It got my attention when, within a short period of time, several people apologized to me for “being late” in replying to my call, email or online inquiry. In none of these instances was I concerned about the “delay,” which span was anywhere from 7 hours to 3 days. So, I wondered, why were they? Ah yes, some smart business person decreed that to be seen as responsive one must reply to inquiries by the end of the business day, or within a 24-period. Within these guidelines, it matters not if you have the time, energy or even the interest.

I did some research to see if I could find out who initiated this standard, but came up with nothing that clearly identified the premise, nor who started it. What I do know is that it has been a standard for at least 20 years. And, like all good standards, it’s worthy of pause questions. Is this true? Under what circumstances might this be true? And, what does it do to human beings?

There is no question that there are situations where such response guidelines are appropriate. Following is a brief list of essential services – and professions – where a timely reply is reasonably expected:

  • Physicians
  • Veterinarians
  • Emergency and Disaster response
  • Roadside Assistance
  • Crisis Hotlines
  • Website hosting companies and affiliated services

What do they all have in common? An hour or two can make a difference between life and death. No wait; one of these is not a life or death issue, it just FEELS like a life or death issue. More accurately, it’s an economic issue and for sure it’s inconvenient.

What are the judgments that accompany these artificial standards?

  • If you’re serious about business you’d better be responsive
  • If you don’t respond right away, they’ll take their business elsewhere (this is the big one, isn’t it?)
  • The dollar is more important than any other priority.

Unfortunately, this one-size-fits-all rule tends to render all inquiries or requests urgent,  whether they or not they are.

What does this standard do to you?

  • It creates a bucket load of pressure if other priorities might actually be more important that day
  • It creates a sense of urgency – and guilt or fear – that is often unnecessary
  • It suggests that your service, what you’re really selling, has no inherent value on its own!!

A Radical Approach

Several of my colleagues take a radically different approach. When an inquiry comes in, they reply when and if they have the interest or energy. They have switched the emphasis away from external dictates – what’s deemed “polite” or “responsive” – to an internal guidance system that senses when and if someone or something warrants their time, focus and energy. This approach requires a huge amount of faith that the right people and opportunities will show up at the right time, and will wait if need be. And, those that don’t or won’t, they go away!

Set Your Own Standards

In my quest to look for the source of these 24/7 guidelines, I read an article that offered wise counsel: establish the standards of response for your company, and clearly communicate them up front. I refer to this approach as “The Way We Do Things Around Here.”

Let’s take a closer look at the radical approach for a moment. One of my colleagues is a specialty chiropractor who has a portable practice.  When someone asks if he can be available the following week for his services, he will often say in reply, “I don’t know where or what I’ll be doing that day. Call me that morning and let’s see what we can work out.” This is his standard, which he communicates up front. Those who want him go with it. Those who find this rude, wrong, can’t wait, don’t like the uncertainty, etc., go elsewhere. I’ve seen him in action. He has a thriving business.

I’m not saying you need to do anything differently than you do, but if you pressure yourself to be responsive within these artificial guidelines – and feel guilty or fearful when you can’t be – perhaps it is worth revisiting. Take time to establish your standards for responsiveness. Whatever those standards are, do yourself a favor and let your prospects, clients and/or colleagues know what they can expect. The people I have coached who resist establishing and communicating clear expectations for responsiveness end up overwhelmed, working long hours, and exhausted. Not a way to run a business!

What say you?