The high cost of poor communicationAs the new year gets under way, we encourage you to add one more resolution to your list. Although this one won’t affect your waistline, it will help your bottom line: Respond to your customers and other stakeholders quickly. Every time.

Failure to return phone calls or emails has reached epidemic proportions across business sectors. Between feeling stretched too thin and having to deal with an upsurge of scammers and spammers, it’s understandable that folks aren’t as conscientious as they used to be about responding to every message. In filtering out the dreck, though, companies are losing legitimate transactions—and business.

Those who reach out to your organization in good faith expect a reasonable, and reasonably prompt, reply. Both customers and business associates will balk at being ignored. One executive noted, “Sometimes I’ll be in the middle of an email correspondence and the other side will just go radio silent. I expect this from my teenagers, not from my collaborators.” She has dropped more than one business relationship for this offense, and vendors don’t get a second chance.

The good news is that this trend offers an opportunity for organizations that communicate well to gain a strong competitive advantage. Effective communication is key to providing a positive customer experience, which has become an increasingly important indicator of success. Read on for advice on staying ahead of the game by avoiding common communication pitfalls.

Opportunity costs of overextension

The most common reason we hear for communication failures is that staff are too busy to keep up with the constant barrage of messaging. Office workers receive an average of nearly 100 emails a day, about two-thirds of which are genuine business messages. While getting to every one of these messages is a monumental task, it’s also key to maintaining important business relationships. Letting messages languish can alienate customers, partners, funders, job candidates, and even vendors.

One regional company we work with recently reached out to an IT firm to ask for a quote on a large project. When more than a week went by without a response, the company moved on to another firm. “When they finally did respond, it was with lots of excuses about how busy they are,” said the CEO, who remained unimpressed. “If they’re too busy to send a one-sentence reply asking to talk next week, how can I trust them to give my job the attention it needs?”

For business communication to be effective, you have to communicate.

You may feel safer when you’re on the other side of the hiring equation, but ignoring job applicants or others seeking to do business with you can also come at a cost. One company that was flooded with responses to an RFP took several weeks to go through them without acknowledging receipt or letting submitters know that the review process would take longer than expected. By the time the company contacted the clear frontrunner, the vendor was unavailable. The company was forced to settle for second best, and at a higher price to boot.

Lack of communication has become so prevalent that organizations sometimes fail to follow up on their own queries. A nonprofit we know of asked a partnering organization for information that was essential for completing a proposal. The recipient responded within the hour, saying, “I can provide that information, but I’m out of the office until tomorrow. When do you need it?” Not hearing back, he passed along the information the next day—which was too late. The nonprofit missed the proposal deadline, losing its chance to land a very lucrative contract.

Taming technical difficulties

A big part of communicating well is making sure your systems are working properly. Claiming technical problems when things go wrong may buy you some time, but not much; your constituents are unlikely to care whether a slight occurs by choice, through an oversight, or because of a technical glitch.

Web-based contact forms are a common source of problems. While these forms can make communication more efficient and secure, without proper protocols in place they can be spam-generating nightmares. If they don’t get ongoing attention, they can stop working altogether. It can take days for someone to notice when this happens, especially if no one is checking those emails routinely. In the meantime, you’ll be losing business.

A related issue is losing messages sent to your general (e.g., info@) email address or to the address of an employee who has left. We’ve seen email accounts lie dormant for weeks when organizations either fail to assign an info@ account to a staff member or forget to re-assign an account when someone moves on. Even a short gap in coverage in these instances can send customers into the arms of your competition or stop an important project in its tracks.

Keep your communication on track

First, the obvious: Make sure you or designated staff members answer all legitimate messages. It’s best to respond within one business day if possible, both for good etiquette and to ensure that you don’t set something aside for later and then forget about it. If you’re overwhelmed, you can always send a short note saying you’ll get back to someone later (then make sure you do).

The only caveat here is that you may need to do a little work to separate real queries from well-disguised sales or scam messages. Most of these messages aren’t so sophisticated that you can’t spot them with a minimal time investment. And of course, never click on a suspicious link.

Here are some additional steps you can take to ensure that lack of communication doesn’t harm your business:

  • Test your website’s contact form routinely. Hacks or even regular software updates can disable a form without leaving visible signs of a problem. In addition to your own testing, this is an area where routine site maintenance can help you avoid or correct problems.
  • Install anti-spam software such as captcha on your contact form to keep legitimate messages from getting lost in a sea of spam.
  • Make sure someone is checking your info@ account at least daily.
  • Have a plan in place for staff turnover. You can forward an employee’s account, set it to respond with an appropriate message (including whom to contact), or assign someone to check and reply to messages for a period of time.
  • Use automated responses to let others know if you’ll be away for any length of time or to respond to high-influx messages such as job applications or responses to RFPs.
  • Pick up the phone. Few things enrage customers more than being put on hold forever or leaving voice messages that don’t get answered.
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