When you should pick up the phone, and why

Photo by Skooba Design

(MoneyWatch) Phone calls -- the real kind, using mouths and ears, not thumbs -- are quickly joining faxes and discs on the endangered media list. There is enormous resistance to making and taking phone calls, and not just among teenagers. I think this is one case of the march of progress taking a step in the wrong direction.

I'm no tech rube -- I have an arsenal of gadgets (for that matter, I make my living making bags to carry them). I get an average of 150 emails a day, not including spam. I'm online and connected 24/7, through at least four devices. I use it all (except Twitter -- I intend to go down fighting before I Tweet), so I'm not some codger suggesting we get back to licking stamps. The tools we have at our disposal are fantastic and powerful, but like anything powerful, they can be misused and abused.

Sometimes talking is the only right way to communicate, and when an in-person conversation isn't possible or necessary, the phone should be your tool of choice:

When it is the fastest way to handle something. Email, text, Twitter and online chat are half-duplex -- like a walkie-talkie -- the conversation can only go in one direction at one time: Question, send. Answer, send. Reply, send. Comment, send...and so on. Other than a face-to-face conversation, the phone is the only full-duplex means of communication, where two or more people can speak simultaneously. In many instances it's much faster than a staccato keyboard confab, not to mention it eliminates horrible, time-wasting emails that say "thanks" or "OK" or "Got it" after a matter has been dealt with. One call, one talk, moving on...

When email and other methods aren't getting it done. Studies have shown that of all customer service options, phone support consistently yields the best results. Yet more often than not, when I suggest to someone that he or she pick up the phone to try to resolve a problem, I get a response like, "why? I already emailed/texted," or "I don't see how that will help." More and more people simply don't want to pick up the phone, as if it's some freakish curiosity on their desks, even though it will very often get a problem solved faster and easier than sending a message into space and hoping/waiting for a reply. When I have a problem with a company and am told that email is the best/only way to get it resolved, I don't just accept it. If I can find a number, I call; and most of the time I'll get what I want, in less time and with fewer headaches. I won't be a victim of anonymous, unaccountable handling if I can help it.

Fortunately, some of the best companies are increasingly catching on: One of my regular go-to examples, Tony Hsieh of Zappos.com, says in his bestselling book, "The telephone is one of the best branding devices out there."

When there is any risk of "tone" being misunderstood. We've all been there, having written or received an email that was taken in a completely different spirit than intended. This misinterpretation can lead to anything from awkwardness to disaster. If there is any chance that the tone of your message will be misunderstood, it doesn't belong in an email. Don't depend on a winking emoticon to covey the tenor of a typed transmission -- use your voice.

When it's personal. If a message is personal or otherwise sensitive on a human level, and a face-to-face conversation isn't possible, step... away... from... the keyboard.

When someone asks you to. It really irks me when I try to call someone I know, leave a message asking him to call me back, and get an email or text saying, "Got your message, what's up?" A successful relative of mine refers to this as "mixing media," and despite the excuses I've heard in its defense, it can be inappropriate or even rude. If something prompted me calling you to ask that we speak, assume there is a reason and call back, just as I would you. Note, I'm not talking about unsolicited sales calls or others that may be justifiably avoided, I'm talking about real, regular working relationships among familiar people.

I've gotten into many discussions about this topic, and often get an incredulous, "you must be kidding" response and every kind of argument to support the notion that the phone conversation is an all-but-useless, inefficient anachronism. If you believe that, have at me, but you definitely won't convince me. I believe that for every minute technology saves us, it wastes another -- if not more. Phone avoidance is typically the result of a false sense of efficiency, the belief that we're too busy or too important, or the simple (and unfortunate) desire not to talk to people.

I'm as guilty as anyone of email over-dependence and overuse at times -- it's hard not to be. But despite that, I do know when it's time to stop typing and start talking, and I'm almost always better off for having made that decision.

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    Michael Hess is founder and CEO of Skooba Design. He is also a public speaker and advisor, obsessed with customer service, communication, and culture. Read the philosophies that make Michael tick here, and visit his website and new Facebook page for information on speaking engagements and more.

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