Several years ago I began doing business with a new client. He was a very busy gentleman who had just come on board with his organization and was overseeing all of its operations. The first few meetings we met in person at his office. Quickly, we developed a genuinely terrific rapport. We shared similar values and worked with the same enthusiasm and effort on his business. I was confident that he would become a very satisfied customer.
After a couple of months, I began to notice that this general manager only read about half of my emails. Now, when I write that he only read “half of my emails,” that doesn’t mean this fellow skipped every other email from me. It means that he read about every other line of my emails.
He constantly missed important information – information that was clearly included in my correspondence. Once, I read his reply to one of my emails, and I honestly thought he was joking. I actually laughed out loud. Then the realization hit me; he was serious. And he was accusing me of intentionally misleading him.
Have you ever gone from laughing…to feeling ill…to being so angry that you could keep time to the pulse pounding in your temples?
Well, I paused for a moment…and I thought back to the times that I probably caused the same mind-blowing frustration for someone else. It happens, and because I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to misreading an email, I’m in no position to point fingers. So I called this customer, repeatedly, leaving voice messages that we needed to meet. Unfortunately, by the time he finally agreed to a face-to-face with me, the relationship had gone south. We were both ready to move on.
Listen, if you’re in a service business long enough, you’ll have a customer relationship where the harder you try, the worse it seems to get. For me, that experience was a great reminder that you can’t take communications for granted: just because you write it, doesn’t mean they’ll read it. And just because you say it, doesn’t mean they’ll hear it.
When you understand that, and combine it with the fact that we all have our preferred approach to business communications – some configuration of talking, voice mailing, videoconferencing (Skype/FaceTime), emailing and texting, you recognize that the way you interact with customers is something that really requires your attention…and that communications guidelines should be established up front.
I have always preferred meeting in person or talking in real time with customers and colleagues. Seeing someone’s expression, hearing the tone of their voice, and reading their body language communicates so much more than an email or a text. But obviously, that’s not always possible or even practical. And for some folks, the idea of phone conversations is even a little repulsive.
I read an eye-opening article the other day on Inc.com called “5 Reasons Millennials Aren’t Answering Your Phone Call.” While we’ve known for years that that the least used feature on a smartphone is actually the phone, Ryan Jenkins, explains the mindset of the Millennial generation and their rationale for avoiding talk. Here’s a brief summary:
1. Calls can be distracting. Unexpected calls can disrupt workflow and pull people from important tasks, while texts allow workers to respond when it’s convenient.
2. Calls can be viewed as presumptuous. Some view a phone call as an intrusion where they are forced to adhere to the caller’s agenda, while texting is more passive and doesn’t require an immediate response.
3. Calls can be superfluous. The concern here is that callers may not have taken the time to prepare and gather available information in advance of the call. By nature, texting encourages users to get to the point.
4. Calls can be ineffective. We’ve all played phone tag; why do that when you can send a text that is likely to be read in a few minutes?
5. Calls are time-consuming. When you add up the introductory pleasantries, small talk and goodbyes, you’re piling up minutes taken from your workday. With texts, you can limit (or eliminate) the exchange of irrelevant information.
Makes sense, right? I believe that texting and emailing are critical components of simply getting things done. But I also believe that when it comes to customer interaction in a service business, it’s important to communicate something other than data. There’s a critical, intangible element to ongoing customer relationships. We need to express commitment, enthusiasm and appreciation for their business.
And until someone creates an emoji that is effective in articulating all of that, I’m going to keep talking.