Using email, cell phone and voicemail
By John Graham
The laptop computer, email, voicemail and the cell phone are among the best tools business has available today. And they keep getting better, more efficient and easier to use.
Although we can't escape from the ubiquitous reach of one communication device or another, it's preferable to being cut off. When the chair of a meeting asks that all cell phones be turned off, half the group goes into withdrawals, while the other half ignores the request.
No one says, "I can hardly wait to go on vacation and get away from the phone." Yet, not so long ago these were the last words spoken before heading out.
While the plus side of the communication ledger is impressive, there's another, darker side. And it isn't "wouldn't life be wonderful without the technology" nonsense. There's little room today for latter-day Luddites.
The problem isn't the technology. It's with us, the users. Great communications has not produced great communicators. Just the opposite is true. As communications technology improves, communications skills decline. This includes email, cell phones and voice mail.
If you think otherwise, just ask anyone who depends on these technologies to write a business letter. It will be a painful, frustrating experience and nine times out of 10, the results will be total failure.
These technologies tend to promote unacceptable business (and personal) behaviors:
-- "Off the hook" attitude. If we're late for a meeting, calling to say we'll be along in 30 minutes absolves us from the responsibility for being on time. Just making the call is all it takes. Or emailing the message that we didn't get the expected report completed is all that's necessary.
-- A lack of planning. Because we can move information so quickly today, there's a tendency to leave tasks until the very last minute and either throw something together to meet the deadline or press a few keys to say it will be late.
-- The belief that act equals action. Perhaps the most distressing issue of all is the way communication technology fosters the erroneous notion that the act of sending a message is communicating. Whether someone receives the message and understands it is irrelevant. I sent it; I did my job.
Each of the three most popular forms of communication -- email, voicemail and cell phone -- fosters its own form of miscommunication.
Without question, email is the most useful form of business communication today, including the cell phone. Instead of looking at the whole, we now think in bits and pieces. It's as if we're no longer able to conceptualize.
One executive received 47 emails from a client over a 10-day period on a small project. Rather than organizing the information, the client simply dashed off the series of emails as various thoughts came to mind.
When the executive inquired about a particular issue, the client said, "I sent you that several days ago." As email recipients, the burden now rests with us to put the jigsaw puzzles together. There are easy ways to improve and facilitate email communications.
-- Create an email thread. Going back and forth using the same email to discuss a particular issue is the best way to create continuity and to avoid the "bits and pieces" problem. Now, you have a record and all the messages are in one place.
-- Limit each message to a single subject. There's nothing worse than trying to deal with multiple subjects wrapped up in a single email message. Sure it saves the sender time, but it drives the recipient to distraction!
-- Use the subject line. There's no excuse for failing to use the subject line. Because of persistent virus problems, the best rule is to delete any message without a recognizable subject.
-- Watch the shorthand. Email shorthand is fun and it saves keystrokes. But it also opens the door to misunderstanding and confusion. Keep the shorthand for friends and family where you can be as confusing as you like.
-- Respond after receiving. It's just plain rude not to respond when you receive an email (other than junk mail, of course). How does the sender know you actually read the message? With all the junk mail floating around, it's easy to delete a message accidentally without reading it. Just a word or two will do: Thanks. Will do. Get it to you shortly. Appreciate the info.
Just because voicemail has been with us so long now, it doesn't receive the attention it deserves when it comes to etiquette. Here are a few suggestions for improving voicemail communication:
-- Make your recorded message short. Too many words waste the listener's time. Here is an actual message: "This is the voicemail mailbox of Martha Shrunk. Your message is important to me. I am away from my desk at the present time, but leave a message of whatever length. I will get back to you as soon as possible. If you need immediate help, dial zero." Some recordings are even longer and equally as boring. Try this: "This is Martha Shrunk. Please leave a message."
-- Think before speaking. The chances of getting voicemail when placing a telephone call are close to 100 percent -- and rising. Even knowing the probabilities, we fail to plan our "script." A script? That's right. If the call is important, then prepare a brief message that will have an impact on the listener. The "who, when, what, where, why and how" words are a perfect outline. And don't leave anyone wondering. No one has the time to figure out what we're trying to say.
-- Leave a short message. Effective communicators think first about the listener, not themselves. Amateurs do just the opposite.
-- Speak slowly. There is nothing worse than trying to listen to a voicemail message when the individual is speaking at the speed of sound. When that happens, it's time to hit the erase button. Speak slowly, particularly when giving instructions or leaving telephone numbers.
-- Repeat telephone numbers. Having to replay a voicemail several times to get a telephone number doesn't create a positive feeling about the caller! "Here's the number; let me repeat it for you."
Now, the cell phone. It would seem that about 95 percent of all cell phone calls are unnecessary. It's as if we call anyone who happens to pop into our heads. It's as if Americans can't be alone for even a few minutes.
More than anything else, it may be that what's important isn't the message when it comes to the cell phone, but the medium, the phone itself Cell phone graveyards must be huge, as we buy a new phone every six months.
For some reason, our use of the cell phone seems to breech every rule of etiquette.
-- Total rudeness. If someone bumps into you and keeps going without saying a word, you can bet the person is talking on the phone. Drivers who poke along aren't 80 years old. They're talking on the phone.
Try to read anything in an airport waiting area. Forget it! There are always those who speak to the crowd instead of the person they're calling. One is intent on describing her love life (or lack of it), seemingly unaware of those nearby.
Why so many of us think that we must shout to be heard when using a cell phone harkens back to the days of Alexander Graham Bell. "Yes, Mr. Watson, I heard you. Now get off the line."
-- The cell phone in the office. Most offices have a policy for limiting personal calls. And for good reason. Some employees have difficulty separating their work from their personal lives. Then comes along the cell phone and solves the problem. Cell phone calls don't count, or at least that's the way it seems. With the vibration mode, it's even easier. Frankly, that's a wrong number.
-- It's OK to interrupt. Phone calls have long taken precedence in the office. No matter what you're doing, when the phone rings, answer it. That's the rule. Even when meeting with someone on business, we take calls.
There has been improvement however. "Please hold my calls" and "Put my calls in voicemail" have made meeting life more bearable.
But the cell phone has wiped all gains in telephone etiquette. If a cell phone rings, it will be answered no matter what's going on. It's rude to allow cell phone call interruptions. As a friend says, "Every cell phone has an off button."
-- Intrusion of the personal. If there were remnants of "delayed gratification" to be found, the cell phone has eliminated them. We have become victims of the "phone fix," the intrusion of our private lives into the workplace and with it, the triumph of the personal over work.
How much lost time do personal cell phone calls account for? Even more to the point, what is the cost of the interruptions and lost concentration on the job at hand?
Email, voicemail and the cell phone. While the technology is both brilliant and essential, considerable discipline is necessary if we are to benefit fully by becoming clear, concise and effective communicators. Clearly, we're not there yet.
John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing and sales consulting firm in Quincy, Mass., 02170 (617-328-0069;firstname.lastname@example.org. The company's Web site is www.grahamcomm.com.