97% of People are Useless. Here’s How Not to be One of Them

4 Oct

This is an epically clickbait title, but it underscores something that is not talked about enough: professional courtesy. I thought this would be perfect for a Friday read and weekend rumination.

At our company, professional courtesy is the most important attribute we look for in candidates. You can do everything right but if you’re a jerk the rest is useless. As Warren Buffet is credited with noting, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” Yet some people haven’t figured this out.

I often hear that the reason most people treat others so poorly is that they’re busy. I’m not exactly sure what they’re busy doing. I can count the number of people I know who work consistent 80-hour weeks (sorry finance friends).

If anything life is less busy than it’s ever been. Technology has made it so we no longer spend every waking minute worrying about what we’ll eat, or if that ominous thundering means we’ll be shivering in a cave all night. We don’t have to worry about dying from a scraped knee, nor run and hide from creatures with sharp teeth. Getting around doesn’t require weeks of planning, packing and preparation either.

Technology has given us more time than ever.

But that’s not what the average person would lead you to believe. You’ll have unreturned calls and emails. You’ll have people tell you they’ll do something and months later never see any progress. You’ll have people who schedule meetings and don’t bother showing up. All the while these people are finding time to post pictures of their lunch on social media…

It’s unfortunate that there’s not an objective system to tell you who’s unprofessional. Internally, you obviously can have much more control over the characteristics you value. At our company we’ve implemented a system that creates fake inbounds across all departments and all levels – sales, data and engineering. We email solicitations from random accounts and monitor open and response rates. Around here, everyone must explain why something is or isn’t a fit, or pass it along to the person who can.

Big brother? Not hardly.

The goal of a company is to produce value for shareholders. These are your investors, your employees and your customers. If employees are unable to determine how value is created, they should not be employees at all. It does lead one to wonder what kind of company hires people that don’t return phone calls.

Every touch is an opportunity to make a positive impression; you never know where an interaction might lead. Malcolm Forbes once said, “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” I’d likewise say you can judge a lot from how people handle inbound email from strangers.

Employees who are prioritizing pancake pictures to professional courtesy are casting a bat signal that they don’t give a rip about the company. Worse, outsiders take notice: is this a company I would want to work for? Perhaps unsurprisingly these traits manifest themselves in certain industries more than others.

We’ve always had a good system to track emails. So if you’re someone who doesn’t reply to emails you had better believe any decent company can all see when you’re opening them. Over the course of several years (and 10,000 emails) we curated some interesting results. Ready?

Mailchimp publishes benchmarks for email open and click through rates. To find email reply rates, I really like the information published by Yesware, who give awesome tips for improving email efficacy. I’m juxtaposing these published averages with figures for the finance and restaurant industries we’ve curated. The wide range for average open rate exists because small businesses manage their email more poorly than larger enterprises, who see email as a powerful tool.

As a further caveat, the emails we send are not spam in a giant mail merge from a CRM. Because we are very surgical with our approaches, we have a finite list of outbounds. For restaurants, these were all emails to chain operators.

Perhaps those employed in finance are relatively more successful because they are receptive to information and ideas. Instead of ignoring things they inquisitively listen. What a novel idea…

Restauranteurs and retailers, who run far more customer-oriented businesses than those in finance, should be aware that every inbound email is a direct reflection of their brand. If someone has a bad experience in the initial stages of communication, they’re going to associate that feeling with your whole organization. And it’s not as if there are a limited number of choices when choosing where to spend dollars either.

Maybe you’ve had horrible bosses that never created aspirational corporate culture, or you’re so early in your career you’ve missed training on professional courtesy. Or maybe worse, your parents didn’t teach you the basics of good manners.

Whatever the reason, here are some simple things we should all be doing.

Respond to every email within two days. Two days is generally accepted as the professional business norm: it takes into account travel and meetings. Obviously responding as soon as possible is preferred, and senders will wonder why you opened their email three minutes after receiving it but haven’t replied. Something as simple as acknowledging the email and processing next steps is fine.

For instance, if someone seeks the person handling X, write them a quick note saying who might handle X, and tell them you’ll confirm it. Let the sender know it’s okay to ping you in a week if you’ve forgotten. Maybe this person has something revolutionary for your company; would you want to be responsible for passing that up?

Sam Walton thought two days was too long and instituted the sundown rule. Why put off to tomorrow what can be done today? Sam wanted his culture to be responsive to everyone. After all, everyone could be a Walmart customer – why give them a reason to shop somewhere else?

Honor your commitments. This includes agreeing to getting things done by a certain date, or showing up to a meeting. I’ll share a brief story.

A mutual friend set up a meeting with one of his colleagues at his offices – three hours from ours. I confirmed the meeting with the colleague, received a calendar placeholder, and arrived on-time the day-of. 30-minutes into waiting, the other party had still not appeared. It took my friend calling his colleague’s secretary to find out his colleague decided not to show up. I never received an apology or further outreach.

If you can’t make a meeting, let the person know ahead of time and suggest another time that works. We understand flights get delayed, or other things pop up. These are not excuses to treat others poorly.

Learn to say no. If something is not reasonable, nor a fit, say no. The worst offenders are investors, who never provide a definitive answer because they want to preserve their optionality. What if you’re suddenly offered a billion-dollar buyout? You can be sure the investor will want to know about that, and by telling you no you wouldn’t have shared that opportunity.

Avoiding definitive conclusions does two things. First, it clogs up your email and voicemail with someone thinking they have a chance. Second, it wastes the other party’s time. Do you feel that much better than someone that you will let them spend hours dwelling on you?

Here’s how we handle inbounds that are not a fit. Feel free to copy-paste as needed.

Hi John (using their name shows you read the email),

Thanks for reaching out (acknowledges you understand the difficulty in outbound sales). From the sound of it, it doesn’t seem like there’s a fit here; we don’t outsource development (gives sender confidence that you understand their value proposition and have related it to your business). Let me know if I missed something (in the event you misinterpreted something, or they didn’t do a good job explaining the opportunity clearly). Best of luck!

Why do so many people lack these basic skills?

In a word: self-preservation. Most people are not wanting to inject any risk into their everyday lives. The risk that the company looks at an opportunity and it doesn’t pan out. The risk that the opportunity works and puts them out of a job. The risk that replying to people means less time for flapjack-Friday photoshoots.

The same people, however, will complain they didn’t get a raise, and chastise people for being more successful. “It’s nothing they did” they’ll grumble over their dripping pancake stacks.

If you ask me, it’s the rise of machines that’s looking pretty appetizing now.