The need for effective communication
Should general rules of politeness apply only to person-to-person relations and not to business-to-person interactions as well? In our world of communication among individuals, like between two friends or even strangers at a supermarket, certain codes of conduct are applicable in nearly all imaginable situations. If you were to accidentally bump into someone while grocery shopping a basic “Excuse me,” or “I’m sorry,” is expected. If someone helps you to retrieve a dropped item you might simply say, “Thank you.” These often brief interactions may seem small and irrelevant, or even unnecessary on an individual basis. But, put together these brief exchanges are part of the basis of respect in civilized communications.
The culturally significant norms of communication are sometimes referred to as a kind of lubricant that helps us to interact smoothly with one another and retain our civility. The examples above represent the simplest of situations two people can encounter at almost any time. Imagine now that you are communicating with a person in a situation that is at a higher level of interaction, one that is much more complex, with significant issues being addressed, and with numerous variables and that could each vastly affect the outcome of the situation. Add further the fact that the person with whom you are communicating is completely unknown to you and is representing the position of an entire company or business venture.
It is in these more complex situations, such as applying for a job or seeking to establish a business relationship, that attention to effective communication is immensely important. A concerted effort must be given to communication as the situation and subject matter take on greater importance. Both the investment in the situation, and the potential outcome, will result in more significant consequences. All business interactions are led by individuals, though such engagements may involve numerous people, as well as preconceived expectations, hopes, aspirations, trust, and faith in others. Therefore, time and energy should be devoted toward effective and thorough communication, and with a purposeful effort toward developing a rapport with the business counterpart.
All of the individual investment in communicating with a company in order to move forward with a business opportunity or project is worth a great deal to the contributors. Minimal degrees of acceptable communications efforts are expected by those who have invested themselves in the process. For example, when a hopeful recruit submits a resume to a Human Resources department a very basic confirmation receipt should be expected, and delivered. Such a simple “thank you for your submission” will provide the sender with an immediate and multi-dimensional indication of respect.
In the example of a resume submission, the time taken to put together the resume and apply to the company will have been acknowledged by the company with a message of receipt. This response also provides confirmation that the message was received, and without error. To not provide a reply does not mean communication will not occur. Instead, a non-reply will send an entirely different non-verbal message, either unintentionally or not. The lack of even the most basic response, from the perspective of the sender, can be seen as inconsiderate, or even perceived as blatantly rude.
Why does it matter if a company fails to say “thank you” when an individual has initiated some message of communication? It actually matters a great deal. This burgeoning problem is not about following a stuffy rule book of etiquette that describes where to place forks at the dinner table and how to shake hands. Rather, this problem matters for the reason that when a company fails to communicate properly with its publics—whether they are customers, investors, employees, or even potential recruits—it is a clear indicator that two serious problems are in effect.
The first problem stems from the company’s attitude toward, and perception of, its publics. Bad communication indicates a very poor or terribly uncoordinated effort. The company’s values or culture regarding public relations are possibly badly misaligned. The second problem stems from the very function of public relations for the company. Every employee of a company is responsible for relations with the public, not just the designated PR department.
Regardless of how well an official PR message is crafted by a company professional, people will perceive impoliteness and rudeness in situations of bad communication and transfer a great deal of meaning to the non-verbal cues they believe are being sent to them. These non-verbal messages carry an immense weight with the conversation contributor. When a lubricating civil protocol is absent then interactions start to be perceived as negative and relationships begin to unravel, or worse may never be established.
Beyond the friction caused by poorly managed business-to-person interactions is the cost to the company itself. Both the attitude problem and public relations issue will eventually have to be fixed, and the damage caused over time must be repaired. This will translate very directly to cost. Repair of poor communications and the resulting poor public relations will not be found as a line item in any budget, but has the potential to very seriously erode profitability. This is certainly a long-term view of the effects of bad communication. However, when problems are extrapolated to a long-term outlook the cost of repair compounds over time. Poor communications abilities or efforts are an inside-to-outside problem. It begins inside the company with few distinct symptoms. Once the problem transitions to affecting the outside, symptoms may be easily identified, but the core problem is rarely properly diagnosed.
A company that is overlooks communication as a vital force in its interactions will have to sojourn a long and expensive road to its recovery. Every aspect of a business can affect public opinion. Public opinion in turn can affect every aspect of a business. Recruiting, sales growth, product innovation, market share, cost drivers, share price, and so many others are all aspects of a business that can be affected by the public according to their perception of a company.
How are the perceptions of the public affected, specifically? Communication. In all forms, whether as planned marketing strategy, through brand management and corporate identity strategy, by way of a simple call made to tech support, or even a resume submitted to Human Resources. The importance of maintaining at least a basic degree of genuine politeness in all types and levels of communication is paramount. The extremely competitive business of the 21st century cannot forego a single opportunity to make a positive impression on its publics. No matter how large or small the firm, this common-sense approach is an important and integral part of doing business, and doing business well.
 Civilized, as defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary: Marked by well-organized laws and rules about how people behave with each other; polite, reasonable, and respectful.
[Originally published in July 2002 and revised in June 2008.]