Business Communication for the Digitally Paranoid

I just read a great article on business communication in the April 25- May 1 edition of “Bloomberg Businessweek” titled “The Goldman Rules.”

The article addresses the very specific policies that Goldman Sachs follows when communicating, internally, with clients and externally. For companies like ours, let me highlight just a few from the article with my own comments:

Rule 1: Don’t Ever Make Us Look Bad – Simple idea is that as an employee of ours, your words are in effect our words. This means casual comments, inappropriate posts on FB, off-color jokes don’t just reflect on you, they reflect on the company.

Rule 7: “Don’t Forget, We’re Always Watching You” – Intellectual property (as well as  brand equity) doesn’t leave the offices in briefcases any more, they walk out in cell phones, emails and embedded files. It is appropriate to have a clear understanding of how information is managed as well as monitored. I used to think the greatest danger came from malice. I now know just as much danger can come from carelessness.

Rule 9: “To All…” emails – Every “To All…” email has to be approved. Fair enough. I like the idea that the same should apply to the distribution sizes of “To Most…” or “To Many…” Having a policy on widely distributed communication is just common sense. What is your company policy on emails? If there are more than a certain number of people copied, does it require approval? Is there a guideline to keep the CYA trash out of your company email? Does your company protect its information through policies on forwarding emails?

An old client of mine lost a very large account because an account manager forwarded an email response to a client regarding a problem. The issue was not in the response, it was in the communication string. Several layers deep in the string was an internal email that had some unflattering things to say about the account. You have seen these types of emails in your own company probably- how are you protecting yourself?

Rule 10: “Whatever You Say, Say It This Way” – I like the way it is written in the document – the language is:

“Avoid superlatives and exaggerations. Write using standard, formal written language. Communicate succinctly. Stay strictly to the topic of your communication. Do not include and gratuitous remarks.”

The immediate portability of communication in emails and voicemails means that your company is best served by a minimalist approach in its direct communication with clients and prospects.

In my own small company, we have adopted just a few guidelines for handling communication that I would share:

1)   Email is for logistics. This means that we don’t respond to client issues or sensitive topics by email as a general rule. We handle these by phone or face-to-face. Email moves documents, coordination of schedules and details. Issues that may have emotion are handled in separate documents.

2)   Brevity is sacred. If it takes more than 3 paragraphs to communicate by email anything, then it is the wrong format. A written document of some sort that is formatted as a letter, proposal, contract or memo is required- which means it also requires approval.

3)   Neither emotion nor humor communicate well in email. Don’t risk it.

I wish that I had developed these simple guidelines earlier. It would have saved me and my companies a lot of pain. What I know about these things was shaped by painful experiences. I hope you can avoid my horror-stories by following a smarter set of policies.

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