A Bit of Obvious Advice

By James Kwak

People occasionally ask me what it takes to succeed in the business world (since they assume at least that I know some successful people). Luck probably belongs at the top of that list. But I have a very clear idea of the most valuable skill to have in business (in part because I don’t really have it): the ability to pick up the phone, call someone, and convince her to do something that is in your interests—even though she has no other reason to do it.

I’m not saying this should be the most valuable skill in business. People like me would prefer it if all decisions were made on the basis of factual evidence and logical reasoning. But they’re not. And the people whom I have seen become very successful are the ones who are hard to say “no” to, whether in person or on the phone. How they do it can vary: some do it with charisma, some with logic, some with sheer stubbornness.  But they can all do it.

I thought of this when reading a recent WSJ article about how some businesses are trying to encourage their employees to use the phone instead of email. People claim they use email (or text messaging) because it’s more efficient, but that’s only true for some types of communications, particularly distributing information to many people that doesn’t require any type of interaction. For a simple example, if you have a question for one person, and the answer is complicated enough that you might need to ask more clarifying questions, the phone is far more efficient than email or text. Then there’s the relationship aspect. If I’m at the grocery store and my wife wants to add something to the list, she sends me a text, since she doesn’t feel the need to build on our relationship. But in business, when you’re dealing with people you don’t know, there’s no substitute for the phone.

The real reason why people avoid the phone in business contexts is that they’re uncomfortable. They don’t know the other person, they’re nervous about that, and it’s so much easier to send the email. But that’s precisely the problem. It’s so much easier to say “no” to someone by email, too. (Social media messages are even easier: I have no qualms about simply ignoring unsolicited direct messages in Twitter, Facebook, or what have you.) So if you’re new to the corporate world, your boss tells you to ask a supplier for a lower price, you send the email, you get the rejection, and you feel like you’ve done your job. But you haven’t done it very well.

This is all very simple and obvious, but it runs up against most people’s deep-seated feelings of insecurity and awkwardness. I don’t have a solution for that. But if you want to be CEO of a big company someday, get used to it.

21 thoughts on “A Bit of Obvious Advice

  1. I suspect the real reason employees are encouraged to use the phone, rather than e-mail, is to avoid a paper trail. That’s the result of our ridiculously litigious society.

    If you want to get people to do something for you, Adam Smith’s advice is still the best; appeal to their self-interest.

  2. The pain in my neck doesn’t seem to be getting any better with age, would Adam be able to cure that toos? Along with your financial blues. Or did he get off on the wrong tangent and just keep on goin, like a river that don’t know where it’s flowin??.

  3. Diana Nyad reaches Florida shores (http://wlrn.org/post/swimmer-diana-nyad-reaches-key-west-sets-world-record). But not to be outdone, efforts to streamline business production and costs continue at a faster pace than what could have been imagined had the sharknado, instead, prevailed. “….a 2004 op-ed and warning by Sen Schumer & Paul Craig Roberts (http://tr.im/4c9f4): ….[the] question today is whether the case for free trade made two centuries ago is undermined by the changes now evident in the modern global economy. Two recent examples illustrate this concern. Over the next three years, a major New York securities firm plans to replace its team of 800 American software engineers, who each earns about $150,000 per year, with an equally competent team in India earning an average of only $20,000. Second, within five years the number of radiologists in this country is expected to decline significantly because M.R.I. data can be sent over the Internet to Asian radiologists capable of diagnosing the problem at a small fraction of the cost.” And, what could possibly replace a comparable and knowledgeable workforce beyond outsourcing? http://bloom.bg/173Ntv7

  4. “Liberty Forum’s distinction rests in its examination of the basic principles of constitutional republican order and its focus on the elements of freedom that must exist in a society dedicated to liberty and responsibility. Liberty Forum aims to uncover the genesis of central legal ideas that produced our unique heritage of Western liberty but are now misunderstood due to ideological confusion.” Yes the question has been previously answered and no, it doesn’t matter much as this forum should have pointed out (and perhaps it does: we live in a Republic, and not purely in a Democracy.

    As for ideological confusion, there is little (reference: http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/31/bankers-workers-obama-and-summers/ : “Once at the Fed, however, Bernanke appears to have been assimilated by the Borg, moving much closer to the banking camp.”)

