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Communication: Revisiting the United Pitch

By: Michael Bleau

Thursday, April 01, 2010
 
Following last month’s column on appropriate use of directed e-mail as a means of reaching out, you may want to call me a hypocrite after reading this one. And yes, I do use text messaging and e-mail, but not everyone knows where to draw the line. Understanding the distinction between appropriately texting to briefly confirm a lunch date with a colleague versus participating in long, drawn out, inefficient conversations via text or e-mail seems to be out of grasp for some individuals.

Some of this comes simply as a part of the different environments between generations. For instance, I’ve lived long enough to witness the onset of the personal computer, cell phones and the Internet. People of my generation grew up having a social experience based heavily on direct contact devoid of these devices. And we had time to adjust and adopt communications tools as they became more prolific. And while some of my peers and those older sometimes struggle to leverage these tools, younger generations have grown up immersed in electronics as a part of daily life. Naturally they default to these as primary means of communicating.

Where I see the need for guidance within organizations is in how people approach using these tools. Individually, their level of social skills and ability to make an appropriate distinction for use based on situational awareness may not be in step with what is in the best interest of the enterprise. This is a little thing, but one that can present big problems.

Let’s revisit a novel concept—talking, face to face. You may be too young to remember a United Airlines television commercial that aired in 1989, or maybe Twitter distracted you and you simply misplaced the memory. So let’s reminisce. The spot, conceived by the Leo Burnett ad agency, takes place in a conference room; a business manager announces to his staff that a major customer has just fired them after 20 years of working together. Their customer had said “he didn’t know us anymore.” The manager goes on to say he knows why: “We used to do business with a handshake, face-to-face. Now it’s with a phone call and a fax and I’ll get back to you later, with another fax.” The manager then starts handing out airline tickets and assignments to go out and visit each of their customers.

Great ad. Struck a cord and made a good point back in the ’80s and it still holds up today. Business is a combination of relationships built on trust and open communication. As professionals we know this, but the tools that promised us more productivity, collaboration and better communication have created some barriers to the finer nuances of communication. I’m not just talking about sales connections; consider interoffice communications, how your people interact with their peers, suppliers and so on.

E-mail, text messaging and social media websites have in many respects replaced the meeting, the phone call and fax. We have automated phone systems that divert people through a maze of “select number sign to continue” just to queue up behind other callers to reach a living person. We Tweet about things to keep people informed. We strive to make more LinkedIn connections or leverage the convenience of text chatting instead of taking the time to show up and converse. Abuse of these tools reduces the human factors of communication—body language, facial expression, tone and inflection of words —down to a poor electronic facsimile. Where is the relationship? Social media, which promises connectivity, can make us less social. And how efficient is it considering the barriers created due to misunderstanding of a few words in an e-mail? If this sounds like a rant, I apologize, but there comes a time when we need to pause and take the batteries out long enough for our people to reconnect.

This topic recently came to light while working with a client to evaluate its organizational planning and processes. While the company is relatively small—fewer than 100 employees—its ability to communicate within the organization seemed strained and fraught with frustration. There was a real feeling of “them” and “us” even between internal groups who should be relying on one another, where synergy should be organically realized. After some one-on-one sessions and process-flow evaluation, it became evident that the firm’s primary vehicle for communication was e-mail. So even innocent statements of fact or requests for information were perceived as if there was more to it, “Why did she copy her boss on this?” So often these e-mails created opportunities for misunderstanding, driving resentment and division. Not to mention a side effect of gradually changing the culture from collaborative to individualism seasoned with paranoia. All suffer from very full in-boxes. The simple fact is that devoid of e-mail, this organization would take on a very different dynamic—potentially, a more positive and productive one.

I’m not suggesting that we all stop using e-mail or that we deny our businesses the benefits that communications technology affords us. In fact, people who know me classify me as an early adopter.

But what I am suggesting is that we need to ensure that our internal processes—how we reach and engage customer touch points and supply partners and so on—is done efficiently and appropriately. Technology should supplement our ability to communicate, not dominate it. In the end, business is all about the people that make it happen, so how they interact and communicate is too crucial to leave to chance. This said, take the opportunity for reflection and evaluate how well you and your people communicate—with one another and with your customers and suppliers. Now don’t martyr me on this subject by blasting out an you can e-mail written in ALL CAPS! Maybe meet a few associates over coffee and talk about it. MF

To watch the United Airlines ad, go to www.youtube.com and enter: united airlines speech 1989 or go directly to: www.youtube.com/watch?v=mU2rpcAABbA .

 


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