When All Else Fails…TALK!

Alexia Tsotsis, Writer, TechCrunch, Brett Hurt, Founder & CEO, Bazaarvoice, & Mikkel Svane, CEO,  Zendesk @ LeWeb 11 Les Docks-8892

When I left corporate America last year to focus on my freelance writing business, there were plenty of things I was thrilled to leave behind. No more waiting in line for the microwave! No more hovering cube lurkers waiting for me to hang up the phone! No more borderline-rude questions, like “Sure you’re not carrying twins in there?” or “Pregnant again? Haven’t you heard of contraception?” And in addition to those petty annoyances, I could bid adieu to wasting hours of my life sitting in construction traffic, to seeing the kids for five quick minutes before they were whisked off to the sitter’s before dawn, and frittering away vacation days on pediatrician appointments.

But for all the benefits of working independently, there are certain aggravations that have followed me home—like reading “tone” into emails. Given that I’m solitary by nature and notorious for avoiding phone calls, I’m a huge fan of electronic messaging, but every now and then I still get burned by the typewritten word.

Case in point: after spending 5 hours working on some sales letters for a client yesterday, the bottom fell out of my stomach when I received an email last night stating that I had “missed the mark” on the project. The client went on to imply that I hadn’t understood her instructions (which were so minimal as to be almost nonexistent), that I “hadn’t bothered” to review the product I was writing about (untrue; I’d practically dissected it), and that she was “very unhappy” with what I’d delivered. She topped it off by requesting—horror of horrors!—a phone call the next day.

Well! By the time I’d finished re-reading the message for the fourth time, I was torn between crying, puking, and firing off a vicious reply. I finally recovered enough to type a professional—if not slightly huffy—response, confirming our 2:00 PM phone call, then sat back and prepared to stew.

The rest of the evening was a bust, with all the wasted hours of work and the client’s hurtful email festering in the back of my mind like an uninvited guest who refuses to go home. I tossed and turned for much of the night, lying in dread of the inevitable phone call. Waking this morning, I considered sending a follow-up email and calling off the whole thing, suggesting that she just find another provider and chalk up the lost 5 hours (and the project fee) to a lesson learned.

By the time 2:00 rolled around, my stomach was churning and my palms were sweating. I took deep breaths as I dialed the client’s number, bracing myself for a chilly greeting and then a vicious rundown of everything I’d done wrong. I resolved not to suck up, knowing I probably would anyway.

Imagine my surprise when the client answered the phone and sounded—could it be?—pleasant! Surely this wasn’t the same woman who had read me what I interpreted as the riot act in her email the day before. Today, she made cheerful small talk, thanked me for my time, apologized for the limited instructions, and then stepped me through what needed to be changed. On the phone, her feedback was clear and straightforward. I promised a revised version by this evening, and we said our goodbyes—warmly!—before hanging up.

All told, the call took 8 minutes. 8 minutes to wipe out the nerve-wracking depression that I’d allowed to ruin the past 20 hours.

Don’t get me wrong—in today’s hectic world, email is a godsend. It’s quick, it allows you the luxury of thinking about what you want to say and how you want to say it, and it gives you a written record of your correspondence. But for all its practical purposes, email can have a dark side. There’s no way to know for sure what the sender meant to convey with her word choice, no way to determine if she was smiling or frowning or giving the screen the middle finger as she typed. In some cases, when a stiff turn of phrase threatens to send you into a tailspin, picking up the phone can save you considerable heartache.


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