Silence kills a relationship

Shadow You know what drives me nuts?  When I am ignored, like I’m barely visible.  The silence is deafening.

We have a vendor/partner who does very good work. But they have a cultural habit that is resulting in my agency deciding to look for new vendors. They go silent.

When we run into a snag, we call or e-mail.  They say they’ll check into it.  I have no doubt that they’re doing something and trying to figure out the solution.  But we don’t hear a word.  We are left waiting.  Our client is asking for updates and we have nothing to offer.  We e-mail and e-mail or call and call, and finally we will get an update. I’m pretty sure (and yes, I have asked) that their culture says — focus on fixing the problem and then report the solution. 

I want more than that.  I want over communication.  It’s not that I don’t want them to expend most of their energy on solving the snafu, but also I need them to recognize that I’m in the dark and how uncomfortable that is.

I want a daily update that gives me something to offer our client.  I want to know what is working and what still has them stumped.  I want anything but silence.

I think one of the most damaging things we can do is ignore a client.  Because in essence, that’s what silence is. 

When your clients are in crisis (or their own perceived crisis) how do you handle it?  What do they want?  How do you know it’s what they want?  Are you guilty of keeping them in the dark?

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17 comments on “Silence kills a relationship

  1. Keeping client updated on the event is the best way to keep them quiet and to manage exit strategy successfully.
    You are right: silence generates unpredictability and leave no time for appropriate reaction.

  2. Susan Martin says:

    You’ve touched upon an issue that points out several flaws in any customer service strategy: silence and lack of follow through. Both can be deadly.

  3. Can you give us a hint as to what type of vendor? Printer, ISP, photographer?

  4. The temptation to call later is often fueled by a desire to deliver good news. The trouble is that it is supposed to be a relationship not just a service. I had this trouble with my first company. It was only after we sold it off that the investors told me they were happy with my management except for the fact that I did not communicate enough between meetings. I thought I was not bothering them with details and they felt left out.
    It only takes a minute or two once a week to keep people in the loop. If that is too much they will let you know.

    My two cents anyway.

    PS – Drew what about that Map? It’s Tuesday already 😉

  5. Drew, I never thought about silence as a problem, but you truly paint the picture well and I can see exactly why you think as you do. Hiring other vendors is one way to handle this problem. This is truly a fairly hard dilemma because we want to encourage folks from other cultures. Hmmm.

  6. Thanks for this post, Drew. Guilty as charged — I always feel like I really want to fix the problem before I call a client back. When that doesn’t happen right away, I should follow up to let them know I’m working on it. Now I realize I shouldn’t assume it’s a waste of the client’s time to make an update call without any real progress to report.

  7. As impersonal as an auto-responder is, it can still be more informative and will foster more good will than the silence you’re describing. With all respect to cultural differences, business practices dictate a flow of conversation, particularly when there’s a problem. With a mouse click, your vendor can, at very least, let you know you’re still on the to do list.

  8. Timely article. I have been trying to get in touch with one of our vendors for the last several weeks. No one calls back. Finally, I got him today. I asked him if he was dead. He laughed. I asked him for his email address and sent him a copy of this post.
    Then I told him he was fired. Then I asked that we be reassigned a sales rep from his company. I got off the phone and called back to speak to their manager. I usually don’t go this far, but in pursuit of good customer service, I am willing to go the extra mile every once in awhile.
    Silence kills.

  9. Gia,

    Yes, you’re right. The unpredictability makes it very uncomfortable, especially if there is already some tension or a problem.

    It’s not the way to earn a client’s trust, that’s for sure.


  10. Susan,

    Doesn’t it seem to you that it’s Business 101 to know that ignoring your customer or not following through is bad? I don’t mean to be so simplistic, but come on.

    And yet, it is the rare business that actually follows these rules.

    How would you explain that?


  11. Mike,

    No hints, sorry. ;}

    Really, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that this company will be out tens of thousands of dollars because I am moving my business elsewhere.

    And sadly, they will probably never even ask why.


  12. Roger,

    I think you are partially right. I do think as service providers, we tend to try to compensate for our clients — by thinking we know what they need/want.

    But I also think it is human nature to avoid difficult conversations and risking a client relationship. In this particular case, I think they are short-staffed and don’t want to admit it.

    But the results are the same — they’ve lost a customer.

    And…as you know, you’ve got the map!


  13. Lewis,

    You seem to have a natural sense of how to care for clients. Where do you think that came from?


  14. Robyn,

    I’m not sure what you mean by hiring other cultures. Can you explain a little more?



  15. David,

    I think many providers do exactly what you do. Shield the client from the bad news. But, if that means things are going to be delivered late or there’s going to be some other problem — they need to know.

    I also think when you alert a client to a problem but then fix it for them…you create a trust. Now they know for a fact that when things come up — you’re not going to drop the ball or let them down.


  16. Carolyn,

    For on-line businesses, you are exactly right. Even an automated response beats no response.

    And in an off-line business, even a voice mail beats the silence.


  17. Scott,

    Your story is the perfect example for this post. Silence leads to concern and mistrust. Which leads to not feeling valued and being worried that you’re being taken for a ride. Which leads to frustration and resentment.

    Which is where, it sounds, like you were when you made the phone calls. Perfectly understandable. It makes me wonder if the guy you fired even got it.

    Thanks for sharing your story.


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