In Modern Business Phone Calls are Inefficient

I no longer discuss business over the phone.

This may not be true for all industries of course, but as a web designer (or web pro of any kind really), I’ve found that phone calls are unnecessary, inconvenient (usually requires scheduling), ineffective, counter-productive, and ultimately inefficient to the ultimate goal of a project.

In the 21st century, what’s so wrong with phone calls and right about new forms of communication?

Intrusiveness and Availability

Phone

You really can’t just call someone anytime, day or night.

If you miss the 9-5 gap you may be hesitant to call and wait until the next day or worse, until Monday or after holidays. When working with professional freelance individuals (not firms or companies), it’s very much the same as calling someone on their personal phone who doesn’t know your number.

Most people today screen their calls (with an “if it’s important, they’ll leave a message” mentality) because of all the possible unwanted calls. If it’s an unsolicited, unscheduled, or unknown call, you’re likely going to reach voicemail.

Phones are often loud and obnoxious; it’s difficult to know an appropriate time to make a cal without prior scheduling. When scheduling a call, this is likely to mean a 1-2 day delay to get the right time for both parties (especially a concern for global industries where people can be in wildly different timezones). This also creates the stress of being held down to a certain spot waiting and sometimes people just end up forgetting and being late anyways.

Email and IM

You can email someone anytime, 24/7.

The response time might not be as immediate as you like, but a detailed email or two should get the ball rolling quite well. The only possible worry could be that your message somehow got sent to their spam folder.

But if you’re attempting to work with a professional that doesn’t thoroughly check their spam folder before emptying it, you dodged a bullet anyways because they’re not the tedious perfectionist you want in a profession that requires a high level of attention to detail. A professional that does not check their spam folder before deleting its contents is not worth their weight in salt, because especially in the web industry, we know full-well that legitimate emails get sent to the spam folder all the time (false positives).

You can also attempt to IM someone anytime, but they might not necessarily be available. With most modern day chat apps it shows when they are online and actively at their computer. You won’t be intruding, trust me. They’ll either just ignore you if they’re not on-duty or otherwise occupied or they’ll let you know if they’re busy and get back to you, but most likely will be happy to open up a discussion with you right away.

Quality of Communication

Phone

In my experience, phone conversations tend to be open-ended in a bad way and rarely stay concisely on track.

It’s often hard to keep up with one another. There may be pausing, stuttering, difficulty in finding the right words and explanation because you’re on the spot. Sometimes there are language and accent barriers; you quite literally cannot understand one another. Sometimes reception is bad or there is too much background noise or other distractions.

The biggest problem is in the keeping of actionable details. It’s much easier for a client to go on and on about details and “getting it all out” than it is for a freelancer to in return substantiate and turn those details into tangible actions to get the project done. This is because the mind is much faster than verbal communication. A client could begin detailing:

I want my site to look very professional, like a huge corporation, but also down-to-earth and I kind of want it to look like Apple’s website, but maybe with more color or probably just plain, you know what I mean, what do you think?

There is nothing explicitly wrong with this, it’s just counter-productive with no structure, sometimes obscure like:

You know how you feel when you go to the grocery store and you’re hungry? I want my website to have that kind of feel…

These details can go round and round in circles like this where the client may feel they’ve “got it all out” and explained it very well (assuming that if the pro is really a pro they should be able to take these details and run with it). It just doesn’t always work that way. We all have different perspectives and a phone conversation is not the right form of communication to get pertinent details out.

Email and IM

Far more strict, structured, and linear in communication.

When writing, one is more definitely going to express themselves better, collect details, be more specific in the right way, show examples (pictures, links), and proofread. It’s also a good exercise for the client to get their details out in a checklist outline for their own review, to verify that it’s all there and accounted for, and that they get an accurate quote for the work they need done and realistic expectations.

Probably the best example of email efficiency is when the client can sketch a storyboard of their project (doesn’t matter how good), scan it, and email it. This helps immeasurably. It couldn’t even be explained better in person. Email is also very important for the progress of the project, to share a link of what I’ve done so far and then receive a concise checklist of feedback, concerns, questions, requests, and revisions for which I can then directly respond to the email point-by-point.

Record and Reference

Phone

Many, many things get lost in transmission and translation.

Because what the client is saying is fresh in their mind they may feel that once they’ve said everything that you now magically contain all the same knowledge. But, hearing, listening, acknowledging, understanding, and remembering are all very different things.

Most things will be lost in a phone conversation. Recording a phone conversation isn’t very practical either and re-listening to it to find the details would be even more difficult. Taking notes during the conversation really isn’t a solution either. You’ll end up with a lot of “Wait, what was that? Say that again.” moments and a lot of repeating and going back over things that just isn’t (and shouldn’t be) necessary.

Email and IM

Everything is conveniently recorded: every word, picture, file, and link (you know the NSA likes that).

