“Just call someone, already” . . . really?

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harvard business review phone
Google's phone booth
The phone booth near the main reception desk at Google Headquarters. Fellow Google Top Contributor “Happy Cabby” writes in his blog: “Bought off Ebay and paid for with the Google company credit card. The management came down pretty hard on him and since then a tighter control has been made on what the corporate credit card can be used for. It has since been painted and modified to work with Google Voice.”

Dan Pallotta has stirred a communications hornet’s nest in his recent Harvard Business Review blog posting, where he advocates that email and texting depersonalization have replaced the effectiveness of phone and in-person meeting.

It has been said that love is a function of communication. I believe that to be true. I believe, by extension, that human understanding is a function of communication. And the better human beings understand one another, the higher the level of functioning. The overuse of e-mail as an alternative to a call creates emotional distance. In advertising, it is said that the medium is the message. In this case, the medium is e-mail and the message is “I don’t actually want to talk to you.” There is an unintended lack of civility, humanity, and friendliness to it all.

A powerful side effect of this reduction in phone conversation is the near total elimination of the impromptu personal meeting. When I was a kid my grandfather would stop by our house unannounced for a cup of coffee. We’d have great conversations. That rarely happens in life anymore. It never happens in business. We’ve sucked all the spontaneity out of the workday, so we’re forced to buy foosball tables and study “play” to get people into a mood where they can have a spontaneous creative thought.

If you want to be innovative today, if you want to take a risk, if you want to exercise your courage, try calling someone with whom you have an issue to discuss. Do it without an appointment. Just call them up and have a conversation. And when your phone rings, pick it up. Open yourself up to the possibility a phone call offers. Discover this remarkable device called the telephone. It will give you a serious competitive advantage.

You can read the comments for some responses to this provocative posting.

So, where do I stand on this issue?

In the last several years, I’ve discovered that virtually every uninvited or unscheduled phone call from someone I don’t know is to try to sell me something that I don’t want to buy.  I mean it — virtually every inbound phone call (and even most phone messages) is, well, junk.

The phone system within our office is set up so that (my publicly available) extension is quite easy to reach.  Most days, I work in the mornings from a home office, then drive about 20 minutes outside of the misnamed “rush hour” to my working office, where I find a work station for a few hours.  I don’t forward my phone line so the junk calls generally go into voice mail, if the callers bother leaving them there.

So, intrusive callers can still reach me. And, yes, they are selling boiler room “investment opportunities,” trying to interest me in some new phone service offer, or (most frustratingly) are PR people pitching for publicity for something that is absolutely of no interest to me or my publications.

This does NOT mean that the phone and face-to-face communication are out of the picture.  Employees, contractors and customers still have my direct phone number — we publish it in our invoicing documentation.  They don’t generally waste my time. But if you want to sell me something, please email or write first — or at least do enough research so that you can offer a credible reason for me to return your call in a thoughtful voice message.

I reciprocate.  I do my best to schedule phone conversations, and then religiously adhere to the schedule.  If (by email) we agree for a conversation at 9, I’ll call at exactly 9. This is respectful of the other person’s time. Face to face and in-person meetings are fine, either through a proper appointment or at a social gathering (or better, when I am speaking to a group). But if you barge into my office hoping to catch me on the fly to sell something, I’ll boot you out with a cold stare — and don’t even think of canvassing my home.

I will of coure use the phone in emergencies and avoid lengthy and contentious email communications. When I sense misunderstandings are developing, I’ll pick up the phone — but this is after we’ve started talking online. For certain legal matters, I’ll avoid email entirely to prevent any “legal trail” from being created; yes, that’s my lawyer’s advice!

Now, our business is a sales business, and we use the phone to develop leads.  Hopefully, as a rule, our salespeople respect the values outlined here. Intrusive, rote calls are usually irritating and ineffective. Phoning with thought, respect for the other person’s time, and (where possible) at a scheduled and planned time is great.  If you are going to call me cold, however, you had better have a much better reason than to meet your call quota.

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