Calling All Generations – How to Work with Millennials on the Phone

Generational nicknames annoy me. Creating one label for a vast range of people sets all of us up to make incorrect assumptions and communicate ineffectively. Recently though, a client specifically requested I include more information in a workshop on how Millennials use the phone.

How do Millennials use the phone? How can this communication be improved?

One of the reasons I dislike generational nicknames is … apparently I’m a Baby Boomer. That means I participated in the anti-war, free love revolution of the 60s and 70s (but was only 11 when Woodstock happened, couldn’t find bell bottoms in a retail store in my small Northern Ontario town until I was in high school, and my first trip to Haight-Ashbury was last October when I attended a conference in San Francisco). Or I was a party-hardy, career climber in the 70s and 80s, years when I was finishing university and working long hours building my first business. I definitely missed the parties!

So, when it comes to Millennials, I caution all of us to be careful about the assumptions we make. I’ve worked with, and continue to work with, many people from this generation (said to be born between 1977 and 1995), as well as from Gen Z (said to be born starting in 1996). Their struggles with phone calls are echoed in every generation.

Why? Consider these two facts:

1. Time magazine named the personal computer its Man of the Year in 1982. Slowly, regardless of our generation, we all began to communicate through words on a screen, allowing email to outpace our phone conversations.

2. The first Blackberry was introduced in 1999 and by 2006 “Crackberry” (a term used to describe one’s addiction to using their Blackberry) was declared Word of the Year by Websters Dictionary.

In other words, we have all been tapping on keys to communicate for 35 years. While I grew up listening to adults talk on the phone, the Millennial and Gen Z generations watched their parents tap on keyboards. While my first jobs involved answering and communicating on a phone, their’s most often involved working on a computer. Phone conversations were the norm for me, text communication is the norm for them, and a reluctance to speak on the phone – or awkwardness during a phone call – are inevitable outcomes.

So, keeping in mind that I’m making sweeping generalizations, here are 5 things to consider when you want to communicate with Millennials or Gen Z’ers on the phone:

  1. Remain empathetic to the fact that speaking on the phone has a lot in common with public speaking … except you can’t see your audience! A phone call can be terrifying, unnerving and full of anxiety. Accept longer silences on the call. Speak slowly and ask open-ended questions to inspire conversation. Once the conversation gets started, everyone will relax.
  2. Use text and/or email to book a specific time for a phone call. This allows them to prepare. Text communication has allowed them to edit, spell check and carefully consider their words. The improv nature of a phone call is completely intimidating. Booking the call as a meeting eliminates some anxiety.
  3. Set an agenda for the phone call. This also helps combat the ‘in the moment’ aspect of phone communication. If they know the specifics of what the call is about, they will prepare and be more responsive.
  4. Give them the ‘why’ for the phone call. Let them know it will be more efficient, save them time, provide them with more information, quickly answer all their questions, and so on. Understanding why the phone call is necessary will overcome some of their reluctance, and saving time is a a key motivator.
  5. Don’t expect them to return messages or leave messages. Why? They grew up in a text-based world. Picking up voicemail messages or speaking at the sound of the tone … in many cases it simply doesn’t occur to them to do these things.

What are your thoughts on this topic? It would be valuable to hear from you, no matter what your generational nickname.





12 thoughts on “Calling All Generations – How to Work with Millennials on the Phone”

  1. I appreciated reading your excellent article Mary Jane – I feel totally included in what you say – from all perspectives. I especially value your pointing out “… the improv nature of a phone call”… I look forward to making AND receiving phone calls today.

    • Thank you, Brian. I think I do need to focus on this more … the idea of “improv”. I appreciated your feedback … always. mj

  2. As a millennial working with millennials for millennials, you have hit the nail on the head! So true, and thanks for the reminder to point out the reasons why we prefer text-based (I’m still a dinosaur that prefers the phone for talking!) and how to explain why a phone call will serve them.

    • This is a great comment, Krysta. I believe you’ve given me another blog post. Perhaps every generation needs more information on why the phone call is in their best interest. Thanks for taking the time to write. mj

  3. Thanks for this. Very apropos.

    My experience with millennials is that many have a voicemail account on their cell phone, but as a rule, NEVER listen to it. They have a greeting, they accept VMs, and then don’t listen to them at all.

    The root of this problem is that they think everyone has mobile. They expects texts. If calling from a landline, you can’t text them. Plus, they think the caller is somehow aware that their number is a mobile (and not a landline), which of course is not necessarily the case. And with number portability, you can’t trust the number because the number can be switched from a landline to VOIP to mobile.. I’m not going to text unless I know the recipient number can receive texts.

    I don’t know how to get around this…..

    Anyway, thanks again.

    • Thanks, Mick, for your comments. It does certainly point out another area where the generations are “clashing” with their communication preferences. This is also worth some research and thought on my part so stayed tuned for another post on this subject. mj

  4. Wow, as a “millennial” by your definition, and somebody who is working in sales, I found this article extremely insulting, especially its tone which essentially aims to treats us like “little kids with hurt feelings”. I will be unsubscribing from your newsletter going forward, but wanted to give feedback so hopefully this doesn’t happen again.

    • Wow, Gustavo, I worked so hard on this requested piece to avoid the reaction you are sharing with me. I believe all the “labels” are incorrect and believe all generations have struggles on the phone. That’s what I hoped you would take away from the post.

      So … since I obviously didn’t achieve that … are you interested in doing a guest post to debate this piece … or to correct me? It would be awesome to have your point to view to share with my readers.

      If not, that’s fine. I thank you for being a reader and for sending me your thoughts.

      (P.S. Gustavo has agreed to provide a post for next week, so stay tuned for more thoughts on this subject. mj)

  5. Once again a great article Mary Jane. I change how I communicate with people based on preference and age type. There are multiple ways to communicate with both customers and prospects. A good way to figure that out is ask or try the different platforms.

    • Great point, Paul. We should be asking our customers and clients more questions about how they would prefer to communicate. Not a question we needed to ask 10 or even 7 years ago, but definitely important today. Thanks for taking the time to comment. mj


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