Are you building digital barriers?

phoneOne company embarked on a program to update the way it interacted with incoming customer requests. As a consulting firm, they employed a fairly large number of mentor/coaches with a wide range of experience in business. There were accountants, manufacturing experts, clothiers, restauranteurs, sales experts, marketing and PR people, and much more.

Their advertising is comprised of WOM (word of mouth), online websites and promotion, and affiliations with business and service organizations.  As the result of a dedicated effort at promotion, incoming requests escalated. That is, after all, the intended effect of advertising.

The company labored under an obsolete method of responding to requests for help and rightly wanted to modernize. But they proposed a method that, IMHO, just went a bit too far. They wanted to make access completely and solely digital and virtual. A phone call would get an inquirer only a message that said to go to the website.

You see, with a perfect hatred I hate to call a company with which I have to deal and be forced to negotiate a long and tedious series of menus and key punches. Please just let me talk to someone. And I really object to being forced to either key in account numbers or speak in identification information and then am asked to repeat them once a person finally comes on the line.

Now you may be asking just what that has to do with leadership. Well, I could plow on here discussing the merits of contact systems for business, but this is a practical leadership blog so I want to point out just why I am broaching this subject.

  1. What we do is not bettered or well-served by layering in digital doors. Leaders use tools of all types, including digital and virtual ones, to further our cause, but we do not enhance our effectiveness by forcing people to communicate with us by keypads or touchscreens. I recommend that we be connected, but I have written before about the value of face-to-face communication.
  2. We are in the business of building capable people which is made more effective by the personal connection. We want people to hear us, believe in us, and follow us. This demands a human connection. One suggestion that surfaced in the discussions of the company referred to at the beginning of this post was to eliminate an office telephone entirely and thereby force people to connect online. The idea promoted efficiency. After all, it would be faster and facilitate recordkeeping if clients and potential clients simply entered information digitally. But it would be far less effective. And it would readily and immediately eliminate those potential customers who are not wed to a smart phone.
  3. Digital and virtual gateways may make it easier for someone somewhere, but it frustrates the bejeesus out of most of us. In an excellent article by Alena Hall at The Huffington Post called “Technology Is Taking Over the Most Human of Jobs, And I Am Not Okay With It,” the author recounts the challenge of ordering an iced coffee at La Guardia Airport. It did not turn out all that well.
  4. Accessibility…and the ease and convenience of accessibility…is critical to a successful and productive encounter. The principles of business are as old as human habitation of the planet: Visibility, Accessibility, Credibility, Profitability. Being accessible means we take advantage of as many routes in as we can – phone, online, in-person. It is in the fulfillment of our mission to give every person the support they need to become successful partners in our enterprise.
  5. In the end, this is not about convenience for us, it is about convenience for and accessibility for the client and the people we lead. To do so, we must make it as simple and as easy as possible for people to find us and to connect with us. We need a human voice from start to finish especially because the company referred to offers mentoring services, a personal and human connection. The reason? Accessibility. Convenience for the client is the paramount motive and personalized customer service sets companies apart. Efficiency may please the stockholders but it annoys the hell out of the constituents.
  6. After a human connection is made and we dedicate ourselves to maintaining it, we can use digital and virtual devices to enhance it. We cannot build much upon digital or virtual real estate. We live in an imperfect and inefficient world in which it simply is impossible to get people to follow the system all the time. They should call each other or email each other or text each other, but what if they call the office instead? People respect an office and simply being a professional organization carries with it certain implications – that we are pros, that we act like pros, that we act like business pros, that we conduct ourselves ambitious anticipation. The difference between McDonalds and a five star restaurant is not just in the food it serves. It is in the way a customer interacts with it. In some fast food places, actually more and more all the time, ordering and payment is made through iPads only. I’m not sure anyone leaves a McDonalds remarking on how great the service was. But they do so with upscale establishments. Why? A personal touch. I return to restaurants who remember what I drink and eat, what I like and don’t like, and anticipate what I might need. They know me and I am comfortable there.
  7. The objective is never efficiency. It is always effectiveness. How do we accomplish that? We will not, indeed must not suggest, imply, or demand that a client cannot connect to us except by using a website. Mentoring is the act of caring people helping needy people. There is a disturbing and counterproductive trait among some gatekeepers (gatekeepers are those people who answer phones, receive initial inquiries, and sit at the portals of business) who seem to like saying no. No, you can’t do that here, you have to do that over there. No, we can’t do that now, maybe later, and on and on. Therefore take a yes approach. Yes, you can call. Yes, you can fill out this paper form. Yes, you can sign up online. Yes, we can meet with you after hours or at your place of business. Accessibility is the focus.
  8. If there are logistics to work out, well then, work them out. We exist to serve the people we lead. Building layers of access doors and putting distance between us and them cannot turn out well. Instead, let’s build a personal bridge between us and the people we intend to serve and make it as easy as possible for them to get to us.
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