Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Curse of Alexander Graham Bell

Talking on the phone has to be the worst form of business communication ever invented.

I know I’ve railed before about people not being to communicate via email, but today I want to approach it from the opposite side.  When people refuse to use email to answer your questions, how do they want to communicate?  Inevitably the answer is the phone.  And I just don’t understand it.  I really don’t.

I’ve got a vendor right now that I asked for some information about their product.  And he desperately wants to call me.  I mean, I can feel his drool coming over the wires, you know?  And I don’t know how many different ways I can explain to him that I don’t want his fucking phone call.  I don’t need to hear his cheery voice, and he ain’t gonna make me want to buy anything more than I already do if I could only hear his wonderful sales pitch.  I want information.  I want technical facts that I can study and digest, and then figure out what questions I have (if any).

If we have a phone conversation, we have to do it at a time that’s convenient for him.  Because my best working hours are after dark, that means it definitely won’t be convenient for me.

If we talk on the phone, I will have no record of the conversation.  I will have nothing to go back and reread (hell, nothing to read in the first place).  I will having nothing that I can revisit and understand better the second time, or think of new questions, or connect with something else I’ve read.

I will not have time to plan my questions and compose my thoughts.  I will have to think on the fly, and whatever I don’t think of, won’t get asked.  Unless we schedule yet another phone call.

If I do think of good questions, the best answers I can possibly receive are whatever he can deliver on the fly.  He doesn’t have any more time to ponder answers than I did to ponder the questions, and that means incomplete answers, evasive answers, or, at best, “let me get back to you on that” answers.  If he has to pass the question along to someone else, I have to wait for another phone call for the answer, and I don’t even get the benefit of seeing the third party’s email address as I would if he forwarded my question on to his tech department and CC’ed me.

God forbid he should have some sort of accent that would make it hard for me to understand him.  Some of the most frustrating business communications of my life have been on the phone trying to make heads or tails out a strange accent while trying not to sound like a prejudiced asshole.  I mean, I fully support every nationality and every language being involved in my industry, and I’m one of those crazy hippie liberals, so I rejoice in diversity.  But that doesn’t help me understand you if you’re new to my language.  And you know what?  Your accent is not a problem in your email.

And, what is possibly the worst thing of the whole sad, sorry situation is that there’s no upside at all.  Really, none.  If we can’t communicate via email because we absolutely must sit down in a conference room and waste everyone’s time talking face-to-face, that’s still annoying, but at least we can talk about making a personal connection.  I still say the value of being able to see your body language is marginal at best, or at least is easily balanced out by the extra precision and thought put into a written communique, but I can’t deny that there’s some value in being able to smile at you and shake your hand, even in the forever lost time of polite chitchat ... all that goes into you and I being able to see each other as real people, and being able to act like we’re friendly even though we both know we’ll never actually be friends.  Physical presence definitely has an upside.  But what’s personal about a phone call?  How is a disembodied voice a personal connection?  I gotta tell you: being able to hear your tone of voice doesn’t even begin to cover the disadvantages of not having your words in front of me to peruse again and again.

In fact, the whole tone of voice thing is often more of a disadvantage.  It means that I have to plaster a fake smile on my face and act nice.  (Yes, even though you can’t see me, you can tell whether I’m smiling or not.  You can hear a smile over the phone quite easily.)  In an email, I can curse your name and wish horrific evolutionary dead-ends on your family tree the whole time I’m composing wonderfully polite rhetoric with which to impress upon you my graciousness.  And, if it’s not polite enough the first time, I can delete it all and start over, and over again, until I get it just right.  On the phone, it’s much harder, and I only get one shot at it.

Overall, the phone is not just inefficient; it’s downright inferior.  And yet my vendors want to call me, and my boss wants me to call people, and my boss’s boss wants me to call people, and everyone’s ticked off at me when I express my preference for email.  It’s enough to make you think the world is out to get you.

Or at least tie you down and force you to talk on the phone.

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