There is No Substitute for Human Connection

–Or, "Don't expect email to build trust"

One of my clients started experimenting with responding to customer requests. His customers were co-workers —people internal to the company. He was getting annoyed and impatient with their requests. He wanted to change that.

To his credit, he knew the annoyance came from his customers not understanding what they were asking. He’d have to exert the effort to explain the situation, deny the request, or whatever. He got the same types of questions repeatedly, even if they were from different people.

Taking a step back.

When he realized people were not getting up in the morning plotting ways to annoy him, he took the situation into his own hands to reduce his annoyance. He got an unexpected benefit in the process.

Whenever he received an email that made him sigh or roll his eyes he chose instead to pick up the phone. He would even go visit the person in person if possible.

In our coach/client relationship he learned about taking a coaching approach. He started asking better questions to draw people out. He’d get at what was really on their minds. He now had more productive discussions. He soon found that this approach put him in good stead with his customers.

A different approach pays off.

With a more personal touch, he learned more about their situations. He read their needs better now. Instead of just shooting off an email, he took a little extra effort to get to know them. They, in turn, got to know him better and what his group was capable of. They started asking better questions and making more reasonable and productive requests.

He modeled this approach to his team. They all started taking a more personal approach. His group was soon able to meet their customers’ true needs, and sooner.

When the time came for customers to decide between his group and other options to meet their service needs, they requested my client’s group. The demand for his group grew so much over time; he was able to justify four more positions.

Now, from a big-picture business perspective, you might say creating overhead is not the goal. At the same time, it depends on the cost and quality of service.

There is no substitute for a human touch.

My client learned an invaluable lesson as a leader. Whenever possible, take the opportunity to make a deposit into that repository of trust with people who count on you. You could say he led his customers to a more productive use of everyone’s time. He did himself a great favor by finding his way to a more satisfying work experience. And he modeled a way of working to his team that will serve them always.

A version of this post originally ran on the Lead Change Group site August 27, 2011.


Mary Schaefer
Mary Schaefer
Mary is a fierce advocate for developing workplaces where the human beings who happen to be employees, thrive. Her speaking, coaching, training, and writing all focus on making the most of what human beings can contribute to an organization through their distinctive energy and creativity, while at the same time meeting their own specific needs for meaningful work. As the principal of her own business, Mary is a guide to increase empowerment and cultivate productive manager/employee interactions. Drawing from her experience as an HR manager, her work centers on talent development, performance management, and a positive employee experience. She is a co-author of the book, "The Character Based Leader." Mary has presented at the Inspiring Women in STEM Conference and is also a TEDx speaker. Her clients include small businesses, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and Fortune 500 companies. Mary has a master's degree in human resources management and is a certified HR professional. This Midwest farmer's daughter is a big fan of homegrown cantaloupes, gapingvoid art, and LinkedIn.

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  1. We live in a culture in which the most technoligically connected people are the most lonely……we’re losing the ability – the art – of real communication. I’ve learned (the hard way) to NEVER send an email/text unless I am only reporting factual, straight-forward information, when there is no chance for remarks to be misinterpreted. We miss so much when voice inflexion and tone are absent from our conversations. Kudos to your client. I’m sure he was rewarded on a personal as well as a business level. Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Mike! Thanks for reading and commenting. I admire your rule to NEVER email/text unless it’s factual/straight-forward. I too am cautious and choose to connect by phone or FTF when at all possible. Why take the chance? It both saves us from creating (and the recovering from) bumps in relationships, but also saves time in the long run.

      MP: “…we’re losing the ability – the art – of real communication…” When I read this I am reminded of emotional intelligence. I know that term is thrown around almost as a catch-all lately, but bottom line, it’s taking into consideration our own intent and the impact it can have on others (emotional contagion), self-awareness, empathy, perspective-taking, care for others, and this is my favorite, perceptive engagement (broken down into these components by Karla McLaren). To me, perceptive engagement is what you demonstrate in describing your approach on email/tests. Masterfully done.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  2. Mary, as always you provide a clear, welcome and deeply thoughtful perspective on how essential it is for us to bring our humanity into the workplace and consciously cultivate meaningful, supportive relationships. This story helps us see that kindness and caring are not mere options we might choose if we think we have the time on our way to getting results; they are the means to our best and most satisfying results. Beautifully done!

    • Thanks Suzanne for for taking the time to read and respond, and for letting me know you left a comment! SE: “This story helps us see that kindness and caring are not mere options we might choose if we think we have the time on our way to getting results; they are the means to our best and most satisfying results.”*They are the means to our best and most satisfying results.* I love that last phrase particularly.

      What I like about this story is that my client chose to try a different approach to change a dynamic that bothered him. He chose to create the type of interaction he wanted, which led to so many valuable work (and human) outcomes. Neither one of us expected all that came from his intention and effort. Thanks again for checking in.

  3. Mary, I enjoyed reading this article. I believe we can always find a way to make our interactions have more of a human connection. For example, I try to start an email with a more personal greeting and then segway into the heart of the matter — something like asking how their weekend was or wishing them a good start to the week. I feel like it sets a better tone and opens the door to a more cordial and productive conversation. It doesn’t replace being able to have face to face, but when that isn’t an option, there are ways to infuse that kind of interaction still.

    I think digitization has made us more robotic, and we forget that there is a person on the other end. I also find that people are so busy in and out of meetings that it is hard to get that face time – even if it is only five minutes. Reframing how we think and interact can help, however. Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us – good food for thought today.

    • Hi Laura. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. LM: “Reframing how we think and interact can help…” Yes, this. It’s simple things, like the example you used with the email intros.

      My client I talked about in the post had a very specific intent, and thus enacted a long-term strategy in which he was willing to invest. But just as much it’s about the day-to-day. Are we using each other’s names? Are we giving each other time to finish a sentence? Are we maintaining eye contact (when possible)? AND, this paves the road to save time over time. (I love the book title, “The Speed of Trust,” by Stephen. M. R. Covey.) Thanks again for commenting, Laura.

    • Of course, always happy to read your insights, Mary. It is about every day, and you bring up some excellent examples of small things we can do each day to make that human connection. I think its also necessary when creating that connection, not to be looking at your watch or answering your phone, especially when in a one on one meeting. I’ve had that happen to me numerous times, and it puts a blip in that connection – and sends a message.

      Paving the road is essential, and I agree with you that building up those little things will help in the long run. Thanks for such a thought-provoking article and response.

  4. May, unquestionably there is no substitute for the human touch in business or family life. In business sometimes you cannot simply drop everything or pick up the phone. As much as we would like to have a more human relationship with our clients as I mentioned before sometimes it is not possible or it could be the nature of the business demands speed and instantaneous responses in which case phone calls or visits are impossible.

    • Hi Joel. Thank you for reading, reflecting, and commenting on my post. A business that demands speed and instantaneous responses is challenging for many reasons. From my perspective, attending to human connection does not need to cost us time. I don’t know you very well, Joel, but from what I’ve picked up I suspect you offer a tone of respect and connection even when the pressure is on and speed is key.

    • Thank you, Mary for your feedback. In this line of work it is extremely rare you go out to meet your client. They need the person they hired you to find. They do not especially want to see your smiling face. Everything is done Via phone and email. The job candidate may need to come in for testing but even that is rare. Nobody can beat me on fees or service. I can reached Sunday-Thursday until well past midnight. For no next cost I do counseling with either party as needed.