You May be Speaking, But are They Listening?

Egan Energy
September 4, 2015

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handheld phone

“This is the most important tool you will ever use,” a crusty editor (is there another kind?) told me on my first day as an energy reporter almost 30 years ago. Holding the handset of a landline telephone, he continued, “Most people don’t know how to use this properly. If you do, you can beat our competitors. If you don’t, you’ll soon be working for them.”

OK, that was an upbeat introduction to the world of journalism circa 1988. And yes, back in the late 1980s, when I became a reporter, we used landline phones that looked like that. Back then, the fax machine was the bright shiny new thing in office communications technology.

Communications Then and Now

So why are we going down memory lane this month? The flashback to my early days as a reporter at The Energy Daily was triggered by two recent exchanges (one in person, one over the phone).

In a communications workshop I recently led, one participant, a Baby Boomer like me, said she was having trouble communicating with her younger staff, some of whom were Millennials born in the 1990s.

hands and cell phonesThose younger employees didn’t like face-to-face meetings, the manager said. If they needed to hear something, they preferred a text first, then an email, then a phone call, then an in-person visit from their boss, in that order. Full-on members of the digerati, they wanted to be communicated with in ways that felt most comfortable to them.

Sure, I told the workshop questioner, there are times when face-to-face meetings are needed – such as when the company is merging with another firm, or the department is reorganizing, or a new cross-functional initiative is launching. Those “moments of truth” require face-to-face communications, chiefly so the listeners can assess the trustworthiness of the speaker. Employees will resist changes if they don’t trust the person delivering the news.

Aside from those critical “in-person” moments, I recommended the manager make peace with the need to communicate with her younger employees in the way they preferred. They will appreciate being heard, and they may perform at a higher level because of it.

And maybe texting her employees will make this manager a better communicator because it will push her to use different modalities to communicate with different employees. Isn’t that what we as utility communicators say when we discuss customer communications? We know some customers like print but others prefer texts while still others prefer face-to-face. We shouldn’t lose that truism when we focus on internal employee communications.

Communications tip of the month: Effective communications requires using the channels preferred by your stakeholders. In today’s “have it your way” consumer market, working harder to communicate better with all your stakeholders will create the emotional equity utilities need in order to conduct business with minimal resistance.

jack (2)As I answered the workshop participant’s question, I shared how my relationship with my son Jack (left) improved after I started communicating with him the way he preferred. Rather than walk down two flights of stairs to tell him dinner was on the table, I heeded his request and started texting him a one-word message — “Food!” — to let him know dinner was ready. He got the message, and all of us were better off for it.

By the way, we made sure we all sat down together to have that dinner face to face!


Some years back, when I taught a college course on management, I ran across this graphic on communication styles. It effectively illustrated the point that different situations merited different communications styles. Its creators used this graphic to relate the effectiveness of a communication to the volume of information dispensed. But I think it also showed no single communications style — or communications technology — worked equally well in all settings.

comms graph

Source: Clampitt , et al, Academy of Management Executive (November 2000)

The authors of this graphic defined the five communications styles this way:

  • Spray & pray: Impersonal, one-way communications (i.e., traditional classroom lectures or all-hands meetings)
  • Tell & sell: A restricted set of messages with explanations about their importance and relevance
  • Underscore & explore: Information & issues that are key to organizational success are being discussed & explained using two-way communications (i.e., we both talk and we both listen)
  • Identify & reply: Responding to employee concerns about prior organizational communications
  • Withhold & uphold: Telling employees only what you think they need to know when they need to know it

How One Top-Tier Utility is Rethinking Customer Communications

jd power logoThinking about communications styles and communications technologies reminded me of a recent phone conversation I had with a market research manager at a well-regarded electric utility. This utility has long been a leader in the annual J.D. Power and Associates survey of residential electric customer satisfaction. Top to bottom, in my interactions with this utility, meeting and exceeding the expectations of customers was everyone’s job.

This particular utility is applying the same focused, diligent effort to improving their customer’s experience as they have been to improving their customer’s satisfaction. They’re investigating some 80 separate communications initiatives to more effectively connect with their customers — everything from opt-out text alerts to all customers on power-restoration times to broader use of social media tools to keep customers and stakeholders informed in the manner they select, about the utility’s activities.

This utility, which I will not name, recognizes the days of one-way communications, where the utility decided what it would communicate, when and how, have gone the way of the landline phone. Customers determine when they want information and how they want it delivered.

“We know customers want outage restoration information as soon as it is available, and we know outage information affects customer satisfaction,” my friend told me. “That’s why we’re implementing a program that automatically provides customers with outage restoration time in a text unless customers specifically opt-out of that program.”

Matching Communications Channels to Stakeholder Preferences

intern on phoneWhile sharing this news, my friend also related the story of a promising young college intern who just had her exit interview at the end of her internship. She said she really enjoyed learning so much in such a brief period of time, and she was a top performer. Her biggest challenge? Speaking to people over the phone, she said.

The fact that one of our best and brightest, a potential future employee, was flummoxed by the telephone is another illustration of the need to acknowledge and respect each person’s communications preferences.

It’s no different for your customers. All utilities face a challenge in communicating with customers in their preferred channels. Some segments of your customer base read the monthly newsletter religiously while others toss it in the recycling bin unread. Some groups prefer social media while others seek face-to-face contact. Most utilities are closing (or have closed) their walk-in centers, citing cost savings, but a few actually are expanding their on-the-ground presence in local communities.

Just because one particular means of communication will save you time and money doesn’t mean that choice works for the people with whom you are trying to communicate. Many utilities are preparing their 2016 budgets now. Now is the time to advocate for an expansion of your communications tools and techniques. Don’t be a slave to the efficiency mindset that seeks to narrow your utility’s communications options.

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