You’re a busy professional. What you’re doing is in demand. You’ve got lots of clients and lots of work. What kind of communications technology do you use – synchronous or asynchronous? Probably some of both, but perhaps not enough of the latter. Synchronous communication, of course, is talking back and forth live (phone calls, chatting) and asynchronous occurs at different times for you and the other party (e-mail is the chief example, but certainly not the only one).
Phone calls: how much time can you spend on the phone and still be productive? The phone call is still the standard for personalized contact, but so is calling people Mister and Ma’am and using their last name. In other words, its a vestige of perception from a previous era that is already past. The phone is the bow tie and the cuff link of the near future.
Sure, for people willing to pay premium rates for full service, the phone is a good primary tool. For a certain rate, for that matter, you can fly to them and set up shop on-site. It’s a higher rate, these days. But time is also a premium commodity – especially time in which you must focus on one thing and do little else – synchronous time – on-demand time. It’s time that’s worth three times your normal rate, because it’s time in which you can’t multi-task, or you can only multi-task for one client at a time. It’s exclusive time.
Sure, you can postpone synchronous communication by sending clients to an answering service or voice mail (asynchronous screening), but it’s still premium time you’re promising, even if you return the calls after the prime time of your work day (and what do you do if your work day never ends?). Quite simply, wherever you move it around on the plate, the more time you spend on the phone, the less time you can be fully productive, and the more you have to charge each client. It’s not “included” in the sense of being “free”, it’s not just the “cost of doing business” – it’s the business cost that you pass on to the client, because 10hrs/week of phone time is 10 more hours you have to work to make up for being exclusively available. Phone time is to the independent professional what meetings are to the denizens of corporate cubicles. The more meetings, the more you stay late. Why do you think so many of those folk are overtime exempt (salaried)? Minimizing phone time, today, is a key aspect of staying profitable (or even of staying in business).
Occasionally, we hear “I don’t do business w. people I can’t get on the phone when I want them”, and some of us have decided that this means that client goes to the other guy, who will charge them $750 for a $350 service and include all those reassuring phone conversations, which even some clients describe as “hand holding” – a premium luxury for which they are willing to pay. How can anyone choose less money? Is it less?
There comes a time to decide how many hours you really want to work, what rates you want to charge, what demographic you want to reach, and to limit your clientelle accordingly, effectively deciding what kind of business you want to run. Many of us are finding that the old “sky’s the limit” pattern of endless growth doesn’t fit with the lifestyle of meaningful work we’re constructing, nor into how work fits meaningfully into our lives as a whole. Frankly, I couldn’t afford to work at the rates I do for people who need that work as much as do some of my clients, if I was following the endless growth pattern. I’d have to send them to someone who does less for them and charges more money, if I didn’t stay off the darned phone as much as I do.
And personally, I’d rather do fewer jobs for people who get it and make it go smoothly, than twice as many jobs for clients who constantly need synchronous attention, which means I’d never sleep. Everything I do is work, but it’s diverse work – not all one thing.
Instant Messenger: Do you really want to be on-call every moment you’re working online? Then add your short-term clients as IM “buddies”. It’s one thing if you’re doing a 10-month contract gig. It’s another if you’re doing a 2-week job for them. Might as well give out a pager number and carry a beeper. Sure you can go unavailable all the time, but what’s the point of that – the joy of other peoples’ disappointment? That’s like turning on those instant “chat with me” widgets on your web site and then never being around to chat. It’s an endless “out of office” sign. Be in the office when it counts, and heads down working the rest off the time.
E-mail: E-mail is beautiful. You address it when you can, so it lets you integrate communications as one task in a multi-tasking environment. In fact, unlike the phone, it’s ideally suited to a multi-job, multi-contract environment. Sure, you can get 10 phone lines, but how many geniuses can you take away from their work to put on the phone? With e-mail, you have time to think through your answers, time to think of better answers and better solutions, or alternate possibilities. And it’s documented. If you’re really sharp, you develop some canned paragraphs you can personalize to explain common issues. For instance, if someone asks about the importance of blogging – whether it’s really necessary to marketing, I can reach out for the same paragraph I used the last time that was asked.
Sometimes, you hear “I’m just really a phone kind of guy.” If that’s your client talking, that’s perfectly OK, he can be a phone call kind of guy. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a phone-driven kind of business. I tend to respond to voice mails with e-mails. You have to ask yourself, do you really want to be THAT available? If I just get a “call me asap” msg, I usually email an “I’m working on something at the moment. What’ up?” It’s always true, and it makes two points at once: 1.) I’m working all the time and, in order to stay working, I have to stay off the phone. 2.) I am available, I’m not unreachable, I just need to evaluate priorities – what’s your need? The client who treats every observation, thought, idea, or need as a top-priority, immediate need, is asking for a premium service. You’ve got to bill for it accordingly, or you’ve got to clarify how much consultation the job includes, and how much of that is phone time.
If you’re primary clientelle is welders who are buying welding gloves, I might understand the need for phone time, but I also understand (in that case) that you can put any reasonably polite and intelligent person on the phone to answer it for you (and you could take orders on the internet). If, however, you’re offering a technology product or service, you need the brains bent over the circuit boards or the keyboards, and you don’t want someone who isn’t as well-educated, as truly-informed, or as deeply-involved fielding client queries – it just doubles the amount of conversation. If you’re dealing with technology, your clients need to get used to e-mail. Yes, big companies provide highly-trained call-center support teams and, if you’re a big company, that makes sense. You also bill for that as a support contract, or build it, for a certain amount of time, into the premium price of your product or service. And if clients want to go to a big company, and pay those prices, you might have to let them; if you don’t have something going that big companies can’t easily duplicate (a niche, a specific clientelle, an added value service, etc.), you’re probably in the wrong business anyway, or won’t be in business long. For most of us, though, when it’s based on high-expertise, electronic deliverables (forms, documents, web sites, etc.), we should be communicating asynchronously through e-mail.
