A “Phoney” Can Foul Up Your Business

On a recent visit to an auto parts store to return a previous purchase, I encountered a counter person who gave me a great topic for a post … unintentionally.

Ready to pay for my purchase, I stood there while the employee finished a loud and obviously personal conversation with a co-worker in the back room. The counter guy was about to say hello to me when another co-worker indicated that a phone call was for him. I guess he figured, Oh what the heck, I might as well take care of this customer while I take my call. I suppose I should have been glad I didn’t have to wait until he was finished rehashing the previous evening with his buddy.

To his credit, the employee adeptly completed my entire return transaction, which included my filling out a form and walking to a different counter for the refund, by using only hand gestures to indicate what I was to do. The one time he did speak to me, he felt obliged to tell his caller that he was “dealing with” a customer.

Now, here’s the kicker: When I first walked into the store, a different employee managed to mumble, “Welcome to (name withheld for obvious reasons).” Apparently, employees in this store have been trained to give customers a friendly greeting as they enter. Too bad they haven’t been trained to give customers priority over personal phone calls.

On March 10, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell was about to test a new transmitter for a communication contraption he was working on. In another room, his assistant, Thomas Watson, waited for the test message. Suddenly, Bell spilled some acid from a battery on his clothes. He cried out: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you!” Watson heard every word clearly through the contraption and rushed into the room.

I doubt even Bell could have imagined that his contraption would become the world’s foremost tool for interpersonal communication and international commerce. Today, telephone service is a given in all but the most remote corners of the earth. Cellular phone technology has increased our use of and dependence on the telephone even more by giving us the ability to talk to a family member, friend or business contact virtually whenever we want to.

However, the telephone can also be a disruptive factor in business productivity, especially if you include the cell phone-related technologies of texting, email and Internet access.

Statistics about the impact of employee email and Internet abuse are startling:

• 85.6 percent of employees use office email for personal reasons.

• Non-work related Internet surfing results in up to a 40 percent loss in productivity each year at American businesses.

• 24 percent of American workers admit to shopping online while at work.

• 30 percent of American workers watch sports online while at work.

• 70 percent of all web traffic to Internet pornography sites occurs during the work hours of 9am-5pm.

• 92 percent of online stock trading occurs from the workplace during work hours.

According to the American Management Association, these abuses of company time are significant enough to have compelled 77.7 percent of major U.S. companies to keep tabs on employees by checking their e-mail, Internet and computer files or by videotaping them at work.

Nevertheless, telephone abuse (for which I could find no statistical studies) probably has an even wider impact on business productivity, simply because there are more employees who have access to workplace and cellular phones than there are employees who use computers at work.

Regarding my auto store experience, it seems obvious that taking a personal call while serving a customer is the ultimate act of rudeness and stupidity. That employee should simply hang a sign around his neck that says “Treating you with respect and appreciation is not nearly as important to me as talking to my kid, buddy or squeeze.”

But phone calls that don’t interfere with customer transactions are equally detrimental to productivity. Time spent on a personal call is time not spent on work. Even employees who multitask by performing work-related activities while yakking with a friend, divide their focus and diminish their effectiveness.

What can you do to address this problem in your workplace? You can start by giving everyone a copy of this blog and then initiating an open discussion about it.

Discussion Starters:

True or false: Other than personal emergencies, every minute spent talking to someone who has nothing to do with your job is a minute stolen from your employer.

How does being a “phoney” affect the attitudes and behaviors of fellow employees?

A frank discussion about phone abuse with your employees can help you reclaim lost productivity, boost office morale and improve customer relations. Alexander Graham Bell would be proud.