We communicate every day with texts, emails, and phone calls to clients, advisors, and other professionals. Our days are filled with communications. Far too often, though, little or no attention is given to the way we communicate. The reality is that a little effort can have a big impact. This article will discuss some very practical ways to strengthen your communications.
My college technical writing professor would ask this question, upon reviewing a less than stellar piece of work: “Do you want to work in tall buildings?” No one wanted to be on the receiving end of that condescending question. While I had never considered the size of the building in which I would work, the metaphor was not lost on me. Like it or not, people notice poor communication, and like it or not, people judge us based on our communication. When we do not pay attention to the details of communication, we could be handicapping our business relationships. This can be a small handicap or one that keeps us out of those tall buildings.
Some time ago, a 401(k) plan trustee sent a request for a participant distribution to the asset manager. The total value in this pooled account was around $25,000,000. The participant’s portion of the account was $5,000. Unfortunately, the request for distribution simply stated, “Please take this letter as authorization to liquidate the above referenced account for participant Ben Jackson.” While this seemed perfectly clear to the trustee, what the receiver heard was “liquidate the entire account.” Only a well-timed phone call prevented the entire $25,000,000 from being liquidated. (Ben Jackson had no idea how close he was to a very large payout!) A simple failure to pay attention to details almost cost the trustee his job. He most definitely lost some credibility that day.
Most miscommunications do not have the potentially disastrous outcome as the one above. But even smaller mishaps can lead to being misheard, misunderstood, or ignored. On the other hand, effective communication can have some very positive results. It can save time and money. It can foster a personal connection. It can elevate or minimize a touchy issue. It can convey polish and professionalism, as opposed to inexperience and incompetence. What is the heart of good communication? It is connecting in such a way that your message is received as intended. The emphasis always needs to be on what the recipient needs to hear and how he or she prefers to hear it. Good communication does not just happen. It takes intent and a little bit of practice. Below are three tips to help you get there.
It is selfish, really. I want to be able to capture my readers’ attention and keep it so that they will take some action, receive my good or bad news, or understand my position. I want to do this as efficiently as possible. Time is money—both for me and my client. Wandering off on tangents or muddying the waters with unnecessary details will cause my reader to lose interest and tune out. Even worse, it can say that I am unable to organize my thoughts well, which undermines my competency. For instance, if I am reaching out to my cardiologist client, I have about 20 seconds to articulate my thoughts before he has moved on. He has little patience and even less time. So, I write no more or less than is necessary. If I need for him to sign his Form 5500, I tell him exactly what I need him to do, when I need him to do it, and that I am available for help if he needs it.
In some respects, this reminder to streamline communications seems almost comically unnecessary. Communication has naturally become brief. Letters have become memos. Memos have become emails. Emails have become texts. However, it is important to remember that brief and concise are two different things. A brief description is merely a short description. A concise description is short but covers the essentials. Be concise.
So, as I just mentioned, it is important to cover the essentials. The trick is to know what is essential. It takes some consideration to determine how much needs to be stated to give your reader enough information to have the necessary impact. Too much and you lose them. Too little and they do not understand you. For instance, consider this email to my client, Jacki.
Could we have a conference call next week to talk about
your 401(k) plan contributions?
What is Jacki thinking after receiving this? “Why do I need to talk about my plan contributions? Is there a problem? Do I need to deal with this right now or can it hold for a bit? Why do I have to be involved in this if you are overseeing the plan recordkeeping?” So, this innocuous email turns into an unnecessary irritation for my client. This would have been better:
We were just reviewing the results of the annual testing
and wanted to let you know that we have an idea that may
allow you and Matt to contribute more to the plan next
year with just some minimal staff cost increases.
We’d appreciate discussing this further with you. When
would be a good time in the next week or so to review this?
My likelihood of getting a call or email back from Jacki has increased. I have given her a reason for the contact, perhaps piqued her interest, and provided the information she needs to have a meaningful discussion. A clear communication moves the discussion forward. An unclear communication can actually move the discussion backwards. You may need to circle back and explain or clarify your intent. Do not frustrate your reader. Be clear.
It seems so obvious, right? Sending calculations that are incorrect, columns that do not foot, and poor research can leave a negative impression. Yes, sometimes stuff just happens. But a little time spent fact-checking and proofreading can spare a hit to your credibility or, more seriously, a legal fight. Other errors are just sloppy—typos, incorrect spelling, bad grammar. What is the big deal? You will probably never know if a reader noticed the blunder. You will never see them cringe. But it speaks to carelessness. If you cannot manage to clean up the email, what effort is going into the rest of your work? This may seem like an unfair judgment, but the reality is that people judge. If your client happens to be a grammar and punctuation maniac, you may have just hit their pet peeve.
Finally, keep in mind that anything included in an email can be forwarded very easily. The effect of an error can multiply, causing a whole lot more damage in a very short amount of time. So, in a nutshell, inaccuracy may lead the reader to believe that you have poor attention to detail and lack motivation. Once again, it raises the issue of your competence. Proofreading and fact-checking are time-consuming, but it is definitely worth it. Be accurate.
