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The Hierarchy of Needs in Communication

With so many mediums for contacting friends, family, guests, clients, managers, purveyors, employees and all in-between, proper communication etiquette is a vital subject matter. We all have needs and wants, and the mediums for which we choose to express ourselves play a large role in determining the tone, importance and passion of the message. Furthermore, the method by which we respond plays a similarly critical role in terms of how our message is perceived by the original sender.

As it concerns hotels specifically, what we are addressing today is the degree of influence that each communication vehicle will have when it comes to cementing a guest’s positive feelings for you or convincing them to talk about your brand with their friends and family. On the internal or business side of things, to cite one such instance, the correct choice in medium can work to better motivate staff members to perform at the best of their abilities.

Needless to say, this can all get quite persnickety and downright confusing. Each medium has its own customs and idiosyncrasies, and if you go against these unspoken rules, you run the risk of weakening a relationship or, worse, severing it entirely. With each also comes a tacit agreement about which other forms are acceptable as a response vehicle as well as a general sense of urgency in that response. And no two are the same in all these aspects.

Hence, choosing the right medium may be nearly as important as the message itself, and it’s a crucial aspect of effective management. What’s needed to clarify this is a Communications Hierarchy to illustrate where each form applies based on set criteria and which others are tolerable response vehicles based on a desire to increase the level of rapport with the other party. That is, as it’s a hierarchy or ladder, you should always aim to move up because moving down might be perceived as inappropriate or rude.

To substantiate this, here are the individual characteristics for each medium:

  • Length: (long, medium, short) – This inscribes how many words, sentences or paragraphs are acceptable for a message as well as its answer.
  • Urgency: (fast, moderate, slow, variable) – The degree of timeliness assumed for any response efforts when a particular medium is employed by the sender (unless other actions are stated in the original message).
  • Personality: (hot, tepid, cold) – The emotional impact or ‘temperature’ that can be conveyed by each medium outside of the words used.
  • Style: (informal, formal) – The lexicon, sentence structure and amount of abbreviations which are tolerable for each medium.
  • B2B, B2C and C2C – This lends itself less towards a definitive hierarchy and more towards a guideline for what the primary use of each medium is with respect to guest-to-staff and staff-to-staff communications.

Now, with these four factors and one subsidiary guideline to distinguish each medium, we can develop a pseudo-Myers Briggs Type Indicator for every different form of communication; having a general sense of where each applies and where each belongs on the hierarchy. Using the ordered diagram, let’s start with some common types of communication and see how they fit in the overall makeup. (Keep in mind that all four factors’ appropriated adjectives are in fact simplifications – for example, defining a certain medium’s length as short – while in reality they exist as more as a spectrum of attribute.)

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  • Personalized Email – (long, variable, tepid, formal, B2B, B2C or C2C)

Email is a flexible medium allowing for a full explanation of the situation and a direct call to action. Emails can be one sentence in length or five full paragraphs depending on what is needed; the viewing monitors of email programs such as Gmail or Microsoft Outlook allow both the short and the long to seen without straining the eyes. However, as this relies entirely on the written word, it is hard, but not impossible, to inscribe an emotional impact with each message. Moreover, in business applications, email lends itself more to formal use of language over other electronic tools. And lastly, the urgency is described as variable because a one-on-one email can take on many different roles.

  • Group Email – (long, slow, cold, formal, B2B or C2C)

Group emails are much the same as personal emails except that they are even lower on the personality quotient because of their public nature. This is especially true if the sender is using the BCC function which makes the message more of an electronic release than an actual email. Additionally, as these emails are simultaneously sent to multiple people, there is often no direct accountability bestowed on any one receiver in particular, resulting in minimal urgency.

  • Handwritten Note (medium, slow, hot, formal, B2B or B2C)

Handwritten correspondences were rampant before the advent of computers, printers and the internet. The same could be said for the telegraph! Nowadays, it’s the handwritten note’s rarity that gives it such a powerful emotional impact because it takes far more time and care to craft such a letter – not to mention each person’s unique calligraphy overtop of standardized computer font sets. Probably the only drawback is that these are much harder to create and not as much information can be conveyed.

  • Quiet Office Phone Call – (long, variable, hot, informal, B2B or B2C)

By the simple fact that you are using your voice instead of words on a screen, phone calls can inscribe far more emotion than an email – depending on the person’s candor and enthusiasm, of course. However, one significant attribute of a phone call is the decibel level of background noise, which the receiver might find distracting if it becomes too loud. As such, a quiet room will allow for better vocalization of the message as well as better listening on the other end, meaning that more information can be conveyed. Furthermore, calling a customer or business contact from the office has a different implication than calling from home; it’s may come off as more formal.