    “The claim that the “Federal Reserve” is “unconstitutional” actually entails a broad family of arguments. I can imagine four mostly distinct, sometimes overlapping lines of argument, although there may of course be others. First, the Fed is unconstitutional because it pursues bad policy.” Legally and correctly observed, the Federal Reserve is unconstitutional. However, that being said, ‘to say the Fed is unconstitutional b/c it pursues “bad” policy’ is just another subjective opinion of the word “bad” – it’s “bad’ because it doesn’t agree to your position.

    “Second, the Fed is unconstitutional because our federal government is one of enumerated powers, and nowhere does the Constitution permit the modern practice of monetary policy.” The Fed became the de facto “fourth estate” when they met on Jekyll Island many moons ago; naming the Reserve with the word “Federal” and the phrase “In God we Trust” was the way to legitimize its own powers without having to amend the U.S. Constitution.

  5. Good post. Agree. This is the short way to success: be likeable. The long way is what a lot of people like you and I do: try to articulate what the value is for them.

  6. Mr. Kwak — if your first paragraph is your honest opinion of business, then you don’t have experience with business.

    Certainly luck is part of business success, just as luck is part of life. But luck is not the top reason for business success any more than luck is the top reason why a student gets a good grade on a test.

    Saying business is about getting somebody else to do something in my interest is also a very cynical view of business and few businesses succeed with that viewpoint. Business is about finding something somebody else is willing to pay for, preferably for more than it costs to sell it. That’s been my experience having spent 35 years in the private sector.

    In terms of telephone and email, there are many situations where a short telephone call can save a couple dozen emails. Since most of my interaction is with people in the same building, I’ll walk over to talk to somebody rather than sending an email in some situations, though email works better when providing extensive written information.

    A note to reddit above — I’ve seen reports for over 20 years about outsourcing technology jobs. I’ve also had personal experience with outsourcing of this sort. It isn’t a panacea and many outsourcing attempts fail dismally. I wouldn’t worry much about the report of outsourcing, I’d worry if they come back in 5 years and say it’s working well with no major problems. I imagine the same will be true with radiologists, not to mention liability and licensing issues.

  7. ‘The pain in my neck doesn’t seem to be getting any better with age, would Adam be able to cure that toos? Along with your financial blues. Or did he get off on the wrong tangent and just keep on goin, like a river that don’t know where it’s flowin??.’

    Maybe you should actually read Adam Smith, and find out for yourself. It worked pretty well for the Chinese recently.

  8. Joining the ranks of the terroists now are we? Time is not on your side, and you don’t know why!

  9. Enjoyed your post, James! You wrote about exactly the matter I’m dealing with concerning the local newspaper, which is typically littered with typos, misspellings, punctuation mistakes, and grammatical ridiculousness. I have been unable to persuade the editor (who makes the most egregious errors of them all) to agree to pay me a very reasonable fee to proofread the paper. He knows he needs the service. He just won’t part with the dollars. Thanks for the inspiration!

  10. You’re probably right here about the phone, but I’m sure part of the reason is that people simply can’t, for the most part, write clearly and concisely. We spend a LOT of time in school trying to teach this skill and it works SOMETIMES, but not every time. Still, though, I’ve been in conversations with people, even face-to-face, where I come away with a completely different memory of the conversation than she/he.

  11. Warning, off topic comment
    For those who often felt confused about American policy on terrorists and the Mideast, these 2 pictures (in the link below) pretty much explain ALL you need to know, and as a sub-topic, explain why Mideast region citizens, Muslims or Sectarians, hate America’s guts. It’s not to hard to figure out, most people hate people who are two-faced and sell out you out for their own interests. When Americans will figure out Congressional leaders are doing the same thing to us as these two Mideast leaders do to their own people is anyone’s guess.

  12. American citizens were sold out in early 2009. In a handshake (a similar handshake to this http://instagram.com/p/dz6mlMydCo/ ) between congressional Republicans and large “TBTF”banks. But no worries, Nancy Pelosi still has her use of military jet to get home, and Larry Summers is STILL lead candidate to be head of the Federal Reserve, so no worries in “the beltway” of D.C.

