Rx for Communication Faux Pas that Cause Ill Will with Your Clients and Colleagues

By Linda Oligschlaeger

There seems to be a pill for just about every ailment these days, but no drug company has come up with a prescription for the epidemic of poor communication protocol and etiquette that threatens us. We have all been exposed to incessant yakking on cell phones, voice mail hell and email overload, not to mention the slippage of proper face-to-face communications. The epidemic has all but obliterated the most basic of business courtesies. And there seems to be no sign of a cure!

In the days before iPods and Blackberries, business communication was primarily done by telephone and regular U. S. Postal Service mail. The pace of communications was much slower and more formal. Then along came the fax machine. Suddenly, the communication pace quickened and now it is zooming by, powered by email, cell phones and instant messaging. Clients and other lawyers expect you to be reached whenever and wherever you are; when that doesn't happen, tempers start to rise. Even among lawyers, formal letters are written much less frequently today. More formal communication by letter sent via the U. S. Post Service (aka snail mail) may seem archaic and out-of-pace with today's communications expectations. Unfortunately, along with the formality, appropriate communication etiquette seems to be dying. Proper grammar is also in decline, left behind as hurried messages are sent off in cyber land without any thought of proofing or a tone check. Although today's methods of communication can be very productive, communication blunders and rudeness can cause clients to desert you and colleagues to misunderstand you. Isn't it ironic that in the era of the greatest technological communication advancements ever known that we regularly suffer from miscommunication and communication frustrations?  

In spite of the poor health of our business communications, many natural remedies are available to help. Let's take a look at a few of these.

PREFERRED METHOD OF COMMUNICATION  

Everyone has a preference when it comes to communication. Some people prefer to communicate by telephone; others would much rather use email. A few good people still prefer to receive your communication by fax or letter. Still others prefer face-to-face meetings. Oftentimes, the key to connecting the communication lines is to determine the other person's preferred method of communication. You're likely to avoid a great deal of personal frustration, serve your clients much better, and actually receive responses from your colleagues, if you take the time to find out how they prefer to communicate. At the beginning of the attorney-client relationship, this is an important question to ask on the client intake information.

TELEPHONE COMMUNICATION AILMENTS AND REMEDIES  

Call Your Office – It can be very productive to have friends or associates call your office occasionally, as if they are new clients. You'll learn a lot about how they are greeted and treated by your staff. You will be surprised what you can learn for use in an office training session. What kind of a first impression does your staff leave with the caller who might be an important new client?

Train Your Staff — Everyone knows how to use the phone, so why would you want to spend money on training for that? Your staff may know how to use the telephone itself, but have you trained them on how to handle rude or angry callers or a caller with a foreign accent who is difficult to understand? Or, how should they respond if asked a question to which they don't know the answer? Training should include awareness about keeping a friendly tone and being helpful.

Use Caller's Name Carefully – Everyone likes to be called by their name; it personalizes the conversation. However, it's important to be careful how you use their name. Although more formal names (Mr. Jones, Mrs. Smith) have given way to first names, common sense should dictate when and under what circumstances to use a first name, particularly with older people. If in doubt, use the formal name until told otherwise.

Be Aware of Unintentional Rudeness – Here's an example that I come across very frequently when calling law offices on Missouri Bar business. I happen to have a long last name (13 letters) that is not familiar to many who live outside of central Missouri. I'm accustomed to spelling my last name and willingly do so many times during the day. I'm often amazed by the unintentional comments that I receive about my last name, such as, "What kind of a name is that?" or "How old were your children before they could spell their name?" I'm not particularly sensitive, so the comments don't offend me, but such unintentional comments could offend a client or, at the least, not leave a good impression.

Ask Permission to Place the Call on Hold – Staff should always ask permission to place the caller on hold. There's nothing more frustrating than being told "Please hold," followed by a click into elevator music. Maybe the caller doesn't have time to hold. It's a small courtesy that's appreciated.

