A highly capable young woman I hired not long ago recently came to me with a minor dilemma. A social media account she was taking over was linked to a phone number we didn’t recognize – possibly an ex-employee. She was wondering how to contact the person via text.
I offered some “old fashioned” advice: “Why not just call the number?”
The look on her face was priceless. Hadn’t really considered that. Making real-time voice calls – especially to strangers – wasn’t a top-of-mind communication method. But for “Generation Text” this is not at all unusual, says Ben Carpenter, author of “The Bigs” (Wiley, April 2014), a book that offers advice on business communication to young professionals.
When today’s young professionals have something to announce to friends and family, they don’t pick up the phone. They send a text, post on Facebook and tweet about it in 140 characters or less.
And yet email and phone calls remain the main methods of communication in the business world – big or small. Hence Carpenter’s question to Millennials: Are your written and verbal communication skills going to cut it in business? In business – and especially small business – relationships are still built the old-fashioned way, by picking up the phone and checking on a client, for example, or taking someone to lunch.
Here are seven pieces of advice that business owners can pass along to text-obsessed employees about effective business communication:
- Know when to connect without a screen: There are times when email simply isn’t adequate for the communication job at hand. For example, what if a customer places an especially complicated order with special requests you need to confirm before sending. “If an issue is complicated or sensitive, pick up the phone and talk instead of lobbing emails back and forth,” says Carpenter. “It’s easy to misread an email or misunderstand its tone. Speaking in real time has a way of clearing things up.”
- Follow their lead: Take cues from how others prefer to communicate. For example, if a client regularly calls back to answer questions asked in an email, start picking up the phone yourself instead of composing your next email missive. Conversely, if someone you work with keeps their eye on their email inbox 24/7, they’d probably rather communicate that way than have you call or knock on their door.
- Always (always!) respond: Friends might not mind if you don’t respond to the occasional text. But in a business context, letting emails slide or allowing voice mails to pile up can be a major error. Over time this can do major damage to the business, and your personal reputation as well.
- Be clear and be specific: Business isn’t Twitter. You don’t have to fit every message into 140-characters. Don’t be excessively wordy, but DO take the time and space you need to be clear and specific. Insufficient or vague information is both unhelpful and frustrating as it takes more time later to sort things out. Also, don’t make assumptions and expect people to “read between the lines.”
- Listen carefully (even in email): Lots of communication goes awry because people haven’t “listened” in the first place to what the other person was saying or asking – either by voice or in writing. Read email requests carefully and completely so you don’t miss important information that causes you to respond inappropriately. And put in a good faith effort to find an answer yourself before bringing the issue to someone else’s attention.
- Think before you speak (or type): We’ve all seen stories about ill-advised tweets or social media comments that got someone in trouble. “But on a smaller scale, words that are less catastrophic but still unwise can cost you respect or business opportunities,” says Carpenter. “If you are agitated or upset wait a while – maybe even a day – before firing off a response. You will likely find the issue wasn’t as big as you thought.”
- Don’t withhold information: If there is something others in the business need to know, tell them, even if you think they might react badly. If you make a mistake, admit it. If a client asks a question you don’t feel comfortable answering, ask others for help in responding, but don’t ignore it.
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