"I'll call you." "Do you have a Web site?" "Send me an E-mail with the details."

In today's world, we've got dozens of ways to communicate. I get messages on my voice mail, cell phone, check E-mail, receive faxes, and get regular mail and messages. And that's without a pager, instant messaging, or counting all the stuff I get at home!

Yet with all these gadgets it still seems hard to stay in touch. Isn't it amazing when someone says they can't reach you? Yet how many times have you failed to reach out to the people who are important in your business: customers (past, present, and potential), employees, suppliers, industry colleagues, and don't forget your friends and family.

You're not alone. After all, there's all this REAL work to be done, so why spend time just talking? But that's where problems arise. Frustrated employees don't know what's happening with a project, customers can't find out about a mixed-up order, suppliers don't understand why a payment is late.

We all do it -- whether we're designers or doctors -- it's easy to be inconsistent in our communication with others: telling the people we work with something one day and then doing something differently the next. "I thought you said you wanted to change suppliers," your assistant says in exasperation after you've just instructed her to once again reorder from your long-time vendor, although she's successfully completed a two-month search for a replacement. Did you forget to tell her that weeks ago you remembered the vendor is your mother-in-law's cousin?

None of us is going to perfect our communication skills, but there are a number of steps we can take to improve those skills.

  • Explain: Right at the beginning of any project or task, describe the nature of the work or situation, the overall goals, the timetable, the possible complications or delays. Give those you're working with as much information as possible.
  • Brief, regular, updates: Don't wait for formal milestones. Instead, throughout a project, let people know what you're doing and find out how they're doing. If you're working for a client, keep them informed - even if the task isn't done.
  • Commmunicate changes quickly: Whenever anything happens that alters original plans or previous decisions, let everyone know as soon as possible. Even relatively minor things can seem to add up to a major change of course. If nothing else, send a brief email. After all, things happen and plans change. Others will be much less frustrated if they're told of changes right away.
  • Acknowledge: Everyone wants to be appreciated. Acknowledge other people's efforts. Don't wait for a project to be finished or for success to be achieved. Let people know that they're doing a good job while they're still doing it.

One of the easiest and best ways to stay in touch with someone is with a simple phone call. The downside, of course, is "telephone tag," and that's why email is such an efficient replacement. But you can build a stronger relationship with someone when you can hear each other's voices, so don't give up the phone entirely.

While you may install all the "gee-whiz" gadgets you can think of, remember, people were communicating with one another long before the first telephone was ever invented. No technology device has ever improved on actually being face-to-face with another human being. So don't forget to have a sufficient amount of meetings. These can be as complicated as traveling across country to meet with a client, or as simple as stopping by someone's desk to chat for a few minutes. "Face time" is crucial.

Finally, in a world where everything is produced on a computer, you'd be surprised at the strength of a hand-written note. I keep note cards handy to send hand-written thank you notes. Ater I've met with new clients or contacts, or someone's done something nice for me, I drop them a line. In this day and age, a handwritten note - sent through the old-fashioned mail - has a quaint and reassuring feel to it. Sort of like baseball, Mom, and apple pie. But email will do the job just as well - just stay in touch.

Rhonda Abrams writes a widely read column on entrepreneurship and small business. Abrams is also the author of the well-regarded business plan guide The Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies. She has started and built three companies, including her publishing company, Running 'R' Media, and her newest enterprise, RhondaWorks, which plans to offer a comprehensive online interactive business planning center. Visit Abrams at www.RhondaOnline.com.

Copyright © 2001 Rhonda Abrams