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How Come U Don’t You Call Me Anymore? Part 1

Hey, anyone remember phone calls?  They were a thing, right….?

Howcome You Don't Call Me? Pt 1

1995. The year I headed off to University. Blur vs Oasis. Adidas Gazelles. Raves in warehouses for those so inclined, pogoing to The Pixies’ Gigantic for those who weren’t. Optimism rather than cynicism at the rise of New Labour, and the inexplicable trend for shiny large-collared faux-satin shirts paired, for the more adventurous type, with tartan trousers. Blind Date, Buffy, The X Files, people demonstrating sarcasm by suffixing every sentence with the word ‘NOT!’, or indifference with ‘Whateeeeeever’ whilst Bob Hoskins assured us all that it was “good to talk”.

Too young to remember any of this indulgent nostalgia-wallowing?  Or too old to have cared about any of it in the first place?  If so, good.  Because I’m talking to you about how you choose to communicate, and depending on which you are, I’m guessing you probably have quite different views to the other group.

But first, let’s just return to the late, great Mr Hoskins and his reassuring North London lilt, politely prompting us to, maybe, y’know, call our parents occasionally. Layering a marketing message with subliminal guilt triggers is hardly a new tactic amongst advertisers, but it worked.  And regardless of whether the timing was coincidental, call volumes shot-up, particularly amongst mobile phone users, where they continued to increase by volume year on year right up until 2010.

And then, suddenly, they didn’t.  In fact, a dramatic reversing of the trajectory began, a trajectory which if it continues at the current rate, will likely place the humble phone call alongside the stockpiles of Betamax, Teasmaids and Laser Discs in the where are they now section of cultural recollection.  No doubt there’ll be Talking Heads shows of the future, where Andrew Collins and/or Stuart Maconie will wistfully invite us to recall telephones (no pun intended).

I am 42 years old.  So watching Talking Heads list shows now counts as a legitimate use of a Friday night.  Along with my fellow compatriots who have completed our fourth decade of existence, I nestle precariously between the cultural big brothers of the Gen Xers whom I never really felt part of; and to the other side the Millennials that I’m just a couple of years too old for, but a generation apart from in upbringing, thanks to the mainstream blossoming of the internet in the late 90s.

And it’s that juxtaposition between generational influences that I believe helps provide the insight here that I think may be useful in a business context when it comes to looking at changing preferences for communication.  I do not look at a phone with the abject horror of a typical Millennial.   As the tech journalist John Brandon succinctly called it “The one characteristic they all seem to share is a pure hatred of making phone calls. To anyone. At anytime. For any reason.”

But conversely, when expected to make my hundred calls a day in my first job in 1998 because that was what the line manager 15 years my senior thought was a good work ethic, I remember thinking quite distinctly (and in retrospect accurately) that it was a desperately inefficient use of time.

As of 2015, a Deloitte survey found that 1 in 4 adults claimed they never made calls of any sort from their mobiles.  In the States, less than half of all households still have a landline.  And when you break down the numbers this skews substantially towards those under 40 leading this drive away from the phone.  And it’s not just a residential phenomena.  Silicon Valley is awash with companies where no phone number exists.

Ever tried calling up the offices for Facebook? LinkedIn? Twitter?  If you’re lucky enough to be able to track down a number, your chances of reaching an actual human is probably limited.

You’ll likely be treated to an automated phone tree of such convoluted scale and magnitude that the casual enquirer is left in no doubt they are being treated with suspicion bordering on outright hostility.  The message is clear:  please stop calling us and find another way of reaching us, where crucially, we can respond at our own convenience… If at all. This may be hard to take for us of an older school mentality, but it’s to be expected as the preferences of the next generation of business leaders start to be absorbed into mainstream practices

The way we communicate with each other is changing.  That’s hardly a revelation.  But it’s evident that real-time human to human interaction at the convenience of the person seeking the interaction is a luxury bordering on extinction.  And given the way that the phone system has been systematically exploited by companies selling on personal data to automated callsheds, chatbots, PPI peddlers and whatever the spam du jour is this week; it’s hardly surprising is it?

The whole way we view phone calls has changed dramatically when you consider wider social shifts.  When I was young, the phone was a thing of wonder.  Every time it rang your eyes lit up…. maybe it’s for me?  Maybe that girl called back?  Maybe it’s one of my friends who wants to go do something fun?  Maybe it’s good news?

Now when was the last time you looked at a ringing phone in your hand and thought ‘well I bet this is good news?’  The ringing phone is at best an inconvenience arrogantly butting into your life unannounced, unplanned and uninvited; demanding that you drop whatever you’re doing to give it your full and undivided attention.  Or at worst, it’s a cause for the heart to sink a little bit.

My mum once called at an uncharacteristically odd time of the day and as soon as I saw her number I automatically assumed it must mean a relative had died…  This is not an emotional response conducive to someone viewing the phone as an endless oasis of positive opportunity.

And it’s that changing expectation of what a call means that’s the key here to maximising the opportunities for cold communication in business.  We have a duty to think about the wider context of the mediums we use to communicate.  There are many debates to have – which I shall follow-up on in subsequent blogs – about the efficiency of varying different types of communication, including the much-fabled phone call.  And – as the Millennials would say, “spoiler alert’ – I think they all have their place and context.

However if you’re of the school of thought that assumes that the phone is the ‘go to’ method of communication for reaching someone, consider what it is that’s drawing you to that conclusion, and normally you’ll find it’s driven by motivations of self-interest, eg:  “if I can talk to that person now, I can resolve issue X at my convenience. I don’t have the time or patience to wait for them to respond in their own time so I’ll call because it’s more efficient for me”.

And to be frank, that’s all true.  It can be a great way of getting quick closure on an issue.  It’s also effective for understanding nuance and spotting issues that may need to be explored more thoroughly in a two-way real-time discussion.  There’s a pretty compelling case for using the phone, and it can be significantly more efficient than trying to explore an advanced level of detail in writing, which comes with the added complication of having no obvious tone of voice.

But all the advantages above are precisely the same issues that lead to people’s fear of, and in extreme cases alienation from the phone. I would hypothesise that aside from the inconvenience of being forced to respond to someone else’s timeframes – a concept we’re gradually becoming further removed from – it’s driven by a natural desire for conflict avoidance and due processing.

We’re getting increasingly used to communicating in the written word.  Having the luxury of responding in our own time, once we’ve had a chance to consider more than an initial emotional response. Immediate interaction requires a level of improvisation and an ability to think on our feet we’re just not used to these days.  But more so, there’s that nagging suspicion that the only possible reason someone would be calling rather than, say, emailing is to try and get you to do something you don’t really want to do, which is either going to lead to passive resentment or conflict, and neither are desirable when simple avoidance is so easy.  We’re getting less comfortable saying no to people in person, because there are so few reasons to find yourself in the position of having to do so, which means for the potential caller you’re caught in a vicious circle of being ignored.

Which is why as a mass exercise in communication, the phone is no longer the efficient short-cut to effective resolution it once was.  For all the reasons that it might be appealing to the caller, if you’re being ignored it’s a false economy.

However, here’s the kicker:  The phone is still the same powerful tool it always was, it’s just that now the context of its effectiveness has changed rather than disappeared.  Whereas once it was the mass-marketing cluster bomb, the go-to communication channel; now it’s a sniper rifle to be deployed sparingly, but to significant effect when you get it right.

I’ll explore how one might consider how to achieve that next month, so please check back here in February for Part 2.  In the meantime, hold my calls…

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