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March 20, 2013

eManners: What Does "Polite" Look Like Nowadays?

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by Ron Daly 

It's always interesting to read an article that challenges convention, then see the blow-back from that article, then see the author's response to the blow-back. With so much media to manage these days, conversations and commentary come out of the woodwork. If they don't reply on your blog, they'll reply on their blog. Or on Twitter. Or on Facebook. Or by phone. Or right up in your face. 

Take, for instance, this opinion piece by Nick Bilton in the New York Times. It's a piece that rails against the "Thank You!" email, the voice mail where a text message should go, the use of friends to answer a question that's made for Google. 

Really, who sends an e-mail or text message that just says “Thank you”? Who leaves a voice mail message when you don’t answer, rather than texting you? Who asks for a fact easily found on Google?

Don’t these people realize that they’re wasting your time?

As you might expect, the lament of a 36-year-old super-geek didn't sit well with readers, many of whom are from a generation removed - one that emphasized penmanship, greeting cards and always saying "please" and "thank you". 

Do I really care about "Thank You" emails? No, not really. They're nice to get, and if they have more information or want to continue a conversation, why not? But I'm not going to lose sleep, nor should anyone looking for a reply from me be upset if I just move forward with the next steps after I get an email with an "action item". 

Bilton again, with a worthwhile consideration: 

How to handle these differing standards? Easy: think of your audience. Some people, especially older ones, appreciate a thank-you message. Others, like me, want no reply. “It is important to think about who the relationship is with,” Mr. [Daniel Post] Senning said.

Audience, audience, audience. The number one consideration in marketing, business, sales, collections, consultations, etc. You have to remember to whom you're talking. 

Based on the reactions he got, you might think Mr. Bilton hasn't considered his audience's reaction. Spoiler alert: they got mad. They called Bilton a "sociopath" (no, really), irrational, impatient, sad...they really didn't like the idea that he didn't want to talk to his mother directly, but rather via Twitter. Bilton later explained that his mother lives in England and, as a San Francisco resident, he couldn't call her at any hour that was convenient for both of them, so they rely on Twitter to fill in the gaps. He talks about how he does, in fact, hand-write thank you notes to friends and relations. But too late - the audience had made up their minds.

Bilton says he doesn't mind being "the punching bag" for people his age. He did lament, however, the extremes people go to when they react to something they don't like. They talk about how disgustingly disconnected from reality he must be to dislike a "thank you" message. Bilton replies that the stewards of Emily Post's legacy of good manners insist that, yes, you should consider the audience when crafting a reply. Some people will love a "thanks!", some won't. Some people will want a voice mail, some will just delete it. 

And then Bilton made a really terrific point about who trains whom in our culture. It used to be that older people taught younger people everything. As technology advances and people develop skills at different ages, it's clear that education moves in two directions: up and down the years, each generation having something to offer the other. 

I had to learn to text if I wanted to get an answer to a simple question out of my kids. My younger employees come to me if they want my input about business or finance. We have many ways of communicating and we all have things we need to get done, so we all have to adjust our methods from time to time to make it work. 

Now...let's talk about "what you've always done" and member communication. 

The truth is, things change. People want to converse and conduct business in different ways, and the methods they use are changing all the time. But in embracing changes, consider the audience's reaction to your messages. Maybe one group really loves hearing from you every month. Maybe one group wants a phone call every once in a while. Maybe there are outliers - people who have adopted new ways of handling all of their inputs and have rolled with the changes. 

Pay attention. Knowing how to talk to people is critical to a credit union marketer/manager's livelihood. Knowing when to say something and what to say is so important, and just as important, knowing when to quit talking and let people get back to their lives. 

My Pet Peeve: When you use an online chat or a toll-free line for customer support and people keep pushing the script on you when you've made it very clear that you're done. 

Me: "Well, thank you, that's all."

Them: "Okay, Mr. Daly, is there anything else I can help you with today?"

Me (in my brain): "Are you not listening? Or are you just forced to do this, like a robot?"

Me: "No, that's it."

Them: "Okay, thank you for calling our help line. You can reach us online any time at www..."

Me (in my brain again): "Come ON, just say goodbye and hang up the phone."

I like dealing with people, not people ordered to act like a computer. Here's my dream customer service call.

Me: "Well, thank you, that's all I needed."

Them: "Okay, Mr. Daly. Have a good afternoon."

Me: "Okay, bye!"

I've had maybe three of these calls in my life. And I make a lot of calls. 

All it takes is a little listening. People unsubscribe from your newsletter? Fine, but make a note of that. Don't chalk it up as "this person's not interested"...find a way into their lives that works for them and you. It exists, I'm sure. 

And when they talk, listen. And when they reply, read it thoroughly. And when they care, you should care, too. 

Don't let technology fool you into thinking that etiquette and thoughtfulness don't mean anything, to any given age group. Treat members with respect and you'll earn theirs. 

And for what it's worth? You should call your mom on the phone. Unless she's totally into Facebook now. 

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Great post, Ron. I told my direct reports that, given the email load, I'd stop sending them "thank you" replies. Or "OK." But I did follow up to them to ask whether anyone was bothered by that change. No one was.

I would recommend that folks look at this "email charter." http://emailcharter.org/

I fear that we allow emails to manage our workday too much. We have to find a better way to use emails.

- Anthony

How ironic that Nick Bilton is complaining that "thank you" emails are a waste of his time, when his whole article (and much of the New York Times, in general) is a waste of time.

It's great to have an opinion. It's even to better to have tolerance. Or so I've been told. :)

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