Millennials, more so than older generations, have mastered the countless capabilities of their smartphones – taking photos and videos, editing those photos and videos, booking flights, setting DVRs, posting to Facebook, Snapchatting, Tweeting, gaming, and so forth. Unfortunately, what I’ve found during my years in the professional world is that members of my generation, through lack of skill and utilization, overwhelmingly lack proficiency in the most basic function of these devices: holding a phone conversation.
Why Are They So Bad?
The evolution of communication technology over the past couple decades has played a key role in developing this dubious trend. Millennials in the work force have considerably more communication options available during their high school and college years than the older generations once had, creating far less reliance on voice calls while impeding their telephone proficiency as a result. Things were much different for Gen X. Before email went mainstream in the mid to late 90s, phone calls were most often the best mode of instant contact. After email came instant messaging, texting, blogging, social networking and the myriad of options available today.
Older Gen Y’s like myself, or Reagan babies, have an advantage over younger Millennials because at least a portion of our adolescence came before the great exodus from voice calls. I chuckle thinking back to the period of my teenage years, prior to my first cell phone, when I would carry around a master list of phone numbers scribbled on a sheet of notebook paper. That same pocket that lodged my phone list typically carried some loose change in case I needed to use a payphone, of course. If I wanted to get anything done – get a ride home from practice, make plans for the weekend, discuss a homework assignment – I had to pick up the phone. Communication technology now provides young people with several avenues to bypass that once crucial step.
Do They Need Phone Skills in the Digital Age?
Text communication (social media, text messaging, email) cannot possibly replace the interpersonal value of a voice call, so entry-level employees who are in any way timid on the phone need to prioritize improving that skill. They often bring many advantages to a team: new ideas and perspectives, social media prowess, and an ability to quickly adapt to new technology. The problem is, for any client-facing employee, that those positives can be easily negated by an inability or unwillingness to effectively communicate over the phone.
In the early stages of building my financial PR agency, Flackable, I hired a young freelancer who was recommended to me for a small project. We started with a quick (and less than impressive) call to go over the project, and that conversation ended up being the only time we spoke over the phone. I sent a request for a quick chat to discuss her progress, and in return I got a lengthy email update. She sent me a text message with a rather detailed question, and I replied, “Call me. I’ll explain.” Instead of a call (because that would make too much sense) I received a series of excuses as to why this person could not talk. What should have been a simple project ended up chewing up too much of my time, largely because of this young person’s phone inhibitions. The final product was actually very impressive, but there is no chance that she’ll ever get my business again – at least until she learns to pick up the phone.
Will They Ever Improve?
I think my generation as a whole has no choice but to improve their phone skills in order to be competitive in the professional realm, but it’s hard to say when trend will develop. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve talked to many impressive young professionals who are masters on the phone, particularly those in media and communications fields. On the other hand, I’ve seen far too many interns and entry level employees flash signs of fear and bewilderment when asked to make a simple phone call.
Phone skills, like any skill, can be developed over time with training and repetition. Millennials shouldn’t count on employers to provide that training, as most managers will expect any educated hire to already possess a basic ability to conduct business over the phone. Young people need to build these skills on their own. Avoidance is the worst thing they can do. Instead, they should go out of their way to use the telephone until they start building comfort and confidence. Millennials have an opportunity to change the professional world for the better, but that won’t happen until they’re ready to pick up the damn phone!
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