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Talking to Customers: Email, Text or Phone?

Younger employees may shun the phone, while older clients may hate email. Here’s how to bring them together.

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by Elaine Pofeldt

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Ben Landers makes his living in the digital world, as president of the online marketing firm Blue Corona, in Gaithersburg, Maryland, but he often advises his employees to step away from their keyboards when talking to clients, and pick up the phone. His 35-person company frequently works with owners of home remodeling businesses whose preferred method of communication, Landers has found, is phone, not email.

Persuading his young, tech-savvy employees, who’ve grown up using email and texting, to place those calls hasn’t been easy. “Everyone hates getting on the phone,” he says. To make sure employees communicate in the way that makes clients most comfortable, Landers has new hires complete a formal training program that explains when--and how--Blue Corona expects them to use the phone, email and text messages. “In my experience, very few employees come to the workplace with any clue about how to properly communicate,” says Landers.

Like Landers, many company owners and managers who love digital communication tools find there’s a flip side. Employees who rely on email and texts too heavily can leave customers and other key contacts frustrated. A 2013 survey by Forrester Research found that 73% of customers still gravitate to voice communications for customer service. Employees who rarely use the phone may not realize clients prefer it -- or have the patience to accommodate their wishes. That can lead to lost business or hurt a company’s reputation.

     See also: Successful Meetings: How To Read the Room

Relying on tech for all communications can create an unwanted legacy for your business, points out Susan Lindner, 43, CEO of Emerging Media, a PR, branding and social media agency in Nyack, New York. When companies don’t communicate verbally with clients, “complaints will end up living forever on the internet, for other customers and competitors to see,” she says.

If you’re worried about how your team is communicating with clients and key contacts, here are 4 guidelines from experts and business owners on how to turn things around.

Set clear ground rules. Your employees may have worked at firms that steered certain conversations to email or chat because it was cheaper. If you want them to use the phone or default to the mode of communication customers prefer, spell that out. Also note situations when you expect them to meet a customer in person, like closing a deal. “This is really a training issue,” says Leigh Steere, co-founder of the consultancy Managing People Better, in the Boulder, Colorado area.


To make sure employees follow your guidance, evaluate them on the quality of their communication with customers and coworkers in their performance appraisals. “A manager needs to say, `Your preferred method of communication may be text messaging or email, but that doesn’t mean everyone else is the same. We’re going to be assessing you on how well you step into other people’s shoes,’” advises Steere.

Technology can help you monitor performance. Landers asks his account executives to summarize their phone conversations with clients using collaboration software called Central Desktop, to make sure they’re calling clients as often as they should. “One way to make sure the training is being followed is just to poke in on various accounts,” he says.

     See also: How To Connect With Customers Using Video Chat

Model the right approach. Some employees may have relied so heavily on digital communications that they’ve never mastered basics like small talk with clients. To make sure her team feels comfortable in two-way, off-the-cuff conversations, Lindner arranges for new hires to observe experienced staffers working with clients. “Before anyone picks up the phone, there’s a lot of watching and seeing how senior members interact with a client,” she says. She also uses role-playing exercises, where her team can practice responses to common scenarios.

Make it okay to share problems. Lindner has found that holding weekly huddles where she invites employees to bring up challenges they’re facing, makes it easier for junior team members to tackle difficult conversations. She is willing to step in when employees admit a problem is out of their depth. “It doesn’t mean I’m absolving anyone,” she says. “We all have to work collectively to solve it.” If she does talk to a client, the employee listens to how she handles the conversation, developing the confidence to manage similar situations going forward.

Know when to advise caution. Make sure you’ve coached your team on handling sensitive calls from contacts who aren't clients, too, so they don’t wing it. For instance, everyone on your staff should know how to respond if a recruiter calls for a reference for a former coworker. Lindsey Wagner, an employment lawyer with Cathleen Scott & Associates, in Florida, says her firm typically advises clients to give “neutral” references, confirming only basic information like the fact that someone worked for the firm during a certain period and his or her former job title. This approach can prevent a misstep that could lead to a lawsuit—but only if everyone at the company knows to use it.

Elaine Pofeldt is co-editor of the $200KFreelancer (200kfreelancer.com), a site aimed at helping independent professionals earn a good living.

Photo credit: Simon Potter/Getty Images