Understanding the modern communications hierarchy

Have you ever thought of your communications in terms of a hierarchial order based upon its ability to effectively reach the recipient? With so many options available for you, your sales team and your staff, the topic merits further investigation.

This rough chart outlines 13 different communications methods based on the level of personality conveyed in each. I’m sure there are more, but this list covers a pretty wide spectrum. All have been ranked in order of effectiveness from the most influential at the top to the least influential at the bottom. This ranking is based upon my own personal experiences and may not be exactly the same for everyone, although the broad strokes will ring true.

What is clearly identified is that the closer the personal interaction, the better the quality of influence. Any opportunity you have to meet your customer or business partner face-to-face far exceeds the influence of lesser and more impersonal modes of communications. In fact, sometimes using a lower communication channel can be considered insulting and detract from your business goals.

Rules for business communications

It is important to understand the relative significance of items within the hierarchy and how you and your team manage your own communications process. To maximize your return on communications, I’ve developed the following axioms to adhere to:

1. The more important the situation, the higher the communications level that must be initiated. This is quintessentially demonstrated in the world of politics, where one-on-one summits between leaders are oftentimes the only route for resolving serious conflicts. Use the same approach when situations requiring this type of intervention are necessary in your business, but also seek them out wherever possible — time permitting, of course. Face-to-face meetings convey far more than the words themselves — emotions, character and friendship. Meeting with someone is more memorable than a phone call, and thus your customer will be much more likely to act on your behalf following a personal meeting than a chat or the telephone.

2. Respond to inquiries in kind, and never with a lower level of communication. If a customer telephones you, you should telephone your response. Or, even better, seek out a meeting. A personalized email might be acceptable in some cases, but only if you acknowledge the initial telephone inquiry and offer an explanation of why you are emailing instead of phoning them back. And in this instance, if the recipient doesn’t reply to your email promptly, then you should take the initiative and pick up the telephone. Furthermore, responding to a phone call or an email with a text message or social media message is outright unacceptable. It shows an unwillingness to openly grow the relationship (see: cowardice). Frankly, this is a big problem with the millennial generation, and it’s your job as responsible managers to discourage this from progressing under your care.

3. Elevating communications by too many levels brings a sense of urgency and is an excellent way of demonstrating superior service. It communicates instantly to your consumers that they are a priority. Imagine the positive feelings that such a customer experiences when their email inquiry generates a telephone call — and not just a telephone call a week later, but one within a day or two.

Responding too many levels higher, however, can generate a sense of unease. For example, a potential customer might not yet be ready to commit, and increasing the level of communications could be seen as an act of desperation or that you have too much time on your hands. Use your discretion.

4. Don’t forget the value of a handwritten note. In these days of electronic communications and mail merge, a handwritten piece has increased in value. People understand how laborious this process is versus typing something out. Used sparingly, it can become a very strong tool in your communications arsenal.

5. Avoid personal communications based purely upon social media. This does not at all mean to avoid social media. Rather, look at social media less as a means of effectively communicating directly with any individual, and more as an information and awareness-generation vehicle. You should not really expect a consumer to respond to a Tweet or Facebook note as a sales-closing vehicle. Instead, think of these low-tier mediums as “foot in the door” tactics — a starting point from which to open higher, more personal channels.

6. Encourage your staff to stop hiding behind their voicemail. Telephone communication is important. Answer your phone and have your staff do the same. It is amazing to me how CEOs will answer their phone line personally, yet many sales managers are just “too busy” to lift up their own telephones. After a while, I no longer want to deal with these “harried” individuals and will seek out others who are more respectful of my time.

7. Train your junior staff to move their communications “up” the hierarchy. Too often, I’ve seen junior staff frustrated by their own use of communications — emailing a client when they should be using the telephone, sending out a group note or using text messages for information release. Barring a few exceptions, moving up the communication hierarchy will bear fruit. In addition, not knowing how is almost as bad as not knowing altogether. Be sure to train your junior staff on an action plan and procedure for effectively prompting an upward shift. Even though it might seem counterproductive, using higher channels actually saves time, as it is easier to come to conclusions and make decisions as a group. Ten emails back and forth over several days oftentimes accomplishes the same as one 20-minute phone call.

The bottom line

In 1964 (almost fifty years ago), Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message,” meaning that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message. While social media and electronic communications had yet to be invented, the symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived remains true to this day, and you’d be wise to analyze how you can best utilize your channels.