June 15, 2011

Pick Up the Darned Phone

Filed under: Business Moves,Economy,Taxes & Government — Tom @ 1:15 pm

CobwebsOnTelephoneAs the economy languishes, here’s an idea that might actually improve things.


Note: This column appeared at Pajamas Media and was teased here at BizzyBlog on Monday.


We had awful unemployment and jobs news on June 3. A week earlier, there was yet another mediocre economic growth report. Friday, May’s Monthly Treasury Statement, but for $45 billion of almost indecipherable accounting gimmickry, would have shown yet another single-month federal deficit of over $100 billion. These are just the latest signs that the economy is not doing well, and that Washington’s elites continue to avoid getting a grip on the nation’s deteriorating fiscal situation.

As expected, President Obama is blaming everyone else for the country’s economic problems. On the Monday after the employment news broke, The Daily Caller reported that the president went into woe-is-me mode, referring to “challenges that have been unaddressed over the course of the previous decade” (translation: George W. Bush), as well as, per the Caller, tagging “investors, consumers and even the media.” In reality, it’s the Obama administration’s policies which have created what Daniel Henninger at The Wall Street Journal has called “The Cloud Economy,” which “is flying without instruments because of the White House’s policy choices.” Given that the departure of Austan Goolsbee leaves the administration with “no economist in a prominent position,” the situation doesn’t look like it’s going to change any time soon.

As wrong as Obama is about placing pervasive blame, he is accidentally right in the sense that a lot of individuals and companies could be more productive — which leads to the column’s title.

I cannot tell you how many times people have told me that they or their bosses will only accept certain communications by email because they need a digital record “to protect themselves.” From what, the bogeyman? As a result, it takes heaven knows how many email exchanges to slowly work through what could have been accomplished in a single phone call.

I cannot tell you how many stories I’ve heard from employees berated by their bosses for leaving someone a brief voice message instead of sending an email, which of course has to be ever so carefully worded, to “cover our butts.”

I also can’t tell you how many complaints I’ve heard about coworkers, bosses and subordinates who won’t answer the phone — ever — and suffer no consequences.

And I’ll bet that more than a few people reading this have sent unnecessary emails to coworkers or associates whose locations were almost within whispering distance.

In March, Pamela Paul at The New York Times wrote what sadly may not be a minority opinion: “Nobody calls me anymore — and that’s just fine.”

Certainly it seems as if decision-makers at companies which deal directly with the public are heading in that direction, with what I believe could be serious long-term consequences for the bottom line. Recently, Consumer Reports, found that 71 percent of people they surveyed “were extremely irritated when they couldn’t reach a human on the phone. Sixty-seven percent said they hung up the phone without getting their issue resolved.” Those percentages have to be low. Further, “‘There’s a feeling on the part of Americans that companies are deliberately making it difficult for them by burying phone numbers, sidestepping calls and steering customers to online FAQs instead of live human beings,’ said Tod Marks, senior project editor.” You don’t say? It’s not a feeling, Tod. It’s a fact.

Of course I recognize that there’s a cost to babysitting lazy customers who could have found answers in a minute or two on their own. But there’s also a loyalty-building aspect to serving a sincere but ignorant customer and solving their problems. Too many companies have decided to shut such people out completely. As a result, lots of people have no idea how to leverage a great deal of the technology and knowledge which is right there at their fingertips. The economic cost of such ignorance cannot be small.

So pick up the darned phone. Answer the darned phone. And just for the heck of it every once in a while (I know this will be a real toughie), stop sitting, which after all is supposedly as dangerous as smoking, get out of your chair, walk a few feet and have a conversation with your coworker. Y’know, face to face.

I’m not alone in my productivity-related concerns. During July 2009, East Valley OB/GYN in Chandler, Arizona banned internal emails during “Conversation Fridays,” calling it “an opportunity for us to refrain from internal emails and pick up the phone to talk to one another to get our jobs done.” Imagine that. I have confirmed (by phone, of course) that Conversation Fridays also took place last year. The practice claims that “Many companies have established programs like this as a way to synergize including VeriSign, US Cellular, and others.”

In 2003, British company Phones4U went much further, completely banning staff email. I don’t know whether the ban is still in place, and perhaps it was an overreaction, but owner John Caudwell claimed that the ban would “save staff up to three hours a day which translates to a saving of £1m (about $1.65 million at the time) a month.”

Techies may ridicule these companies as Neanderthals, but one thing is true about both which is not true of everyone: They’re still in business.

I would hope that President Obama might heed my call for increased efficiency through judicious use of the telephone and face-to-face contact. Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone will be able to pry the Blackberry from his cold, detached, indifferent hands.