Webinars: These are great, under the right conditions. If you’re getting paid, that’s the first thing – it gives you a fixed broadcast time for a fixed fee, if you manage it well. If you control and provide the agenda, and avoid mission-creep (On a web site training session: “can you help me figure out this one error message I get sometimes with my antivirus?”), and if you keep the agreed broadcast time, and bill a minimum even if your client no-shows. It’s tough, but again, do you want to get paid for your time? You know the client is getting paid for their time – you should get paid for yours. Time is the only true commodity. An appraiser does 10hrs of work and issues a report, and the client says “well the deal fell through, I don’t need it any more”. That doesn’t change the price of the work that was done. Get paid, or it’s not worth doing.
That’s another thing about phone time – it’s often un-billed time – it’s considered charity, gravy, icing, a freebie. But if you let it run like that, it can become half the job and, more significantly, half your work. Is that what you want to do for a living? If not, then don’t do it for free. Your clients want to be paid by their clients, but even if their business model bleeds them through hemorrhaging synchronous contacts, that doesn’t mean yours should. The moment someone says you should consider it an act of charity, let them be the one that funds that charity. Then you’re golden. Make money and give away money. When you give time, don’t confuse it with business.
Tweets: Consider using a tweet service (Twitter) to keep clients informed on what you’re doing – it keeps them from wondering if you’re working on their project or not. Again, it keeps you off the phone. You can use IM to update the tweet, so it’s synchronous, but one-way. If you’re not familiar, tweets are like mini-blog posts. Just a sentence that says what you’re doing. It updates a page and/or a feed or sidebar (or whatever else you want). People eye and follow tweets as they wish. My IM client is on all the time, but mostly I use it for this kind of asynchronous purpose rather than for getting all kinds of incoming pop up windows when I’m trying to get a design job done.
Blogs: Don’t send answers to client questions, send links – it’ll make you a better blogger. I find a lot of the discussions I have with clients (by whatever means) inspire blog posts, and this means that when later clients ask the same questions, or raise the same issues, I can send a link to a well-articulated blog post, with links to more detail and resources, so I give a highly-effective answer and save us all time. And if I don’t have an appropriate post in one of my blogs, I can stop and write one. Of course, with blogging comes podcasting, videos, and other blog-like technologies that accomplish similar things. In short, teach once, inform once, explain once, then go about growing your business, Use what I call the “ibid. method” (ibid. = “see previous answer”).
Extranets: Having an online shared repository for document sharing, project tracking, contacts, etc. can be great if the project really needs it (e.g. if the project involves more than a half dozen people). Or it can be your worst nightmare. Not every job should be a forum, an upload management environment, and a whole separate web site. Build these carefully, only when you really need them (don’t do it just because they’re cool), and only build them to suit the type of team you’re running. Extranets have the power to reshape group communications, so use them carefully, or they’ll undo the professionalism you’ve built up. That said, in the right contexts, it’s silly to go to work without them. I’ve seen it both ways.
So what about the “I was raised to make a personal phone call” culture? Nothing wrong with that. That may be your business. Let’s just not pretend you don”t have to charge for it, that you don’t build that cost in and bill it back, even if indirectly. And let’s not pretend it doesn’t consume a great deal of time. Anyone who returns all their own phone call requests is working ‘makeup’ hours to compensate. Assigning it to an assistant is great to handle the burden, but you can’t outsource genius. So if both the work and the conversation require astute clarity, technical information, and creative input, you’re just not going to get as far with someone else doing it.
The time has come. Look around at the culture. Kids obsessed with their handheld boxes, having endless text-message conversations about nothing important. Parking lots and streets clogged with horrible drivers engrossed in meaningless cell chatter. People on the phone at the cashier in front of you, fishing out bills and holding up the line while broadcasting the “he said, and then she said”. Phones aren’t making us ladies and gentlemen; phones are making us inattentive, unproductive, and annoying.
By contrast, online ordering, using electronic forms, and the host of communications technologies that these presume (blogs, tweets, e-mail) – asynchronous modes which have nothing to do with phones or chatting – these are making us more effective, empowering us, and extending our reach.
We may have thought it was a big switch to go to cell and dump the land line. And it is nice to have a cell that has land-line quality – especially for those whose businesses aren’t tied to one location. The bigger switch is to let people graduate to the realization that it’s either offshore call centers or you’ve got to stop monopolizing the time of brain-workers who need to multi-task (and multi-job) to make a living. If you insist on exclusive time, you pay first class. High maintenance is high cost, and making your guy stop and focus on only one thing is the most expensive maintenance there is.
We’ve got to communicate the value of e-communication, specifically asynchronous communication, and remember that it’s our edge, too – with it, we can do more work in less time, cut costs and pass on savings, and reach more people – and, yes, necessarily be more selective, but also have the freedom to do so.
Asynchronous Communication: The time has come to move on from the deceptive ease and ubiquitous ringing of constant phone calls.