Return Calls Promptly or Delegate Your Response — The #1 complaint that clients have about lawyers is unreturned phone calls. I often hear the same complaint from lawyers – lawyers not returning calls to other lawyers. There is simply no excuse for not returning telephone calls. If your schedule is so packed that you're not able to return calls yourself, delegate the task to someone who can at least acknowledge the call and offer to help.

Ask Permission to Use the Speaker Phone – Speaker phones can be very handy, especially for lengthy conversations. When used in routine calls, you risk sounding as if you're in a tunnel and cause the caller to wonder who is overhearing your conversation. The use of speaker phones can also lead to the temptation to multitask, thus not giving your full attention to the call. Paper rattling or chair squeaking is taboo on business calls. If you need to use your speaker phone, it's best to ask the caller for permission before doing so and assure them that your call is not being overheard by others.

Call-Screening Taboos – Although there are times when some form of call screening is necessary, the process can lead to problems. An abrupt tone such as, "What this in reference to?" or "What's this in regard to?" certainly can give the wrong message and put the client caller on the defensive. No one wants to feel as if they are not important enough for you to take their call.

Too Busy to Take a Message – Staff should never ask a client to call back if you're not available. Such a response sends the message that they are either too busy or too lazy to take a message.

VOICE MAIL COMMUNICATION AILMENTS AND REMEDIES
 
Voice mail can drive some people up the wall; however, it remains a very productive tool if used correctly. Here are a few cures for voice mail woes.

Voice Mail Greeting – The voice mail greeting should be concise and helpful. You can skip the part about being away from your desk or on another call because that's trite and obvious. In a concise, but friendly tone, the message should start with stating your first and last name and what firm you're with, which is particularly helpful with direct dial numbers. Ask the caller to leave a message. If possible, provide an alternative to reach a live person, either your assistant or the receptionist. Change your greeting if you will be delayed retrieving messages and returning calls, such as when you're out all day or on vacation.

Leaving a Message on Voice Mail – When you leave a voice message, it's again important to be concise and courteous. Messages should not exceed 30 seconds. State your first and last name, as well as your firm's name. Be sure to state your name slowly and clearly. I've spent a lot of time replaying messages to try to guess at names. State why you're calling – not simply, "Call me back." The goal is to make communication progress. Be sure to state the best time to return your call, especially if you're hard to reach. Avoid the return-number marathon; leave your number at the speed where it can easily be jotted down. Always include your phone number at the beginning and end of your message.

EMAIL/LISTSERV COMMUNICATION AILMENTS  

Email Merry-Go-Round – If more than two or three emails have not resolved the question, it's probably time for a phone call or face-to-face meeting. Long email messages might call for the same prescription. Be careful about confidential communication by email.

"Reply to All" Responses – Fast fingers that accidentally push the "reply to all" email option can annoy others or get you in trouble if the message is only intended for one person.

Be Careful What You Say — Never put in writing what you wouldn't want to see posted on a bulletin board. Keep in mind that email can easily be forwarded and forwarded and forwarded.

Smart Subject Lines – With the proliferation of spam, your genuine email is not likely to be missed if your subject line is detailed. Catch the reader's attention with the subject line, which will be appreciated.

Signature Lines – Be courteous by providing a signature line with your contact information.

Pop-Off Email — Never answer email when you're angry. It's too easy to pop off a message that you're sure to regret as soon as you hit "Send."

Tone and Email Misunderstandings – It's very easy to misunderstand the tone of an email message, particularly given the informal nature of this form of communication and the little thought that is often given to quick replies. Learn accepted email protocol, such as typing in all caps to give the impression of shouting. And, if you're joking or have a dry sense of humor, be sure the receiver understands that.

Don't Forget Your Manners and Your Grammar – Your mother probably taught you to say "please" and "thank you." Given the nature of email, this simple gesture is very important and easy to use to acknowledge a message. In addition, good grammar should extend to email usage as well as other forms of communication. For some reason, many email users seem to think that it is acceptable to let down their grammar guard when using email. It's still an important communication and you should want all your communications to be professional.

