What is astonishing if the amount of time the internet absorbs without you realising it, says Ian Rodd, managing director of chartered accountants and business advisers Ward Goodman.
“Getting to the nub of what you need to know has become more difficult because the default position is to hunt out information online rather than picking up the phone to ask for it.
“The new generation communicate far more than we ever did, but the question is, is it good communication? Are we seeing increasing levels of what you could describe as pointless communication?
Let me give you an example. A colleague sends over a document and gets an email to say ‘thanks for this, can we talk’? She emails back to say ‘I’m here now’. Why didn’t one of them just phone?
“I’ve got 14,200 unread emails which have been driven into my inbox by marketers. Yes, I can unsubscribe, but that validates who you are, you have responded, and chances are you’ll receive something else. It could be said that the only way for digital communication to really work well is to find out the recipient’s needs and interests and present them in a way that will specifically capture his or her attention.”
Even so, Rodd thinks digital communication has made it harder to reach prospective clients at director level.
“Before,” he explains, “their secretary would open your letter, and if it was relevant, there was a chance they would put it on the director’s desk. Now, because your email is unlikely to be looked at, access is effectively switched off completely.”
Behaviours can appear downright strange as companies work out how to manage digital communication. Rodd recalls phoning a client’s PA for an appointment to discuss a particular matter as he was passing their offices next day just after lunch. She told him that wouldn’t be possible because it would be cutting into his set time when he deals with the morning’s emails and social media feeds.
But, says Rodd, maybe he had it right after all, because digital communication can continuously interrupt our day. “We’re bombarded by emails which self-prioritise themselves on our time. And dealing with them as and when they come in makes us so less efficient.”
Rodd maintains that professional services have always been about relationships, and that technology shouldn’t change that fundamental. “I would go to a meeting with a prospective client in order to identify and talk about their requirements, and that’s what I do now,” he explains. “But I know there are firms which expect the prospective client to fill in a form on screen without there being any interaction. Of course there are clients who have a very specific need and see it as a price driven purchase, while most others will want some advice at least; in other words they will want to talk through what they don’t know.”
The key, says Rodd, is for the service provider to link a commodity proposition with the provision of advice. “It’s a circle which can be squared. We can fix the price for the commodity purchase, and then provide a menu for the advice.
The problem will be clients who primarily buy the former, but feel they have a right to the latter without having to pay for it. If we just focus on selling the commodity though, then it’s a race to the bottom, and digital communication will make that happen.”
“What is important with a website,” he says, “is to give people options, to be able to have live chat, to email us, to phone, and yes, fill in the form if they want to.”
What there isn’t room for on a website is hyperbole. “It still makes me laugh when I see professional practices going to such great lengths on their websites to describe themselves as trusted advisors,” says Rodd. “The client isn’t interested in reading that stuff, because that should be a given if you are able to deliver what they require and then do so.”
Expectations of what a website will deliver are ever increasing, Rodd believes. “A testimonial which appears as a few words on screen, just as it would have appeared in a printed brochure, isn’t going to have the impact of a client talking about you on video. And maybe in the future the chat facility won’t be anonymous but the website will show a hologram of the person who is advising you.”