Fast Company

Careers: Overcommunicate

Talk to me, you never talk to me.
Ooh, it seems that I can speak.
But I can hear my voice shouting out.
But there’s no reply at all.

-Lyrics from the song “No Reply at All” by Genesis

There’s nothing like a little inspiration from Phil Collins and Genesis for this week’s entry. But as you’ll soon see, for this topic, I need no inspiration. Anyone who has been around me for more than four seconds will tell you that I’m passionate about follow up. In an earlier entry, I talked about the importance of following up with candidates but I think it’s actually bigger than that.

It’s not just how we treat applicants; everything we do affects our personal brand. The way we treat our boss, our colleagues, or even the random person we bump into for five minutes at a conference goes a long way in how we are perceived. Yet, day in day out I’m amazed at how many people don’t respond to emails and phone calls for days, weeks or sometimes ever. It’s almost like there are a group of people out there with only a hard drive, monitor and mouse but with no keyboard. They’re able to open your email, but since they don’t have the keyboard they can’t respond. Or better yet, maybe their phone is missing the numbers two and nine and that’s why they aren’t able to give you a call back. Am I the only one that thinks follow up is a big deal? Say it ain’t so.

The reasons why people under-communicate are no doubt vast. But the reasons they give are often similar. Let’s take a look at some of my favorites.

“I’m swamped” (also known as “I have more important things to do than to follow up with you.”) I think we’d all agree that even when we’re absolutely swamped, somehow we’re still able to make time to fit in the things that are really important to us. Make following up a personal commitment. Take 15 seconds to shoot a quick email saying “Thanks for the message. I’m under a tight deadline. I’ll give you a call early next week.” Simple as that.

“Out of the office” Not just “out of the office” but habitually being out of the office without setting an out of office greeting. You know who you are. The person trying to contact you looks like a pest because they’ve sent you three emails over a two-week period. You’re frustrated because your inbox is filled with a bunch of follow up to follow up emails. Last time I checked, it only takes a few seconds (3 minutes tops) to set an out of office greeting.

“Waiting to hear” The best of the excuses for not following up because it actually means the person you are waiting to hear from is actually doing something to help you. Unfortunately, they dropped the ball by failing to let you know. So you end up thinking they’re blowing you off. If you’re waiting to hear back from someone or for information before you can respond, say so.

And then there’s the no-excuse behavior…

“Avoidance” I’ll use this as a catch all for the no-excuse excuse. If “waiting to hear” is the best excuse, this has to be the worst. If tables were turned and you needed information from someone and he or she never followed up or never gave a good reason as to why it’s been three phone calls and four emails and six months and you haven’t heard a peep, how would you feel? I’m guessing you’d be pretty frustrated. It’s almost like running into someone you went out on a date with once but instead of saying hello, he or she diverts eye contact and makes a b-line for the door.

I realize that there are times when it’s impossible to juggle everything we have on our plate; we’ve all been there. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to ignore emails and phone calls for days, weeks, and months on end. When people contact us, there is a good chance they’re contacting us for a reason. Take a few minutes each day to follow up with people. When you think you’re too busy, ask yourself if you would be too busy to follow up with your boss the day before your annual performance review.

Have other excuses for not following up or other work-place pet peeves? Post a comment.

Shawn Graham is an Associate Director with the MBA Career Management Center at UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School and author of Courting Your Career: Match Yourself with the Perfect Job (courtingyourcareer.wordpress.com).

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2 Comments

  • Danny Ma

    How true! I'm in the brand consulting business and over the years I've learned that it's not how good you are, but how well you manage the process that will win and keep businesses. And follow-up is THE key to managing the process. And often time it's common sense and takes very little time and effort to do.

    It's when you don't manage the process and when things get out of hand or behind schedule, then you'll have to over deliver to compensate. And that inevitably takes more time, effort and money to do.

    Dann Ma | M Inc.

  • Steve Strong

    Three weeks I ago I met with an old friend who was recently (within the last six months) became SVP at a major publisher. How'd you like to be my vp, number two position, in marketing, she asks. Great! There's just one person ahead of you, an internal candidate, but his boss is unlikely to let him go, she says. Let's get the process started: here's the number of my HR guy, call him up tomorrow, she says. A week later I meet Mr. HR. We have a lively, positive interview after which he says he'll be in touch no matter what, and that a decision should be made before 4th of July. Here it is practically a month later...one phone call to the HR guy, two to her assistant, and an email to each...and: nothing! So what would you assume: (1) They hired someone else but are too rude to tell me (2) They don't know what they're doing (3) They want me but they haven't resolved an internal conflict. Love your comments.