely to interact with you and to process the information, which is in the best interest of the horse.

A Millennial’s cell phone is with him or her at all times and is being accessed constantly to see if there are new texts or instant messages. It’s important to find a way to “engage” the young client enough to notice your communication messages. This might be accomplished by advising that person in advance to be on the lookout for a text or email. Make an appropriate heading in the subject line of a digital message that will catch that person’s attention— something including the horse’s name is likely to jump out.

When sending an email, it is helpful to advise your client to read the entire email for all the detailed facts rather than skimming through it briefly. Highlight or even bullet the important points so it can be read easily without your client skipping over pertinent material. Adding visual information to your message—photos, videos or diagrams—can help spark even more interest.

When possible, it might work best to meet with the young client at your office or the barn to physically show him or her the results of imaging technology or to explain what procedures you want done rather than trying to explain them in writing, through text or in a phone conversation.

If there seems to be a bit of tentativeness on the client’s part about performing certain tasks, try encouragement and assurance that he or she is capable of getting the job done. People get behind something when they are invested. Get them involved, and allow them to think some actions are their ideas.

Assign tasks that are realistic and those that don’t interfere too badly with their personal lives and leisure time. For example, hand-walking a horse twice daily for an hour each time might work for some, but not for all. This is something to keep in mind when providing instructions.

You might find yourself needing to modify the directions to make them more palatable for the young client to work into his or her schedule rather than ignoring the instructions altogether or taking extreme shortcuts. In my experience, many rehabilitation tasks are taken on by a parent of the horse-owning young client due to school or work constraints; with this in mind, avenues of communication should be established with the parents, as well, to ensure accurate dissemination of information.

Handouts and brochures are probably not the ideal way to provide information to the younger client. In one survey, 44% of Millennials prefer to receive information on their mobile devices rather than as a handout. In many cases, the hard copy gets misplaced or lost without even having been read.

Brochure-type information and medical instructions available on your website help to facilitate access at your client’s convenience. YouTube is a favored medium for those of the younger generation to learn things—remember, in general, they are reported to be visual learners. Including how-to video footage on your website could be an effective way of communicating with the younger generation.

Another piece of advice for communication with Millennial clients is that they respond well to information given in a straightforward manner. Refrain from the tendency to sugarcoat difficult news. If the horse is going to be laid up for a long time, tell the Millennial that. If the horse can never be sound, say that. The young client will have more respect for you and trust you more when you treat him or her with respect, and as a person capable of coping with unwelcome news.

Millennials also want you to engage, at least somewhat, in who they are; they want to feel special and want their intelligence respected. Hone your skills as a good listener and build a relationship.

Having grown up as the Net Generation, Millennials like to, and are used to, being entertained. Don’t forget to capitalize on a bit of humor, as this younger generation doesn’t tend to be as serious as others preceding them. Humor helps people to remember what you’ve said (or written) and gives them a reason to listen more closely.

Take-Home Message

You might be reading this and thinking that all of these communication suggestions apply to all ages of clients, not just the young ones. This is true, of course, but if you go forward armed with some particulars about the value system and behavior of the younger generation, you might really make a breakthrough in effective communication with them. All of this works to the benefit of the horses, since their young owners will be armed with your appropriate recommendations, which helps them to manage their horses’ care in the best manner.