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6 Jun 2011

Is written communication becoming a trend?

We write more and more, we use less Tipp-Ex and we talk less and less on the phone. Our communication form is changing:  What does it means for the customer communication of corporations?

But before going further we may want to ask ourselves:
  • What are the differences between spoken and written communication?
  • When, in which situation do we prefer one mode over the one?
A few speakers at the Mobile Voice conference in January in San Jose noted like I did that the number of phone calls is going down since a few years, and that in parallel the number of SMSs is growing, to come at the same level as the number of voice calls in 2008, to be twice as big in 2010. Sure the generations X and Y tend to send more SMSs than the baby boomers or older generations, but the growth rate in number of SMSs is the same across all generations.

These facts lead to a question, why are people using less and less their voice to communicate and why do they use more and more SMS? Is it that we do not want to talk anymore? People have the choice. They can place a call or write an SMS. SMS can even be more expensive as Voice. Why would more and more people use SMS, an unfriendly (with a high cognitive load) communication means? What is behind this move from voice communication to written communication?

Perhaps I should begin by listing the properties of both channels, how does the voice channel compares with the written channel?
  1. Voice is linear, one dimensional and does not allow to go backwards ( what you said is just out, you cannot delete it and what you listen to is just gone).
  2. Voice is synchronous: this means it does not allow for reflection times longer than a few seconds.
  3. Voice is slow: you do not gain time in listening in diagonal, and you will interrupt a long sentence only if you are very sure, the received information is not interesting at all.
  4. Voice is formal: socially, people have to go through a few formalities before going to the point.
  5. Voice is loud, not discrete and intrusive. Everybody around you can listen to what you say.
  6. The only tracking / recording you have of what you have listen to is an interpretation of what has been said.
  7. The only tracking / recording you have of what you have said is what you meant to say, not what you said.
  8. Emotion can easily be conducted through the voice channel and carries quite a bit of information.
Now Looking at the written communication form:
  1. Writing is non linear, multi-dimensional: the eye can go forward and backward at any time (you can rephrase your statement, you can reread what you read).
  2. Writing is asynchronous: you can take as much time as you want to think about what has been written before answering.
  3. Writing is quick: you can read in diagonal and come back when you note something is of interest to you.
  4. Writing is informal: you can go directly to the point, no welcome necessary that anyway will be skipped (see previous point).
  5. Writing is discrete: it can be received on any portable screen and its content is non intrusive.
  6. What has been written is always available to you: if you are not sure, you can go back and read what has been written.
  7. Idem, what you have written is always available to you: you can understand from the answer or reaction of the other party that what you have written was not clear.
  8. It is hard to carry emotion in writing. 
First, I would like to make a small remark: While reading the list of points above, the reader’s eyes, your eyes went up and down for you to precisely recall and compare each of the points one after one. I would have brought this comparison in a table (what I would have done if the blog formatting would allow for it), I would have augmented the multidimensional aspect of written communication and your comparison would have been eased. The numbering of each point, as I have done it, is another way to add multidimensionality, what means ease of understanding and comparability.

Let’s go further on point 8, that of emotion. Charismatic persons love it. Some others hate it.
Everybody knows that the less precise a statement, the more interpretations of that statement can be (will be) made. You can make use of this property to understand your counterpart, what for example good sales persons love to use. The buyer on the other side will try to protect himself by requesting written documentation. The typical selling/buying game.

Apart from the selling/buying scenario, looking again at the properties of the voice channel, the consequence of its linearity and discourse interpretation (points 1) + 6) + 7) above) one may notice, as soon as your counter part is more literate, as soon as he/she can express him/herself more fluently and precisely than you, you will be in a weak position and you will be less able to achieve your goal. So an average person will win half the time, will feel weaker half the time.

At the opposite, a statement in writing is always available in its original form. By going back to it, one may understand the reaction of the other party and clear any mis-understanding. The advantage of written communication relies in its ability to keep the whole communication as it was and to leave time between each communication “STROKE”.
But the difficult transportation of emotion on the written channel will challenge the charismatic people who regularly make use of their personal aura. 

So when will a person use the voice channel, when will it prefer the written channel?

A charismatic person will always prefer the voice channel. A person that needs or want to carry emotion will take the voice channel.  A person that wants to exchange ideas, that wants to discover something new will very often take the voice channel. A person that wants to communicate will prefer the voice channel: it allows for high interactivity.

A person that simply wants a question to be answered, a person that is not sure about its spoken fluency will prefer a short written communication

What can we take from this … we can define 2 type of communication modes,  a primary communication mode and a secondary communication mode.

A person is in a primary communication mode (and why not in a communication mood) when its primarily goal is to communicate, to discuss, to exchange ideas, to discover. The path (i.e. the communication) is the goal. This mode is chosen when people are looking for interaction, when they want to carry emotions, if they want to be able to interrupt the information flow and be passionate about their idea. Or also when they are discovering and are not well structured about what they are looking for. Interactivity, interruptability are the main characteristics of the primary communication mode. Voice is the ideal channel for primary communication as it is quick, personal and carries a lot of information like emotion, tone, sincerity , but it can be the web with a flow of pictures that you are browsing through (impersonal). Typical examples are social, politics, sales, philosophical discussions …

A person is in a secondary communication mode when its primary goal is to achieve a result. The path (i.e. the communication) is the means to reach the intended goal. It uses the communication path to obtain information or purchase a good. The what primes over the how. The information primes over the communication means. A search for objectivity underlies this communication mode. Writing is the ideal channel for secondary communication as it allows for reflection time between each turn.

The statistics document the trend towards secondary communication mode. Customer service at corporations is slowly making the same observation. Too slowly! Corporations should support written channel much more than what they do today. Corporations have to adapt their communication form to what people are asking for.

If you are asking yourself when and where to personally communicate with your customer,
when and where automating your customer communication –
contact me any time:

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