No place to hide?


Some utilities have developed this practice to a fine art. If you are a supplier of products or services to the utility industry, you will know exactly what I mean. The utility culture seems to be becoming more imperial, more highhanded, more reflective of a notion that direct, immediate, first person communications are to be avoided at all costs. Perish the thought that someone should answer their phone after the first ring or two, without knowing who is actually on the other end of the line!

Several years ago a senior telecommunications manager of a New York State investor-owned utility confided to me that he NEVER answers his phone. He explained that he lets all calls go to voice mail, even if he is sitting right there when the phone rings and is not too busy at that time. I asked why. He replied, “This way I can listen to all the incoming calls later – when I am in the mood – and then decide if I want to return any of them.” Needless to say, the frustration and added cost of trying to work with this individual were of no concern to him.

Everyone is busy. Everyone is challenged to manage their time. How can we communicate more effectively, more efficiently? Well, e-mail has certainly become a means of conveying a message, of leaving word, of suggesting an action … whether the other party is available to reply at that instant or not. E-mail has become an essential tool in the past decade. It certainly has its place. But it is also another way to hide from direct, immediate, interpersonal communication!

Many of us are not world-class typists. Many more of us (engineers pay heed) may not be very good at written communication of any sort. Yet, more and more, e-mail has replaced the simple, direct, and far more information-rich phone call. As a result, late or bad decisions are made, often based upon too little data or a lack of a broader understanding of the problem – something a person-to-person call could probably have prevented.

No, I am not suggesting that we abandon e-mail. I am suggesting that we stop and think before composing an e-mail, and ask ourselves if a phone call might be faster, better, more complete. We must ask ourselves if that phone call will personalise the relationship and make it more social, effective and satisfying. Ah, but if the other party is hiding and never answers his phone, this isn’t going to work, is it?

Utility personnel who are in a position to influence major business decisions such as large meter and AMR procurements, naturally get a lot of attention from suppliers who hope to score major contracts. Those utility people are not unaware of their power. Too often that “power” over potential suppliers turns into veiled arrogance. And this arrogance and lack of humility may be reinforced by suppliers, who must tolerate sloppy business practices to “stay in the game.” A clear symptom of an arrogant buyer or flawed utility culture is that senior utility manager who doesn’t exhibit the common courtesy of promptly returning phone calls.

A senior VP of a different New York State investor-owned utility is revered within his company and by the industry. Why? Many reasons, but one is simply that he promptly answers his own phone. He returns calls promptly. He is an effective communicator, who knows that a short phone call gets answers right now. He has e-mail, and voice mail covers his calls when he can’t. But they are just tools. He doesn’t hide behind them.

My message is this. All of us, especially utility personnel, must constantly ask ourselves, “What is the most effective way to communicate in this particular case? Is a phone call best? Isn’t the value of a voice, the personal touch, always better than an e-mail?”

Suppliers must answer their phones, politely and efficiently, as part of serving their industry. But some utility people, without the same business survival imperative of vendors, seem to think that it is frivolous to answer their phones. Or that it is frivolous to promptly respond to voice mail when using voice mail was necessary.  We can all do better if we stop hiding and start communicating.

If you would like to comment on this Viewpoint, please write to the author at