Finding the Right Communication Tools
Tackling ever-changing communication technologies to better your business.
I can remember when the only way to communicate in business was by snail mail or phone. That is, until the next innovation in communication hit our business: the fax machine. We launched our company in 1994 and, back then, the litmus test for whether you were dealing with a real business was whether or not they had a dedicated fax line.
Then came another game changer. I remember when a colleague told me about this new thing called e-mail. By the late ‘90s, that legitimacy test had evolved into whether a company had an e-mail address with the company name dot com. So firstname.lastname@example.org would never do if I wanted to be taken seriously. E-mail changed the face of our business as we knew it.
Get it in writing (or e-mail)
Like all of you, our business regularly communicates with partners, competitors, customers, employees, suppliers, vendors, sub-contractors, financial institutions, and equipment manufactures. The transactions we engage in with these people can reach many hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions. When you play in that territory, it’s a good thing to have everything in writing. You don’t want to end up on the wrong end of a six-figure deal with both parties claiming, “He said, she said.”
I like to conduct business verbally. This comes from my Midwestern upbringing, I suppose, where a man’s word is his bond. But that hasn’t worked so well for me lately. It isn’t hard to make a mistake in a verbal transaction. Look at all the steps involved: The speaker has to say it right. You have to understand it right. You have to write it down right or remember it right. If there is a dispute later, it’s your word against the customer’s. It’s far easier to say in the first conversation, “Would you be so kind as to e-mail that to me?”
When I’ve been faithful to the written word, those e-mails have been worth their weight in ethereal gold. I remind my colleagues and staff, “Put that in an e-mail!” far more than they probably like. E-mails are time- and date-stamped, and they’re very hard to totally destroy.
Our industry benefits from e-mail more than most because we work in a world ruled by measurements – we sell everything by the square foot or square meter. Simply getting the fraction of one dimension wrong can be disastrous. Recently, for example, a sales rep thought she had heard “quarter-inch” while the customer thought he said “an eighth-inch,” so the Lexan prints we were producing didn’t fit in the light. Lesson learned: On any job without a purchase order, it’s a good idea to get the important details written down in an e-mail.
During the course of many jobs, there are occasions where issues arise that require a decision. If your company makes the decision, you own that decision. But if the customer makes the decision and they put it in an e-mail, they own it. Let’s say a photo file is in that gray area of almost not being high-enough resolution; it might be acceptable or it might not. You and your staff are pros, you can make that call. But, no need: PDFs can be e-mailed to the client showing critical elements and how they will print at full size. The customer can then decide if it’s good enough. If they say it’s fine, you can proceed without worry. This kind of documentation can be a lifesaver.
Another example of good e-mail usage: In the past year, we’ve been getting regular e-mails from our textile suppliers, indicating that the price of polyester continues to rise. Since dye sublimation makes up nearly half of our business, textile cost is significant to us. So, in turn, we then sent e-mails to our heaviest dye-sub buyers to set the stage for future price increases in the products they order. Providing these rationales and the e-mail documentation from our suppliers made our inevitable price increases easier for us (and helped lessen resistance from our customers).
E-mail is equally important with your employees. We have 25 employees in a 20,000-square-foot building. It’s certainly easy to talk to people on the intercom or walk to their work area. But internal e-mail allows the sender to document important instructions, critical feedback, and praise. File these e-mails and they become an important historical record for the HR department. These internal e-mails are not a replacement for verbal communication, but they have become an invaluable augmentation.
Tweetless, but rockin’ the texts
For many of you, however, e-mail is probably “low-tech” compared to the latest craze in online communication that’s demanding the presence of businesses: social networking.
I’m a bit of a Luddite when it comes to the social media – I don’t understand Linkedin or Facebook, although I belong to both. But Twitter? I have never tweeted nor have I been a tweetee. Not once. First, I can’t bring myself to have the word “tweet” ever fall from my lips. I’m not sure I have anything to say in 140 characters or less. I am a talker. My propensity to talk incessantly has caused associates to threaten to enroll me in the 12-step program called “On and On Anon.” So I predict that even though I plan to live a long life, I will die totally tweetless.
One social-related outlet that I can get behind is texting. I have to admit I never thought I’d be one to text. For years, I would see people bent over their cell phones thumbing at them like they were trying to crush the phone in their bare hands. Trying to type using a phone’s numeric keypad was more frustration than I could bear. When I bought my first iPhone, though, this texting aversion evaporated. I came to find the ability to send a brief message very efficient. And, in many cases, it eliminated the necessity of a phone call. The ability to send pictures, phone numbers, and addresses became invaluable in both my professional and personal worlds. Texting rocks!
If I want to show off our company’s latest work, rather than use Facebook I prefer to post very high-resolution images on our Picasa site (you can also use Flickr or iCloud if you prefer). I send the link to one or a chain of colleagues or customers. You can make the uploaded photo album available to the general public or only people with the link. And you have the capability to write extensive captions to each image or video. This photo-posting method gives the end user the ability to look at or zoom in on the high-resolution image, or watch a slide show or a video. After they have viewed the images, you can permit them to download any of the content, allowing them to store or print your images for their own purposes. We recently did this for a client in Amsterdam; they printed out our pictures and used them in their planning meeting for their tradeshow in Paris that spring.
With all the attention given to new media, I can’t help but wonder if should expect e-mail to go the way of the fax? Because, to me, fax technology has been dead for years. I have taken my fax number off both my e-mail signature and my business cards. If someone requests a communication by fax I remind them, “This is 2012! You want a fax? How about I send you the message by Morse code on my telegraph! Or how about a carrier pigeon or pony express?”
So if I act that way about faxes, I wonder if that’s how people react to my own lack of social-media savvy? I’m loath to check my Facebook account. I wish I had never gotten one, but I bowed to pressure. For the life of me, I don’t know what to do with Linkedin. Every day it reports to me, via e-mail, that someone I know has connected with someone I don’t. Yes, and…?
So for now, with the exception of texting, it seems that good old e-mail fills almost all of my modern telecommunication needs. But I know that social-media outlets can’t simply be ignored. It’s important to establish a manageable presence on the popular networking sites and find exactly how the tools work best for your company. Keeping up with the ever-changing communication outlets can seem overwhelming, but tackling the technologies can ensure that your business runs in the most efficient fashion possible.
Craig Miller is a principal shareholder in Las Vegas-based Pictographics, (www.pictographics.net) where he is also director of military and law-enforcement projects, the company's defense-contracting division.