Thoughtful or Nostalgic?

Bad human communication leaves us less room to grow. – Rowan Williams

In planning a trip to Toronto last month, I took on the challenge of setting up meetings with senior decision makers at a large multi-national organization. I’ve done a fair bit of work for the company locally and regionally, and the feedback’s been very positive. It made sense to me that head office should know about my work.

While my contacts made recommendations and sent out messages, I headed to the website to take a look at the corporate team. After all, I teach “start at the top”. Of the 11 people listed on the Senior Executive Team, one person did stand out as the best choice. My expectation was not necessarily that I would reach her, but that her executive assistant would provide me with information, a referral, etc.

This is a technique I have used for decades. In the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s, reaching for the top often meant I had one-on-one conversations with CEOs or Senior VPs. And while these conversations didn’t necessarily result in a sale, they were always incredibly valuable in terms of market research and relationship building for both of us and, for me, visibility for my company.

I knew times had changed, but I wasn’t at all prepared for what happened:

1. I could not get a phone number. This is a first for me. I’ve developed quite a research tool kit over the years and I’ve never been totally stumped when it comes to tracking down a phone number. Eventually I connected with Corporate and Public Affairs and a helpful woman gave me the number for the executive assistant.

2. This is what I encountered at that phone number:

(Thank you for calling ***. The employee you are trying to reach is  not available. This line does not have voicemail services. Please try alternate methods such as email. Thank you.)

While there had been some media attention about large businesses in the U.S. shutting down voicemail, I had no idea this was also happening in Canada. I was, in a phrase, gob smacked!

3. After another conversation with Corporate and Public Affairs, about 30 more minutes of futile searching and even some random dialing while changing the last digit of the phone number (this did connect me with a person on a different floor who had no phone numbers for other divisions and didn’t know how to connect me with a receptionist anywhere), I bowed to the system and spent approximately an hour composing what I hoped was a compelling email.

In total, I spent about 4 hours doing various tasks in order to reach one person and set up one 15-minute meeting, and while this does speak to my persistence, it also illuminates how difficult we are making it to speak to each other. And this makes me very uncomfortable. Why?

1. We are placing “communication” in the hands of the few. I can look at the steps I took to achieve that meeting and know they aren’t available to everyone. From calling Corporate and Public Affairs to crafting an email that inspires someone to help me connect with someone who will take the time to meet with me … these actions demand a level of confidence and writing skills that aren’t available to everyone.

2. English is my first language and Canadian my culture. What about the individuals who represent brilliant products and services of value to this organization that come from other countries, speak other languages? How will they get through?

3. When we keep people out, we keep out ideas, possibilities. We limit growth. We choose to wear blinders that keep us focused only on what we already know. While I’m not a historian by any stretch, it seems to me this could be a sign of the downfall of a culture.

4. We are allowing our “to do” lists to rule us. At the core of shutting down voicemail, besides some cost savings, is our desire to control our day, our moments. We have things to do and why should we take the time to listen to messages we aren’t expecting, or speak with people we don’t know. In our endless pusuit of efficiency, we are boxing ourselves in, trading “to done” for relationships and opportunities.

Am I being thoughtful or nostalgic? Please share your thoughts.

Closing a sale is the natural outcome of inspiring great conversations and listening intently to our potential customers.

This natural approach still involves a process – a plan that moves potential customers through a journey of discovery with you. So ... what's your process? And am I the right sales coach for you? Let's find out.

0 thoughts on “Thoughtful or Nostalgic?”

  1. Insightful observations. While not obviously apparent, I think your conclusions are valid. I wonder if people want more power and control and somehow feel they get more control if they restrict access. ??

    • Thanks, Steve. Yes, I think we call feel like we need to control our time and one way to do that is to have more control over access to our time. A phone conversation is perceived as more intrusive and in need of more of our time than an email. In this case, it would have taken longer to read and respond to the email I sent, than if we had connected by phone. So sometimes we are only creating the illusion of control and efficiency.

  2. Puts me in mind of Peter Drucker… ‘There’s nothing worse than doing the wrong thing well’

    We may feel better not connecting with others but I think it gives a false sense of the real world to insulate ourselves with what we can control.

    Doesn’t bode well for that company.

    Thanks for sharing

    • Yes – I did get a 15-minute meeting … but it took about 4 hours of my time and I never spoke to anyone prior to the meeting.

  3. Kent Homes in NB does not have voicemail, if no one answers your call it cycles back to the receptionist and she takes a message. This is not new, I don’t think they have ever had voicemail technology because they are slow to evolve… and now they are “ahead of the curve”. ha

    We at Kohoot no longer have voicemail, the building we are in had to replace the central phone system and it took over a month, so the building set us up with a virtual receptionist to traffic our calls and if we are out they take a message, type it up and email it to us. Frankly, I love this setup. Having them emailed let’s me get “voice message” even after hours when I’m home. If it’s timely I can email or call them back or leave it until the next day. I hated taking the time to dial into voicemail and often on my cell phone messages went unanswered for days.

