Dear Crucial Skills,
We’ve hired young people who seem extremely reluctant to talk with customers/partners on the phone or in person. They will text and email, but mostly avoid all verbal or in-person conversation. We work in agriculture; our customers are farmers and their employees. And while they have started using text and email in recent years, we’ve seen a lot of misunderstandings. Words are just a small part of the conversation! How can I encourage these young workers to accept and make phone calls, and to visit our business clients in person?
It’s always easiest to set expectations before they are violated. Given that you’ve already permitted a norm to evolve for remote contact, it will take some time and patience to reset the norm. Here are a few suggestions that will help.
Test Your Assumption
First, make sure your belief that in-person communication is superior is based on valid evidence and not self-serving anecdotes. If you grew up “back in the day” when slapping backs and shaking hands is how business was done, there’s a possibility you’re seeing what you’re looking for. Do customers truly prefer in-person contact? And, if so, is it many of them, or just a handful? Have you interviewed a reasonable sample to see if it is a majority?
One of the best ways to both gather this data and begin persuading your team of the need to change is to involve some of them in the data gathering. Choose a few opinion leaders from amongst the younger employee population to design and execute on the study. Ask them not just to gather objective data, but also to bring back a few stories you can share with the group.
Share the Why
The best way to persuade people of the need to change is with stories that humanize the “why.” Consider the difference between saying “Sixty-three percent of our customers say they prefer quarterly in-person visits over phone calls” and “In March, Terrence Gooding lost three weeks of his planting season because we failed to get him the resources he needed. If we had been on site and walked the farm with him, we would have caught the need before it became a problem.” Emotion is the root of motivation. If you want to help those who are uncomfortable with change feel motivated to sacrifice their comfort, you’ll need to give them a potent why for doing so. Telling stories is the best way to do that.
Work on Ability, Not Just Motivation
In our book Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change, we make the point that effective influencers deal with ability barriers first, motivation second. They assume that people often fail to comply or perform because they lack the skills, knowledge, support or tools to do what’s asked. Your job is to “make it easier” to do what’s asked.
For example, do your team members know how to engage in small talk? Do they know how to walk a farm? Do they know how to conduct an initial get-to-know you meeting in person? The phone is safer because it’s shorter. Being in person is far more demanding. But beyond personal skills, you might look at other ability barriers—like schedule. With added travel time, are teammates supporting too many customers? Do they have personal transportation? Make it easier to do the right thing, and more people will do the right thing.
Delay the Pain
If you’re serious about change, at some point the new behavior will need to turn from a request into an expectation. It’s always best to allow people time to absorb the change before imposing it. Share the why. Make it easier. Engage opinion leaders in demonstrating the superiority of the new approach. Persuade, persuade, persuade. Then require.
The best way to turn the invitation into an expectation is to announce the change far in advance. Future pain is easier to accept than present pain. My barber wanted to raise her prices but was terrified of offending long-loyal customers. I suggested she announce the price increase three months in advance, then conduct a countdown so her customers would see it coming a long way off. In the end, no one complained. If you decide this change is of strategic importance, you might let the team know, for example, that “Regular, in-person contact with customers will be required at least once a quarter beginning in Q1.”
I hope this is helpful to you and anyone trying to raise their game in a way that reflects a measured approach to influence rather than a heavy-handed edict.