Emails vs. Phone Calls vs. Face-to-Face
While the content of communication is important, sometimes the form of delivery can be even more critical. Emails are great. They do not require the recipient to be available. There is no need to respond right away (or ever). Emails accurately document the communication and can provide a running history. They can be sent in the middle of the night in your pajamas. There is nothing wrong with emails, but there are times when you should just pick up the phone.
If I want to ask questions that require back and forth feedback to reach some kind of agreement, I want to call. If an email exchange is volleying back and forth and I am sensing misunderstanding, I want to call. If I need to give some bad news, I want to call. I am non-confrontational by nature. I would rather send an email (or perhaps a note strapped to a pigeon) than directly give bad news. But, I really do not want to risk escalating the bad news by not being able to hear increased tension in the voice. Sometimes, even phone calls are not enough. If the situation is really sensitive, a face-to-face is needed. A face-to-face meeting shows good will on your part; you have made the effort to address the situation personally. It allows you to pick up on the physical cues, observing the eye contact and expressions. Face-to-face meetings can be inconvenient, time consuming, and uncomfortable, but they are more effective in steering an unstable situation to your favor than an email or phone call.
The key to determining the right way to communicate (email vs. phone call vs. face-to-face) is to honestly assess the situation and determine what is best for the recipient and most likely to succeed. Put yourself in the client’s shoes: Is the time you use for a face-to-face meeting valuable to the client in light of the sensitive nature of the communication, or are you wasting your client’s time?
Building Stronger Relationships Through Good Communication
So, we have talked a good bit about the pitfalls of poor communication. But good communication has more benefits than just credibility and efficiency. It can build strong relationships. For example, when I have to explain a technical concept to one of my clients, I am more successful if I understand them and can tailor the message to them. Granted, I do not have the same familiarity with every client. But when I do, considering their personalities and tendencies should help me answer the following question: How would they want to hear this message? My engineering client wants a ton of details. He will take all the information and process it methodically. He will ask multiple questions and want complete, exhaustive answers. There is nothing touchy-feely about him and he appreciates the same in return.
My mom-and-pop hardware store owner likes to chat about her business. She appreciates that I ask about the store and the family. Of course, you have to be authentic. Phonies are easily sniffed out. When we get to the business matter, she cares, but really does not want a ton of details. She wants to understand the effect of my recommendation and relies on my professional opinion. You can build a strong relationship by just anticipating your clients’ needs. For example, suppose I have a client with a plan that is approaching the head count of a required, but potentially costly, audit. I would, of course, call them and make them aware of the audit. But if I also suggest that we work on a campaign to encourage terminated participants to take their distributions, I have taken action to help them. If they understand the savings resulting from my preemptive move, they will know “I have their back” and that I notice and care about what matters to them. In the future, they will trust that I will act when needed. This is the right thing to do, but in a competitive market, it is also an edge. When a cheaper alternative is offered down the street, this relationship is what I want them to remember.
When you build a strong relationship, you can also survive a misstep. For instance, Danielle (a TPA) misses a filing deadline with a long-time client. She dreads telling the client that she let one of her key responsibilities slip. This client has always been a tough and no-nonsense type. Danielle’s communication needs to be quick and thorough. She calls (note: not an email) immediately to inform her client that she missed the deadline, and she also explains the plan to fix the problem. Errors happen. When they do, communicating quickly, accepting the blame, and providing a solution will go a long way towards making the best of a bad situation.
Finally, sometimes a little humor helps. It does not always work miracles, but it can ease tension and bring down defenses. Email communication can be cold and impersonal. We want our clients to identify with us. If they identify with us, they will listen to us. Know your audience. Know your situation. When appropriate, consider adding a little humor. So—what is the takeaway in this section? The best way to get through to my client is to shift the focus from me to them. Instead of, “What do I want to say? How do I want to say it?” I begin by asking myself, “What do they need to hear? What is the best way for them to hear it?” This is effective relationship-building communication.
So, let’s be honest. Today’s communication is mostly about saying what you want to say as quickly as possible and moving on. We abbreviate as much as we can. We even shorten already short words—“thx” for thanks or “w/o” for without. If we can use emojis to replace words, that is even better. When you are in casual situations, it is entirely appropriate. You are intending to be conversational. But, in a professional setting, there is great value in paying attention to your communication. If you learn how to communicate in a way that is concise, clear, and accurate while considering your recipient’s needs, you will build those strong relationships. You will motivate people to action. You will save yourself and others time and money. And, you will convey the credibility and professionalism that makes people feel more comfortable working with you. As it happens, I do work in a tall building. I still have not quite figured out why that matters. But what I do know and have come to value over the years is that knowing what to say and how to say it makes a profound difference.
Rebecca L. Hummer, CPC, QPA, is the Managing Partner at Dunbar, Bender & Zapf, Inc. in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has been practicing in the retirement industry for more than 20 years. She is a member of ASPPA and was the founder of the ASPPA Benefits Council of Western Pennsylvania. Rebecca’s consulting focuses on 401(k) and ESOP plan compliance. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics from the Penn State University.
This article was first published by Wolters Kluwer in the Journal of Pension Benefits, Winter 2018, Vol. 25, No. 2.).