  13. For those that didn’t know I’m a Democrat. Donald Rumsfeld grinning and pressing the flesh with his old pal, Saddam Hussein. Well, who was looking right??? If Americans didn’t have Desperate Housewives then we probably had some useless William F. Buckley column to divert our attention. This handshake was done under Ronald the “great communicator” Reagan:

    Who is the “enemy” here in the grand satire of 2013?? Some non-college grad who INFORMED Americans their phone conversations and internet surfing were being recorded is now the “enemy”. Brings new meaning to the term “informant” doesn’t it??

  14. The reality is that so many young people (meaning 30 years and under) are so used to technology they are now at the point that they are hiding behind it whether they know it or not. The example of a project manager contacting a supplier / vendor for better pricing or reduced freight, all of those deals used to take place so much more even 10 years ago. We are in a sea change where “contact” is not that much of actual contact. I remember when people were talking about hiding behind phone conversations rather than meeting peopel face to face, but the world of email, text, and social media contact has taken ‘digital hiding’ to all new lows. A lot of deals are being lost and companies are not getting the full benefit from employees who are tech smart, book smart, but dumb as can be with basic human interactions.

  15. Good post indeed. I like the part where it said “…your boss tells you to ask a supplier for a lower price, you send the email, you get a rejection…” It’s so true. Thanks for sharing.

  16. Why not an Independent Forensic Risk Auditor and Banking Inspector to better assess assets, risk and capital. And why not officially make the Federal Reserve the fourth branch of the U.S. Government instead of the half-azz quasi-government agency that is it pretend to be. Earlier today, the Fed came out with its most recent “50 Shades of Beige:”


    “Prepared at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and based on information collected on or before May 24, 2013. This document summarizes comments received from business and other contacts outside the Federal Reserve System and is not a commentary on the views of Federal Reserve officials.”

    All Things Larry continues:

    “Had the Tea Party screamed and objected to Mr. Summers’ possible nomination to head the Federal Reserve, would the president have dropped Larry Summers from the ‘short list.’ If the president tells his political base to back off, saying, Larry isn’t a total cad; he’s learned his lessons from the financial crisis of 2008; is contrite; not the polarizing figure you constantly write of; and would not implement the same monetary policies of the past, so go ahead and politely object but you better not embarrass me and Larry in front of the Senate confirmation hearings ….”

    Overall, imminently bad news for those (fiercely) opposing Mr. Summer’s nomination to become the next chairman of the Federal Reserve.

    And what about the Hague – the International Crimes Committee – does President Obama have any knowledge about the I.C.C., its purpose in dealing with war crimes. Will the findings from the U.N. investigation reveal who exactly deployed sarin gas. They say the U.N. findings report is “classified” and there are members of Congress who are not allowed to review that information – sounds like WikiLeaks’ next assignment.

  17. “Then there’s the relationship aspect. . . .” Wow, I love this post! I just wrote a post in which I said, “It’s all about relationship.” Obviously, I couldn’t agree more with the point you’ve made here. Thank you!

  18. Unfortunately there Red, we currently have a qualitative easing problem in this country that will prove to difficult to resolve any time soon. We need to aboilsh the Fed, and give those responsibilities to the congress. But before that, we should insist on drug testing our politicians, and if they come up posi, just simply explain yourself, debate it, and decide if that’s the type of work you should be doing. Then make elected officials be able to do their own taxes, who needs a knuckle head who can’t do his/her own taxes, making tax laws for the rest of us. Default on Mr. Bondy, say hello to Mr. flat tax (Ms. flat tax has an appointment with the head doctor, and will be busy learning more about herself and the path she needs to be on), take care of the right people at the right time, over time. And shhizaam, you have a functioning planet once again. Todays circus is for the dogs, tomorrow circus is for the masters.

  19. I think that it is a good idea to be using the phone if you can. I do find it uncomfortable but i know that the value of actually calling someone is huge This is valuable both within the company and externally. Colleagues who use the phone to chat to people within the company are able to get “more done ” when it is needed . We are Human after all and we crave communication, well most of us do anyway:-)

    thanks for the always interesting posts

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