“Return to Sender”
My mother was a homemaker who always stayed close to home. She didn’t drive and didn’t pursue any interests outside of her family. I realize now that she spent a lot of time waiting for my dad to come home from work, or for one of her three boys to get home and drive her somewhere. But I don’t ever remember her complaining. She just cleaned and organized and made sure our home was perfect.
My mother is why I’m so conscientious about not keeping people waiting. I saw what it was like on the other end to be waiting for someone or something. Promptly responding to others is more than just common courtesy, it’s a sign of respect and a tangible way to convey to others that they are worthy of your attention.
Not keeping people waiting is also one of the biggest reasons behind my business success. That’s no exaggeration; here’s an example with real-world results: Shortly after I began working full time at Advanced Lighting, I got a voicemail from Tom,
a salesman for Rose Brand, the number one distributor of stage products for Broadway shows. We had never done business with them but they were a major player in the industry and establishing them as a customer would be huge. In his message, Tom asked if I wanted to bid on a project. The second after the message ended I was dialing Tom back. He said, “Wow! That was quick! I thought you were busy.” I said, “I’m not too busy for business.” He told me the project specs, I whipped up a bid, and an hour later I got the job. Later on, Tom told me that he had sent the same request for information to two of my competitors; I already had a purchase order before the other lighting companies had even responded.
By responding lightning-bolt fast, I had positioned Advanced Lighting in the mind of my new customer as the go-to provider of fiber optic curtains. Tom couldn’t help but think, They’re quick, they’re responsive, and they take care of business. From that point on, Tom asked me to bid on every job that came up. Each time, I responded quickly with a proposal and quotes. Finally, after I’d delivered four quality projects, Tom called and suggested that we formally partner up. He told me that Rose Brand’s CEO trusted Advanced Lighting enough to put some checks and balances in place, bypass the bidding process, and make us their exclusive fiber optic curtain supplier. As time went on, our partnership with Rose Brand deepened and evolved; they’d fly us in to train their employees and include us as part of their team at trade shows. We earned that trust and access by being responsive, doing what we said we were going to do, and delivering on time.
It’s not an understatement to say that hooking up with Rose Brand changed my life. When Tom gave me that first order, Advanced Lighting was doing around $300,000 in sales and no one knew who we were. We quickly moved to well over a million dollars in sales and everyone knew our name because Rose Brand allowed us to put our name on our curtains. That branding opportunity gave us instant credibility and visibility, which enabled us to research and develop other lighting products for other markets, and that’s when Advanced Lighting really got going. All that might never have happened had I waited a day to return that phone call.
The way I see it, people aren’t going to contact you just to waste their time. They’re reaching out to you because they want you to answer a question that’s important to them. You can’t assume how important that question will be to you or what it may lead to, so treat every message like it can make or break your business. Because it can.
Responding immediately to messages gives you a competitive edge that even your toughest competitors can’t erase. I can’t tell you how many times a customer has said to me, “Hey, I just sent that e-mail. Thanks for getting back to me so quickly.” My response is always, “Of course. Your business is very important to me.” If that customer were you, you’d be thinking, Wow, anyone this responsive is going to give really good service. This is the kind of good, reliable company I’m looking for.
Every voicemail, every e-mail, and every text opens a window of opportunity to make that kind of lasting impression on someone. You have to act as if that window is about to slam shut at any moment. Wait even just an hour, and you leave that window open for everybody else that person had contacted for information about products and services. Granted, getting back to people at the speed of light doesn’t guarantee results; but it does put you in position to get the best results possible. Do that consistently, and success can’t help but find you.
If your company has a good-size sales staff, put my theory to the test. Give ten salespeople a phone message five minutes before lunchtime or quitting time. It’s a safe bet that the top two earners will return that call immediately, and that most of the other eight will call after lunch or the next morning. It’s a matter of being other-centered versus self-centered. If you’d like to know what separates the remarkables from the replaceables, that’s a good place to start.
People who are other-centered are self-aware; they understand the value of humility and service to others. They know that when they act in someone else’s best interests, they’re ultimately acting in their own best interests.
People who are self-centered are unaware; they seek first to serve themselves and their own ego. It doesn’t occur to them that waiting to return a message not only hurts the customer asking the question, it may also hurt the customer of that customer and the customer of that customer. They have no idea of the damage they do when they passively allow themselves to become a bottleneck.
From time to time, I’ve done business with people who seem incapable of returning calls and e-mails. When I follow up, the person always laughs it off, saying, “Oh, I’m just not good at that.” There’s a word for people like that, and trust me, the word isn’t “successful.” I can understand if someone doesn’t know the answer to a question or doesn’t have the time to provide a detailed response, but that’s still no excuse. It takes less than a minute to e-mail back, “Got it, I’m on it. I’ll get back to you when I can.”
Let’s say a customer calls but you’re rushing off because your kid is sick and needs to be picked up at school. Sending a quick e-mail can make all the difference: “Hi, got your call. Need to take care of a family matter but will call you back ASAP. Your business is important to me.” You just acknowledged that you received the call, told him he’s important, and that you’re going to get back to him. You reinforced the relationship while also letting him know you’re a good family person. You get an A+ in customer care.
It’s maddening trying to work with someone who is so unresponsive. Not long ago, I was involved in a creative writing project that I was super excited about. But my enthusiasm soon gave way to frustration because the project lead was so horrible about returning messages. Every time my input was required, I’d do what was needed, then fire off an e-mail with action items to the project lead. More often than not, I may as well have sent my e-mail to a black hole a galaxy away. Four or five days would go by and I’d hear nothing. That’s inexcusable on so many levels. It was not only frustrating as hell, it put me in the uncomfortable position of having to contact him again to ask if he got my first message. It was also unhealthy for the project because his unresponsiveness caused needless delays and changed my mindset from inspired to infuriated. His poor communication skills cost me time and money, and I didn’t like it.
The next time you’re tempted to dash out the door to lunch or the golf course before returning a call or an e-mail, remind yourself that your business is not about you, it’s about making other people feel valued. When your customers, vendors, and employees feel valued, they in turn will value their interactions with you and what you have to offer. Making someone feel valued and cared for strengthens that relationship; and your success in business, just as your happiness in life, is determined by the quality of your relationships.
Ultimately, how you act in your professional life reveals a lot about what’s important to you in your personal life. For instance, every time I respond promptly to a message, I’m not only honoring the person I’m replying to, I’m in some small way honoring my mother as well, and atoning for all the times I unintentionally kept her waiting.