    Dialing in gets cumbersome and time-consuming, especially if you have to do it multiple times a day, or if you are in a hurry and want to flip through and see who called (our phones didn’t store caller ID)… this often meant listening to messages a couple times to write get all the info, or skip it and move on the next knowing I’d eventually have to come and repeat this entire process if I wasn’t going to take the time and write down all the info right away. Either way, it felt like too many steps and more time than I ever wanted to devout to voicemail—I’m feeling panic just thinking about it. ha. Having my voice messages emailed to me—dreamy!

    • Thanks for sharing this, Jay. Of course, I love the idea of a receptionist that takes messages. That’s truly communicating. And voicemail does have it’s drawbacks. It is the absence of any way to leave a message that is startling. In this case, the “message” suggests sending an email to the employee – but doesn’t provide the email information. As a consequence – no communication.

  4. Hi Mary Jane,

    It seems the higher an individual manages to get in an organization the more the corporate fortress protects them. It is a shame. These are the desision makers and should therefore be the most open and accountable. Sadly instead they seem to deem themselves and their time too valueable for general consumption. As far as pointing toward a downfall within our culture, it also speakes to the immorality of having half the worlds wealth in the hands of fewer than 700 individuals.. (Try getting one of their ears.) Banks propagate this reality and upper level managers facilitate and emulate their wealthy overseers behavior. Your diligence is inspiring.



    • Thanks for your comments, Paul. What I keep coming back to, with a lot of the changes we’ve seen in communication, is … is it planned or simply thoughtless? And I think to a large degree behaviours have been adopted without thought being given to the bigger picture. If there is a quick efficiency to be gained, no further thought is put into the situation. When it comes to phone communication, what I want to do is at least create a debate – get people to examine the long-term implications.

  5. Indeed, your last comment, “is it planned or simply thoughtlessness” is what I keep thinking about. It all seems VERY short-sighted and typical of a huge corporation not seeing the whole picture. I find it frightening, quite frankly!

    You’re such a fantastic role-model of diligence, tenacity, and sweat equity. Thank you, Mary Jane!!!

    • Thanks, Natasha. It will be interesting to see where it goes. I think the reactions of the large companies are also happening in the smaller ones. We are all trying to manage our time, feel less overwhelmed, get more done and one consequence is that we are eliminating or abandoning some of the methods of communication that bring value to our lives and relationships.

  6. Just think of how many times people hang up or are irate by the time they “reach a person” because of IVRs. They had a simple question, that has now wasted sometimes up to 10 mins of their time dancing around in the IVR, multiple transfers, and really it’s a matter of “I got a bill, and I think I send the payment at the same time – I can ignore this, right?”
    It’s valuing the employee and employer’s time as more valuable than the customer’s, and the problem is, *everyone* is doing it, so there’s usually not a better option.
    Great observations!

    • Thanks for these comments, Krysta. It is true that we are increasing the level of frustration for the customer with many of our efficiencies. First introduced as cost-saving alternatives, the IVRs are now commonplace and create tremendous barriers to those with certain learning disabilities or those new to a country or culture. Again, I’m not sure anyone is thinking about the big picture, but thoughtlessly following trend and bottom line.

  7. Hi MJ,
    While reading your story I empathized. I could almost taste the frustration, which only amplifies the challenge that fuels the determination not to be beaten by the paranoia of people so fearful of being found. As a result we find ourselves literally held captive for 4 hours trying to dismantle these purposely built fortresses. Reminds me of the castles that sprang up throughout Europe generations ago.

    So what is it these kings and queens of commerce are so afraid of? What/Who is it they think they have to protect themselves from? Fear.

    Are we (salespeople) that frightening? I guess we are.

    • Thanks for your comments, Peter. I’m intrigued by your use of the word “fear”. I hadn’t thought of it in that way. But certainly, now that we are in (approximately) our 45th year of “telemarketing”, people calling us at home in the evening to sell us things, we are more defensive when we take calls from people we don’t know. That this is translating into fear for some people … it makes sense. I’m definitely going to give this more thought.


Leave a comment

When you subscribe to my weekly blog, you'll immediately get my detailed ebook The Why and How of Following-up featuring my best advice plus examples of success you can duplicate.


What's The Phone Lady doing?


  • Remote learning experiences + one-on-one coaching for women entrepreneurs (More info about this three-year program here.)
  • Team and individual coaching with a national moving company to refine their sales process
  • Remote half-day training for provincial tourism representatives
  • Remote seven-part sales training program for US-based SaaS
  • Remote webinar on accounts receivable communication for industrial-services company
  • Remote webinar on validation to college students in entrepreneur program
  • In-person workshop on job search skills for women in the trades
  • Remote half-day webinar on written correspondence to customers

Do you or your team want to improve your communication skills? Do you have a communication question or challenge you'd like to discuss? This quick-to-fill-out form is easy to use and you'll hear from Mary Jane very soon.