Business Communications — 10 July 2012
Professional courtesy; a thing of the past?

You know the story. You make a call to a client, prospective client, partner, (insert person in organisation with whom you’re trying to make contact). The Gatekeeper promises to pass on your message. Your call is not returned. Or you call your contact, reach their voicemail, leave a simple message requesting a return call and again, your call is not returned. You wait a day or so and repeat the process with the same outcome. You call again; same response – nothing!

You’re keen to share some ideas with this person that can help their business and this scenario can apply to people you already know, people you’re trying to get to know, or people other contacts have referred you to. You scratch your head in bewilderment. Why don’t they return your call? Are they busy? Did the Gatekeeper not pass on your message? Did they erase your voicemail before having a chance to write down your number (and believe me, I’ve heard some fantastic excuses)?

If you’re in sales, do they simply think you’re a pest and have nothing to offer and their time is too valuable to give you? Or is it a matter of people lacking the professional courtesy to return your call? Sadly, I think there’s a definite increase of the latter. When it comes down to it though, isn’t it just basic good manners?

Take for example the ‘lapsed’ agency client I had been working with, who had a new Marketing Manager on board. I’d spent hours connecting with him, showcasing the agency’s strategic and creative capability, demonstrating an understanding of the category in which they marketed. We developed a healthy professional rapport that eventuated in him briefing us on a brand campaign. The brief was (at best) light, so a fully developed return brief was delivered to ensure nothing was missed and the approach was agreed to. With the brief signed off, a strategy, creative rationale, concepts and channel plan was developed.

Literally the day before the afternoon meeting scheduled to present all the work to him, I heard ‘on the grapevine’, that we were actually ‘pitching’ for this brand campaign work. There had been no discussion of pitching at any point in the briefing process, so I made a call to the client to ask the question – was this a pitch?

My phone never rang. So I called again. No response. The day of the presentation came and I called the client first thing in the morning. No response. I called his mobile at lunchtime. No response. At this point we decided as a team not to attend the presentation (and potentially waste our IP on a less-than-professional scenario) unless the client called. The 3pm timeslot for our presentation came and went.

To this day, I never heard from the client. But they know I know, as I’ve seen them at various sales and marketing forums and they’re keen to avoid me. This went beyond a lack of professional courtesy to a case of bad client behaviour. Not only were the hours I spent wasted, so too were those of the creative director, strategic planner, media researcher and planner and my account executive. The cost, not just in head hours, but also in the actual intellectual property developed and applied to the brief, was significant. Let alone the damage to their reputation.

Now this may be an extreme example, but it happens frequently. Working in sales and marketing, I spend a lot of time connecting with people, offering up solutions and ideas to business issues. We all get busy. We all get time poor. We forget. We can’t be bothered. We get overwhelmed. We’re all human. But if you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, think about why they’ve called you and return their call — you just might end up with something amazing or solve a business problem that had been bugging you for ages. You might even look like a star for connecting your organisation with this person/service/opportunity (insert world of opportunity here).

My Grandmother used to say ‘do unto others what you would have them do to you’. I reckon she was onto something!

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(6) Readers Comments

  1. Couldn’t agree more. I was trained very early on in my career to return every persons phone call regardless whether you think you will be interested in their reasons or pitch. It’s common courtesy and just plain good manners. It was drilled in to me that you never know when the tables might turn and they are your manager or client etc.

    What surprises me more though is that as clients, when they call you, and you do not return their call all hell breaks loose. Go figure……….

  2. I totally agree with you Matthew. I’m mostly on the client side and receive a lot of sales calls. I take every single one. Firstly because it is professional courtesy and I’ve been on the other side before. Secondly, because that person might have something interesting to say or offer. And if they don’t, I have no problem saying no — politely. I don’t understand people who either keep on telling their receptionist to take a message and never call back (simply rude), or keep the sales person hanging by not feeling confident enough to say no. Set their expectations right then and there. That way they won’t call again if you’ve been clear that you’re not interested in taking their proposition further.

  3. I totally agree that professional courtesy is important but what doesn’t come through in your article is why you feel that all sales calls should be answered/returned? The sad fact is that almost all sales calls are disruptive cold calls and more often than not, not relevant to the client you’re calling. Often the call is placed to the wrong person in an organisation, there may be a misunderstanding of that person’s role & responsbilities are, the person may be on annual leave, or simply doesn’t want to explain that they already have agency relationships in place. Many of these issues can be solved by the caller doing at least a basic level of homework to understand the company, the person they’re calling and whether the call will be relevant and useful to them. Without a prior relationship, or a business introduction, getting through to a client or a prospective customer is a mater of dumb luck (and often disruptive to the client). Having a cold call returned to you simply because you made it is not a right, at most it’s a privilege.

    While I agree with the theme of your article, the first very reasonable half of your article doesn’t gel with the example you’ve given. This is not simply a call not being returned, it’s just plain rude on behalf of the client and a clear misunderstanding of expectations from your end. It’s very clear in your example that you didn’t have any real relationship with the client, didn’t have a clear brief and didn’t set the right expectations. It was totally wrong of the client to not return your phone calls, but I suspect something else was going on (a bad reference about the agency’s work, issues with the team, the client already committing to another agency or some other not particularly great issue) otherwise I can’t imagine why they’d totally close down communication.

    My overall summary of this is yes, clients need to be courteous and respond in a reasonable time frame to well researched and relevant requests. This is just good manners and have you should behave as a professional. However, I’d also put the onus onto the caller/agency to do their homework, understand how they can add value to the client and try to get an introduction, rather than cold call. Otherwise it’s a time waster for everyone.

  4. Definitely right. Great article!

  5. Interesting article and clearly a frustrating issue for you.

    I agree that once you’re in a business relationship with someone, it’s absolutely good professional behaviour to return calls.

    But to play devil’s advocate, I work in a sales capacity (doesn’t everyone in the industry really, when it comes down to it?) and never leave messages on speculative sales calls, hoping for a reply. I always think, if you want to get hold of someone and they’re not available, try again.

    The main reason is I receive lots of sales calls and while I always take the call, when people just leave a message on my voicemail asking me to call back, I don’t bother – I just don’t have the time. It strikes me as being lazy and the shoe is on their foot to make the effort to sell to me – certainly that’s the approach I take when trying to get hold of someone.

    The trouble is, we’re all so pushed for time these days and sadly recruiters are fairly low down people’s call back list (I only say this because working in PR, we have the same thing with the media). Yes, people should be courteous, but at the end of the day, we’re here for our clients and barely have the time to service them, let alone call salespeople back.

  6. Pingback: Mass communication is dead: It is time to get personal!, Career

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