When I started my accounting career back in the mid 1980’s, written business communications were a formal affair, conducted via correspondence carefully tapped out on an IBM Selectric by a highly competent office manager with lightning speed dexterity. The missive (or missile, in some cases) followed a strict three paragraph format: introduction, body, and conclusion. Attachments were provided to elucidate whatever was discussed in paragraph 2, and the composition adhered rigidly to formal requirements (thank you, high school English teacher).
Informal communications which required a back and forth discussion and exploration of ideas were handled in face to face meetings, or over the telephone. Voice mail did not exist. So, upon arriving at work, a stack of messages would be waiting upon one’s desk, haphazardly arranged on a spiky metal implement which could double as a weapon if needed. Such messages were the original of a triplicate carbon form, with copies dutifully archived in the client’s file as well as the firm’s master file.
Back then, sometimes the volume of telephone communications from clients could be overwhelming especially during tax season, but we CPAs didn’t have to deal with junk calls or other unwanted communications from unknown individuals. We relied on our highly competent admin staff to field every communication, and filter out all but that which mattered.
Since then, many extraordinary changes have taken place.
First and foremost: the volume and detail of information needed to prepare a client’s tax returns increased significantly, more than can be described in this post. Compliance requirements such as 1099 and 1098,and K-1 reporting and matching upped the number of documents needed to proceed with tax preparation, but represent just a small fraction of the increased complexity of tax law in the U.S. from the 1980’s to the present.
Amidst all of these tax law changes, the internet emerged in the 1990’s, with its related instant communications via email. In 2007, Apple introduced the first iPhone, although BlackBerry (“CrackBerry”) had dominated the smartphone market prior to this. With the immediacy offered by these new forms of communication, the quality and reliability of such communications seemed to deteriorate proportionally with the increase in technological advances. The temptation to send out a communique (or a series of communiques) with little detail, and in a reactive mode is, I think, too great even for the most contemplative of souls.
As it turns out, there’s a reason for this. Humans convey information most effectively in face to face encounters. That’s how our ancient brains are wired. Researchers have determined that emails convey only 7% of the information that would otherwise be conveyed in a face to face meeting. And, voice communications convey about 45%. Why? Human brains are programmed to do very complex stuff. Facial cues, body language, and vocal intonations all contribute to the layers of complexity and meaning in any face to face communication. Voice communication via telephone has the benefit of conveying the information supplied by vocal intonations. Who doesn’t want to receive a telephone call from their doctor, as opposed to an email response? There is a lot of information about trust and caring that can only come through with voice or face to face communications.
And that’s another interesting aspect of communications. Humans need to determine whether or not they can trust the person they are communicating with. Face to face communications provide all the cues one can ask for – although many people are still manipulated in face to face encounters by bad actors.
The trust factor that is normally evaluated in face to face communications is apparently replaced (according to research) by the quickness of response in email or text communications – obviously a very unreliable criteria in evaluating trustworthiness. Having more emails than can be responded to in 24 hours is the new normal for professionals.
What to do? If you only need to forward documents or send otherwise “inert” information – forward an email. But, if you really want to explore ideas and share information about changes in your financial situation, pick up the phone and give us a call. We would like to talk with you.