Which can then be referenced and gone over time and time again. With Gmail (which I highly recommend anyone serious about working in any capacity for, or with others on the internet, use), you can very easily track emails in Gmail’s proprietary conversations, which are back-and-forth emails conveniently grouped together for easy reference. There are a number of other things you can do to improve organization with Gmail, utilizing filters, labels, and search as well.

Agreements and Legal

Phone

Verbal contracts have no legal bound in most places. Over the phone things can be very easily misconstrued as agreements.

Here’s an example:

Client: “Do you think you could design a rotating Flash banner?

Freelancer: “Yes, I can do that.

(then the conversation trails off quickly onto something else)

What client assumes the freelancer meant: “Yes, I agree to do that in addition to what we’ve already discussed and priced out.

What the freelancer really meant: “Yes, I’m able to do that.” — Merely acknowledging he has the skill set available in which to accomplish such a task.

You can argue all day about what was said and agreed upon based solely on retrospect or false assumptions or memory, but there is no respectable claim here, because you have nothing, but your recollection to back it up.

Email and IM

This is definitely a gray area.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act, and Offer and Acceptance are all good reads, but don’t entirely solidify everything. There are different laws for every city, county, state, and onward. When working with people abroad that can become even more confusing.

Legality isn’t really what’s important here anyways. It’s about personal agreement and expectations to stay on task for the sake of efficiency. With everything on record there can be little confusion, and if a problem does occur, hopefully it can be easily and amicably corrected very quickly by simply going over past communications.

Trust

I understand that for many the phone call is a form of trust-building, putting a voice to the name or with an in-person meeting, putting a face to the voice.

To me, this is a delusional defense mechanism just like whenever you’re asked for two sets of IDs. The idea is the same, if I can forge one ID, I can forge two IDs (I’ve always thought that was pointless by the way, agencies or companies asking for two IDs). If I’m going to scam you by email, I’m going to sweet talk you by phone. In fact, the no-phone-calls rule is only an indication that I am indeed a legitimate pro. Trust me, if someone just wanted your money, they’ll do whatever it takes, they’ll break their backs to appease you. They’ll do a lot of things like make guarantees, to the point of being a red flag in savvier people’s minds of having a “too good, to be true” situation.

I have worked very hard for a long time now to build trust and reputation in this online business world outside of old-fashioned in-person and phone meetings. You can Google my name Bryan Hadaway, checkout my various projects, talk to people who’ve worked with me, but ultimately, you’re just going to have to trust me. It’s the leap everyone has to take whether it’s to hire a web guy or a plumber. It’s all the same.

I’ve had many clients burnt in the past by bad dealings; I’ve had my share as well; it’s a two-way street. I’ve had to spend countless hours reassuring clients over the phone. I just don’t have time for skittish or flaky clients anymore. I also refuse to go back to the days of receiving calls at all hours, wherever I’m at. When I leave the house I like to leave my work behind and go relax. I’m definitely a workaholic, but not to the point where I’m working on an iPhone, wherever I go, 24/7. Not going to happen.

Because I no longer do business over the phone, I have absolutely lost potential clients or even current clients. This is a good thing. The reason this is good is because I only wish to work with those that want to work with me, listen to me, and understand my guidance as the professional to get their project done. I have been doing this for years, had hundreds of clients, consulted with or provided advice to thousands of others and the most important thing I’ve learned in this time is that phone calls are a big waste of time. Phone calls are a preference, a comfort zone for people and no one has ever proven to me their usefulness in this line of work, ever.

When a client hires me and trusts my judgement and professional advice and takes my suggestions and recommendations seriously, the whole process goes amazingly smooth for both parties, every time. When I hire a professional myself (for something I don’t do), I always let them do their thing as they are the professional for the given task. Trying to hinder this in any way would only hurt the quality of work I receive. That’s the same respect I seek in return when someone hires me.

What are your thoughts of today’s fast-paced world and the many avenues available to us for communication?

  • Most professional projects require detail and detail requires careful consideration. Bryan, thanks for the post which really resonated with me. As a fellow professional, a conversation with a client is more a nicety than an effective communications tool. I find that clients inevitably need to e-mail the scope of a project over, or indeed I can e-mail to them a detailed outline of what I think they need, they can consider this in their own time and get back to me. Creates clarity and certainty in a way that a phone conversation simply cannot do. Keep up the great posts!

  • OJ Spikes

    I totally agree, Bryan. I am a studio voice teacher. I work with clients one-on-one and students who have never had a private lesson before understandably have questions, but they are usually questions I can only answer in person during the lesson time they’ve paid for, or the answers are already published on my website (e.g. prices, locations, hours, etc).

  • Yeah, that’s a good example of the other side of the coin. Some things need to be instructed in-person.

    I actually don’t know anyone who likes phone conversations anymore, business or personal. Texting and emailing for pertinent info just to quickly coordinate in-person get togethers is how it usually goes.

    I think a lot of companies can’t leave behind their phones, faxing and letterhead and come into 2012. I guess at the end of the day though, it really depends on what industry you’re in to dictate the best forms of communication.

    Thanks, Bryan