  • Noisy Cellular Call – (medium, fast, tepid, informal, B2B or C2C)

These are typically used for emergency purposes or quick information transfer only because it would be irritating to engage in a longer dialogue with a cacophony of sounds obfuscating what’s stated. Having to concentrate on every spoken word to interpret their meaning is not only tiring but it detracts from emotive power of a person’s voice. Barring exceptional cases, don’t call customers or guests when your surrounding atmosphere is too clamorous and don’t engage business contacts in topics for which there isn’t a forthright call to action. Use these only when urgency is required.

  • Text Message – (short, variable, tepid, informal, C2C)

These work in a very similar manner as noisy cellular calls, but they often do not imply an immediate response. If they did, then the message would be better expressed via a phone call. The verbiage here can be emotive, but this will be largely hampered by the brevity of the medium and it will never reach the heights of hearing someone’s voice.

  • Phone Call with Voicemail – or follow-up text message. (short, fast, tepid, informal, B2B or C2C)

This is a corollary to both office and mobile calls whereby two-way communication cannot be established. Your options are to leave a voicemail, send a follow-up text message or call back later. Voicemail implies the greatest sense of urgency and desire to heighten the rapport while texting should be reserved for C2C dialogues and calling back later leaves the ball in your court.

  • Twitter Public Message – (short, fast, cold, informal, B2C or C2C)

Even shorter than text messages, these are chiefly different insofar as they are available to be seen by all. This entails a certain amount of accountability for a quick reply, but it also depersonalizes the message, making it more of an announcement or declaration than a request. Social media communications are a whole other topic – including other outlets like Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram – but, generally speaking, because businesses are posting messages and replying in a public space, there is a smaller possibility of forming an emotional bond with a customer or prospective guest.

  • LinkedIn Message – (short, slow, cold, formal, B2B)

Over the years, LinkedIn has gained a lot of ground as a wholly acceptable business communications tool. Note the modifiers and how different its usage is from a Twitter public message, or even Facebook for that matter. LinkedIn messages imply a much slower degree of urgency than, say, email because the social network is not as personal and direct a medium. This also affects the emotion that can be carried. And lastly, much like most other social media, it’s proper etiquette to keep LinkedIn messages short.

  • Skype Chat – (long, fast, hot, informal, B2B or C2C)

Although not put on the diagram, Skype or FaceTime would occupy the same stratum as the group meeting. There is a high degree of emotional transference when compared to regular phone calls because people can see each other’s facial expressions. These chats fall short of in-person meetings because there is less body language on display and connectivity issues may disrupt the clear transmittance of the message. When used for business, Skype chats are often scheduled well ahead of time; they are not impromptu meetings for a quick discussion, but instead are employed as a substitute for face-to-face gatherings where serious issues need to be discussed at length and resolved.

  • One-on-One Meeting – (long, fast, hot, formal, B2B or B2C)

This is the pinnacle of communication whereby two people meet in person. There’s no hiding; all facial expressions, vocal tonality and body communication are out in the open. Verbal responses must be delivered quickly and as there are only two people involved, the setting is intimate. The chief drawback here is time consumption. Personal meetings are difficult to arrange and, unlike email or text messages, you are unable to multitask. But this can hardly be a complaint when so much can be cemented and agreed upon during a face-to-face dialogue. You can never really know a person until you meet them in this manner, and if you want to solidify a relationship with a guest or staff member, there is no better way than a one-on-one meeting.

To conclude, it’s important to know that each medium has its time and its place. When viewed from a hierarchical perspective, best practices in communication suggest that you should match your response with the previous medium employed. Or, if you are looking to increase the rapidity with which both parties parlay, then it would be prudent to choose a medium farther up the chain for which urgency of response is already implied. Also keep in mind whether a medium works best for B2B, B2C or C2C – the last one, as hoteliers, means that it’s not a business channel or tool to contact your customers. Moreover, moving up the communication hierarchy usually inscribes a greater emotional connection between both parties, which is always a good thing when you are using this to build rapport with guests.

(Published by Larry Mogelonsky in Hotel Executive March 24, 2014)

Larry MogelonskyThe Hierarchy of Needs in Communication