Life with Listservs – Listservs can be a great resource, but they can rob you of your time unless managed properly. Be sure to learn the rules of the list. If replying to one person, be sure to do so off list. Never "flame," attack, or take your frustrations out on other list mates. And, avoid the "me too" replies that don't add anything to the discussion. Filter your listserv messages to separate them from your regular email.

CELL PHONE COMMUNICATION AILMENTS AND REMEDIES  

Cell phones are both a blessing and a curse. They make it possible for you to be reached almost anywhere at any time. However, besides spam and telemarketing calls, they are probably the greatest source of annoyance and bad manners in our society today. Cell phone addicts generate steady streams of an ever-increasing amount of idle chit chat that is forced upon those unfortunate to be around them.

Don't Take Calls in Public Areas – Your clients certainly wouldn't appreciate you discussing their business where it could be easily overhead, which could also breach the duty of confidentiality. It's nearly impossible to be in an airport waiting area these days without being in the middle of six or eight different conversations. When it comes to cell phone usage, it seems that courtesy to others is a forgotten virtue. If you must talk in public areas, find a location that is out of ear shot of others. Also, avoid walking around plugged into your cell phone, seemingly talking to yourself and gesturing to an absent audience.

Mute Cell Phones in Meetings – Have you ever been in church or at a funeral when someone's cell phone rang? It's fairly common today for cell phones to ring during meetings, during CLE programs, or other group settings. And, what is even more surprising is that those calls are taken during meetings. I've even seen people put their cell phone on vibrate and then set it on the table in front of them so that when a call comes in, it distracts those in the meeting as much as if the darn thing rang. If you're expecting an important call, be sure to mute your phone and locate it where you can sense the vibration without disturbing others. If the call is very important, excuse yourself to answer the call after you've exited the room.

Avoid Annoying, Cutesy Ringers – Save the cutesy ringers for the teenagers and select a ring with a business-like tone.

No Need to Yell – For some reason, some cell phone users think they need to yell to be heard. Perhaps it's the "Can you hear me now?" syndrome. Talking loudly doesn't make you easier to hear. It works much better to lower your voice and move to a quiet location.

Don't Drive and Dial – Not only have cell phones become an annoyance, they've become a safety issue. This is one area where you should avoid multitasking for your safety, and the safety of others, on the road. Many vehicles today are equipped with hands-free cell phone equipment, although cell phone calls still distract you from the important task of driving.

FACE-TO-FACE OFFICE COMMUNICATION AILMENTS AND REMEDIES  

You only have one chance to make a good impression, and that is often delegated to your staff. Office staff should be trained in how to greet your clients and others visiting your office.

Maintain a Friendly, Helpful Attitude – There's absolutely no other alternative. Clients are often involved in an unsettling situation when seeing their lawyer and may be extremely stressed. A helpful and caring attitude can make that experience much easier and will certainly be remembered by clients. That client's first impression of your service is often made by your front line staff. I've had clients tell me that they were very pleased with their lawyer, but went somewhere else because the front-line staff person was rude to them or made them feel uncomfortable.

Gossiping About Others in Waiting Area — Why is it that office staff sometimes act as if those in your waiting area are hearing impaired and won't overhear what they're saying to each other? It's usually quiet and no one else is talking but them, so everything they say is overheard by those waiting. Office gossip makes the person waiting wonder what is said about them after they leave. Careful consideration should be given not to discuss any confidential or sensitive information while someone is in earshot.

Your Full Attention – You and your staff should be certain that you give your clients or visitors to your office your full attention when meeting with them in person. Taking calls from others or doing other things while meeting with them sends a message that others are more important.

The Cure
The epidemic of high-tech communications problems can –and should – be stopped from spreading any further. If you haven't guessed by now, the cure for most communication ills and woes is simply a healthy dose of courtesy and common sense. In fact, no form of communications technology is incompatible with good manners. Effective communication — whether by cell phone, email, telephone and voice mail, or in person — is critical to a successful and efficient practice and can make your professional life much more enjoyable and productive.

Linda Oligschlaeger served as the Membership Services Director at The Missouri Bar from 1991-2012 where she oversaw the Law Practice Management Information Center.