I was t-boned in the middle of a mild snowstorm after a driver failed to take a right turn accurately. He plowed into me, and my car was in need of significant repairs. I contacted my dealership and got a recommendation for a reputable shop that did high-end work because I wanted the fixes to look good and be guaranteed. I dropped off the car and was told that as soon as the insurance company came to take a look at the car, I would be notified of what the costs would be and what portion the insurance company would cover. That all sounded fair. Great, right?! Nope.
None of that ever happened. In fact, once I dropped my vehicle off, I never heard from the repair shop again. They never called me to tell me that the insurance adjuster visited, they never called to tell me where the repairs were at from a timeline perspective, and they never called to give me an estimate. They never called me at all.
Because of that, I called them all. the. time. I called them because I didn’t know when to expect my car and when they did give me an estimated day, I wouldn’t hear from them with confirmation that everything was indeed done. So I would call to confirm and they would change the day, “No, it’s not ready. It will be ready tomorrow.” And then tomorrow came, and I didn’t hear from them. So I called them again and they told me that no, it wasn’t ready, but that it would be ready on Monday. This happened over and over again. They would tell me one thing and it always turned out to be untrue.
In the meantime, Enterprise thought I was trying to steal my white Chevy Cruze rental because my one-week reservation kept getting extended one day at a time.
The fact that the work was taking a long time wasn’t the thing that frustrated me the most throughout this whole experience. It was that I was the one who had to keep contacting the collision shop. I had to drive the interactions even though they repeatedly gave me inaccurate information. They set unreasonable or unachievable expectations and they never once owned that. They never said, “We keep overestimating our abilities and resources, and we’re sorry.” And they never assumed a proactive role in the communication.
You know how that made me feel? Stupid. I felt stupid because I was planning based on those estimates, every time. I would get in touch with Enterprise and move meetings to be available to get my car. Except it was never available. So they inconvenienced me and they created chaos for me.
I don’t mind that they fell short. The biggest issue was that they never took it upon themselves to communicate with me about updated expectations. They always left me hanging. I would have loved the company if they had just talked to me. It was such a good lesson to be reminded about.
To me, communication is core to managing people, and to working with and for people. It is the number one thing that makes work better: proactive communication. More is actually more.
When we assume things about people’s level of comfort, understanding, or knowledge and we don’t go out of our way to confirm that comfort, understanding or knowledge, we’re failing them.
This reminds me of a message that my colleague, Meg, shares a lot: Our industry — the technology space — has its own language. To underscore that message, she tells a story about a time she was working with a landscaper on her yard. She wanted trees in her yard so she asked about options. But as they talked it through, she started to feel stupid because she found herself not really knowing what the landscaper was talking about. Meghan didn’t speak the landscaper’s language, and that person didn’t make it accessible to her.
The work I do can be just as inaccessible. Unless I make it otherwise. And this isn’t just about language, that’s the tip of the iceberg. We must think about the layers of context we have to provide for customers and each other. We can’t make assumptions about what people will take away from our conversations. We have to confirm and do the work to tell the whole story, and then keep doing it.
Most humans are so consumed with their own work and their own experience that they forget to have empathy for how their communication might be received. We all exist in our own bubbles. At work and at home. But those bubbles make us a little narrow in our focus and a little selfish about priorities. And we rarely see it. We assume everyone else is right there with us. But they aren’t. And we owe them more context to insure we understand each other.
Language is everything, and we need to be more careful with it.
If we don’t consider the importance of language and proactive communication and the various aspects to doing it well, doing it consistently, and doing it thoroughly — throughout every stage of our work — we aren’t doing our best jobs as humans. Take the time to consider your audience and be thoughtful about how best to reach them — early and often. Your business will thank you for it.