  1. Probably your weakest post in a long time.

    Considering how litigious and confrontational peoples are these days and how easily offended too, demanding e-mails that are carefully worded is not as absurd as you make it sound. There is such a “boogeyman”.

    Second, a Consumer Reports survey proves nothing. CR is biased and surveys are a collection of ambiguous and meaningless numbers at best.

    Third, I personally don’t like talking to people on on the phone, I am a nervous person by nature and such conversations I don’t do well with. I prefer automation and e-mail. So if you had your way, I’d be punished. Gee, thanks.

    Fourth, I’ve never heard of (and have never personally met any) any costumer service line that even if fully automated, does not have an option to talk to a live person if you are truly confused.

    Fifth, unlike you, I have faith that people can communicate efficiently via e-mail and don’t need to hold each others hands with face to face chatter. I no, I don’t accept any contrary anecdote(s) as evidence.

    Sixth, people are just as likely, if not more so, to BS with each other and waste time when they speak face to face.

    Seventh, on your last point you mention that some of those companies that have banned e-mail are still around. So? More than a few that have policies like that aren’t, and most of those companies whose customer services practices you decry are also still in business.

    Comment by zf — June 15, 2011 @ 6:43 pm

  2. Also, what if someone does not like their co-workers? Sometimes, more “impersonal” communication can keep people from killing each other.

    Comment by zf — June 15, 2011 @ 6:47 pm

  3. #1 and #2, I guess I’ll have to file it under “can’t win ‘em all.”

    1. I think you’re admitting that excessive e-mailing is roughly equivalent to defensive medicine (prescribing too many tests because you have to eliminate the tiniest chance of being sued because you didn’t do all you could). If the best defense of excessive e-mailing is everyone obsessively CYAs, then the problem is why they have to do that.

    2. CR doesn’t really have any dog in the hunt. That customer service is poor isn’t a revelation.

    3. If you’re avoiding talking to somebody and hiding behind e-mails, something’s not right. I’m not saying it’s you; it could be the other person. But if it’s to the point where we have to send e-mailes because of your comment #2, yikes. No wonder it’s hard to get stuff done.

    4. Try calling Photobucket sometime. You can’t even FIND a phone number.

    5. Among my point is that there are items that can only be worked through with discussions that people are inefficiently (time, focus, attention) trying to work out through e-mail and texts and the like. It is not, and never will be, a substitute for voice-to-voice and face-to-face contact. Too many people are treating it as such.

    6. Of course chit-chat is an an issue. On the upside, you discover other peoples’ humanity, interests, etc., and may (imagine that) form a personal connection with someone.

    7. The “still in business” point is a response to those who are out there (and you know they’re out there) who believe that you can’t possibly survive with your Crackberry or other gadgets. I’m not the first person to point out that people are using gadgets to avoid interpersonal communication to the detriment of good relationships, efficient business, etc.


    Parting thought: “Remember the old United Airlines TV commercial where the world-weary manager enters the conference room to report that a longtime client just fired the company, and announces, “People, from now on things are going to be different”? He then distributes airline tickets all the way around the table, exhorting his comrades to restore the personal contact to their business relationships. I have always wondered, in this day of distance-marketing, why that airline did not “dust off” that commercial to revive business air travel. Turns out a competing airline did just “dust off” that idea. In their TV spot, a business team is gathered ’round the conference room table and one of them is unable to reach Gridley to plug him in to the meeting via teleconference. That’s because Gridley has jetted into town that morning, and, at that very minute, he is walking through the conference room door to join his teammates “live” and “real-time.” What an odd way of doing business!”

    Comment by TBlumer — June 15, 2011 @ 8:26 pm

  4. I really liked the piece!!!

    A co-worker has, multiple times, had an Personnel issue for 3+ weeks and not gotten it solved. Very annoying that, when I’m called to fix it QUICK because know there’s some key decision deadline, the email trails shows he’s had it for multiple weeks and not bothered making a phone call. The background required interaction, to gather the What-Happened and What-Needed data, offer options, and have a solution. After getting past the brief vent by the frustrated person with the problem, wow they were grateful for the reach-out-and-touch-someone.

    Laughter especially. Just not the same to read it. The heh heh, or yee-haw, or Woo-hoo, … much better to hear it. Next thing you know, you’re laughing together, and a smile turns into break-out giggles, and even the cubicle mates start smiling too.

    Business Fact: Happy employees are more productive, more healthy (less insurance overhead costs), less turnover, et cetera.

    Comment by C — June 15, 2011 @ 10:10 pm

  5. [...] will go up here at BizzyBlog on Wednesday (link won’t work until then) after the blackout [...]

    Pingback by BizzyBlog — June 16, 2011 @ 10:28 am

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