In today’s Twitter and e-mail world, a heart-to-heart phone conversation is a rare delicacy. Since most relationships, partnerships and transactions begin with a verbal interview or sensitive discussion via phone, it makes sense to step back and think again about the quality of your organization’s phone conversations.
To narrow the scope of this article to sales and operations, ask yourself: “Just how well does our company converse with clients and vendors voice-to-voice?”
Obviously, the world has gone über-mobile. Public places to speak quietly or productively are often more difficult to come by. In fact, more public spaces and private clubs now restrict or disallow cellphone use.
Today’s desk is no longer a noisy cubicle or a quiet office. Some executives may work from home. Others may be well-dressed road warriors operating via planes, trains and automobiles. Many employees now walk the shop floor with an earpiece wired into the entire retail team.
So what are owners and managers to do in order to improve the strategic quality of critical phone conversations?
In busy, open workplaces, sensitive phone calls often require walking outside or finding an empty conference room on the fly. I’ve seen some executives go and sit in their cars, or, even worse, lock themselves inside a restroom to take an important client call.
So what are owners and managers to do in order to improve the strategic quality of sales and logistics conversations?
Google conducted a granular study and found their open workspaces wildly productive for their all-hours workplace culture, yet very uncomfortable for employees in need of due privacy. Morale suffered.
So Google built amazing new phone booths as privacy pods, and balance was achieved. Google altered its phone-conversation architecture proactively.
A former RedBaron client, a fast-growing metal-manufacturing facility, bought a neighboring parts design and fabrication plant that was failing. After a year, they could not figure out why the acquisition was still performing so poorly, so slowly and so unprofitably. So we were called in to figure out the dilemma.
The metals company had its executive’s desks and files in one large open room. Sales could overhear production. Finance could overhear what was being ordered and shipped, and visa versa. When customers or vendors had questions, anyone within earshot could usually answer on the spot. Their phone and conversation culture reminded me of Bud Fox’s busy stockbroker phone room in the film “Wall Street.”
By contrast, the parts company employees were scattered in private offices all over the facility. Executives may see each other in meetings or over e-mail, yet they did not overhear each other’s daily workflow conversations in real time. It was as quiet as a library.
Metals company leadership had simply overlooked the parts company’s conversational culture and how mathematically unproductive it was compared to the company’s own fast-paced, communicative business model.
I recognized this sales and operations cultural impasse immediately. Our recommendation one week into the turnaround project was for the metals CEO to tear down a few walls and place the entire parts company crew in one big workroom. So they did. The company altered its phone-conversation architecture proactively. Even though the employees hated RedBaron for it, within a year the company had stabilized. Two years later, revenues had nearly doubled.
This open phone communication configuration would not work for a doctor, lawyer, psychiatrist, or consultant. Quiet, privacy and reliable phone reception are paramount for obvious reasons.
I’m also an island man. We work in big cities, yet I prefer to live and vacation on small coastal islands. Testing cellphone reception and scouting private offices on the go is an ongoing challenge due to my own mobility patterns.
It is this dichotomy of private versus public business communication that has fascinated me in recent years since the business world has gone so mobile — due to the positive outcomes optimized phone call environments have had for clients experiencing slow growth or decline.
How to begin finding communication challenges
We began by observing troubled clients’ phone patterns granularly: How were their front line customer service, outgoing sales, even mutual supply chain calls being conducted? We observed how different teams negotiated verbal presentations via phone, and how they routinely lost business due to poor phone reception, too much reliance on e-mail, unanswered voice mails, and more.
Our findings were both uncomfortable and liberating for them to hear. Based on math and data, we helped re-engineer their workplace norms and communication policies more granularly.
A fine art company in a large open retail space had a terrible time with its phone communications culture and sales performance. Privacy was near impossible, yet the company was too overwhelmed to recognize it as a business problem. Random browsers and eager artists would pop in without an appointment during private phone negotiations with serious collectors, yet there was no office door to close. The exposed dealer would have to step outside, duck into the powder room, or be forced to call the client back, which was always awkward and a bit rude.
However, assistants and interns could no longer overhear the dealer’s conversations effectively. Sensitive details were being lost. E-mail communication began to take over to achieve privacy, to a fault. So, we interviewed some of their clients and gathered that contacting the dealer and gallery via phone was a nightmare for them. The art was great, but doing business with the dealer was underwhelming.
Once the truth was faced, environments and policies for communication improved. Operations smoothed over tenfold. Customer service headaches and expenses plummeted. Gallery revenues and morale increased.
The metals, parts, and fine arts client examples offer diverse perspectives and takeaways to consider in the context of your own company. Which one most resembles your office comms culture?
In today’s digitally saturated world, heart-to-heart phone conversations are a powerful sales and operations strategy again. Study carefully how your company’s public versus private communication patterns might lead to more efficient, labor-reducing, and customer-pleasing outcomes.
Baron Christopher Hanson is the principal and lead strategist at RedBaron Advisors in Charleston, S.C., and Palm Beach, Fla. A former rugby player, Harvard graduate, and expert on workplace and small-business turnarounds, Hanson has written for Harvard Business Review and SmartBrief considerably. He can be reached for consulting roles and speaking gigs via e-mail or over Twitter @RBC_ThinkTank.