Pick Up the Darned Phone
We had awful unemployment and jobs news on June 3. A week earlier, there was yet another mediocre economic growth report. Friday, May's Monthly Treasury Statement, but for $45 billion of almost indecipherable accounting gimmickry, would have shown yet another single-month federal deficit of over $100 billion. These are just the latest signs that the economy is not doing well, and that Washington's elites continue to avoid getting a grip on the nation's deteriorating fiscal situation.
As expected, President Obama is blaming everyone else for the country's economic problems. On the Monday after the employment news broke, The Daily Caller reported that the president went into woe-is-me mode, referring to "challenges that have been unaddressed over the course of the previous decade" (translation: George W. Bush), as well as, per the Caller, tagging "investors, consumers and even the media." In reality, it's the Obama administration's policies which have created what Daniel Henninger at the Wall Street Journal has called "The Cloud Economy," which "is flying without instruments because of the White House's policy choices." Given that the departure of Austan Goolsbee leaves the administration with "no economist in a prominent position," the situation doesn't look like it's going to change any time soon.
As wrong as Obama is about placing pervasive blame, he is accidentally right in the sense that many individuals and companies could be more productive -- which leads to the column's title.
I cannot tell you how many times people have told me that they or their bosses will only accept certain communications by email because they need a digital record "to protect themselves." From what, the bogeyman? As a result, it takes heaven knows how many email exchanges to slowly work through what could have been accomplished in a single phone call.
I cannot tell you how many stories I've heard from employees berated by their bosses for leaving someone a brief voice message instead of sending an email, which of course has to be ever so carefully worded, to "cover our butts."
I also can't tell you how many complaints I've heard about coworkers, bosses, and subordinates who won't answer the phone -- ever -- and suffer no consequences.
And I'll bet that more than a few people reading this have sent unnecessary emails to coworkers or associates whose locations were almost within whispering distance.
In March, Pamela Paul at the New York Times wrote what sadly may not be a minority opinion: "Nobody calls me anymore — and that’s just fine."
Certainly it seems as if decision-makers at companies which deal directly with the public are heading in that direction, with what I believe could be serious long-term consequences for the bottom line. Recently, Consumer Reports found that 71 percent of people they surveyed "were extremely irritated when they couldn't reach a human on the phone. Sixty-seven percent said they hung up the phone without getting their issue resolved." Those percentages have to be low. Further, "'There's a feeling on the part of Americans that companies are deliberately making it difficult for them by burying phone numbers, sidestepping calls and steering customers to online FAQs instead of live human beings,' said Tod Marks, senior project editor." You don't say? It's not a feeling, Tod. It's a fact.
Of course I recognize that there's a cost to babysitting lazy customers who could have found answers in a minute or two on their own. But there's also a loyalty-building aspect to serving a sincere but ignorant customer and solving their problems. Too many companies have decided to shut such people out completely. As a result, many people have no idea how to leverage a great deal of the technology and knowledge which is right there at their fingertips. The economic cost of such ignorance cannot be small.
So pick up the darned phone. Answer the darned phone. And just for the heck of it every once in a while (I know this will be a real toughie), stop sitting, which after all is supposedly as dangerous as smoking, get out of your chair, walk a few feet, and have a conversation with your coworker. Y'know, face to face.
I'm not alone in my productivity-related concerns. During July 2009, East Valley OB/GYN in Chandler, Arizona, banned internal emails during "Conversation Fridays," calling it "an opportunity for us to refrain from internal emails and pick up the phone to talk to one another to get our jobs done." Imagine that. I have confirmed (by phone, of course) that Conversation Fridays also took place last year. The practice claims: "Many companies have established programs like this as a way to synergize including VeriSign, US Cellular, and others."
In 2003, British company Phones4U went much further, completely banning staff email. I don't know whether the ban is still in place, and perhaps it was an overreaction, but owner John Caudwell claimed that the ban would "save staff up to three hours a day which translates to a saving of £1m (about $1.65 million at the time) a month."
Techies may ridicule these companies as Neanderthals, but one thing is true about both which is not true of everyone: they're still in business.
I would hope that President Obama might heed my call for increased efficiency through judicious use of the telephone and face-to-face contact. Unfortunately, I don't think anyone will be able to pry the Blackberry from his cold, detached, indifferent hands.