by Rene A. Henry, Former PRSA Fellow
Early in my career I had a mentor who told me to promptly return every telephone call and answer every letter. It was some of the best advice I’ve ever been given.
And, over the years, with new technology, I’ve added faxes and e-mails to that list.
Following my mentor’s advice has paid rewards and dividends time and again. Throughout my professional career I have given this same advice to clients and those I have mentored. Where I have had the opportunity to establish a personal communications policy, this has been a requirement for my company, department or office.
In addition to following this policy, I believe it is important to set a time limit for the response, such as 72 hours. Whenever possible, I’ve recommended all phone calls and e-mails be responded to within 24 hours. When someone is on travel or vacation, and technology permits, leave a voicemail message for the caller and an “out of office” response on e-mail. If you are unable to respond, have a secretary or associate follow through.
I’ve always responded to both job seekers and vendors with personal letters, not form letters. Unfortunately, some of my colleagues do not even bother to respond with form letters, which gives you an indication of their character. Years after giving job seekers some encouragement, one day I had a cold call from that person to whom I responded and he retained my firm for his company’s business.
Ignoring a phone call, e-mail, letter or fax can lead to an expensive, embarrassing and reputation damaging crisis. A secretary for a major homebuilder who didn’t bother to give her boss several messages from a new homeowner triggered multimillion dollar class action litigation and a sales rescission of the entire development. A journalism school dean who didn’t returns phone calls over a several day period saw a $2.5 million gift withdrawn and given to another university
When a chemistry professor at another university was upset because a benefactor gave him only $20,000 for a project and not the $100,000 he wanted, refused to say “thank you” or return any call. It ended up jeopardizing a $1 million gift the benefactor cancelled for another university program. When a philanthropist couldn’t get through to the development officer at one university, in frustration the woman gave a $15 million gift to another institution.
All too often gate guardians are the problem. Overly officious secretaries who have a wall around their bosses and want to know everything about the caller have been responsible for too many crises. And many don’t take the time to read letters sent to the CEO and direct them to someone else in the company who many or many not respond.
Gate guardians reflect the character of their bosses. For an office personal communications policy, the boss must make it clear to all employees what she or he wants. Gate guardians may have cost an internationally prominent design and brand-consulting firm the opportunity to do a major corporate identity and logo program for a presidential library. The switchboard operator and a secretary guarded their management so well that the individual calling to request a capabilities statement and client list could never speak to anyone in authority.
Jim Cabela, vice chairman of Cabela’s Incorporated, takes several hours each week to read and respond to letters and e-mails whether directed personally to him or not. His senior managers do likewise. He has taken ideas suggested by customers and profitably incorporated them into the business to make Cabela’s the world’s foremost outfitter.
Another successful executive who responds to both his fans and adversaries and sales pitches is Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks professional basketball team. Maybe that’s why he’s worth $2.8 billion.
Putting a personal touch on a response is the signature of others. President George H.W. Bush (#41) often responded with a hand written informal card. Others noted for this personal touch include Dr. Robert M. Gates, secretary of defense and Bob Huggins, head basketball coach at West Virginia University.
Answer every letter, e-mail and fax and return every call. It is not only the right thing to do, it’s smart business. And it could avoid creating an adversary or crisis, and even be considered job insurance.
Rene A. Henry is an author and columnist who lives in Seattle. His latest book, “Communicating In A Crisis,” has a chapter on customer service and details several crisis case histories that didn’t need to happen. Many of his widely published commentaries are posted on his website at www.renehenry.com.