Last year, the 90s masterpiece Friends, which has been running and rerunning on TV for the last two and a half decades, caused joy and uproar when it made a return to the small screen via Netflix.

It was back! Hardly daring to believe this stroke of luck, many people of a certain age (these fearsome millennials we’ve been hearing about) took to their sofas to binge watch.

As one of these millennials, I was a happy cog in this machine of nostalgic fervour. However, alongside my uncritical enjoyment of this frankly problematic TV show, as I watched there was one aspect that stuck out, which I hadn’t paid much attention to before…


Phones and phone calls, and the sheer amount that these are used. Friends was filmed in the 90s, so there weren’t really mobile phones yet. They appear in later seasons, but they’re not a big feature. What struck me, though, wasn’t just the absence of mobiles and internet and so on, but rather the easy, natural, unstressed way they all use the phone. They ring each other constantly! They call strangers and service people! They’re always just picking up the phone and…ringing! Unannounced!

How you doin’?: Not great, actually. We have phone fear

Fast forward to the present and things are quite different.

Firstly, our phone usage has decreased – we’re all calling each other far less. Three years ago, 96 percent of smartphone owners were making at least one voice call per week. Now, only three quarters of us do, while a quarter of us don’t make weekly phone calls at all.

Research commissioned back in 2012 by O2 found that the ‘telephone’ app is only the fifth most used app on the general public’s phones. Based on the rate of development of smartphones and communicative practices, chances are high that this has decreased again in the seven years since.

Secondly, phone calls make us nervous. A new, but increasingly prevalent problem for the modern age is so-called “telephone apprehension”. And it’s not only millennials who suffer from this (although they famously do). Around 10-15 percent of the population suffer from anxiety or fear when using the telephone; of these, around 2.5 percent are so anxious that they can be described as truly “telephonophobic”.

But where is this anxiety coming from? One argument is that for some, it’s about politeness. People born since the late 80s and 90s have grown up with numerous methods of communication, and as such, are never out of reach. Accordingly, they might be more likely to choose written rather than verbal communication, because it’s less intrusive – it doesn’t create an immediate demand on someone’s time.

“We gravitate towards the least intrusive (type of communication) because we know how it feels to be digitally prodded on a range of different channels”

For many, it’s not the case that phone calls are The Worst and to be avoided at all costs – but their intrusiveness needs to be managed. It’s become common courtesy to send a quick message before you pick up the phone, to check whether the person is free. This might seem odd, but it’s commonplace in the workplace – in many professions, people are far more likely to schedule non-urgent calls than to pick up the phone and demand immediate attention.

Hang-ups: ‘Telephonobia’ is a real problem for many

This is something to consider for companies like ContactEngine, which conduct multichannel customer conversations. It’s all very well sending SMS or email or other written comms, but voice calls are a different beast.

Because looking at the above in reverse, if people are making fewer calls, they’re not answering calls either. Another new (or not new anymore) aspect of phones is caller ID. We used not to know who was calling us when we answered the landline. Without caller ID, you just had to risk it. And we did!

But now? How many of us actually answer calls from an unknown number?

When designing our communications, we talk about the problem of customers not answering phone calls – but when I asked my colleagues if they answer calls from an unknown number, none of them said they do. I know I don’t. And we’re not alone, as some recent ContactEngine research indicates…

As shown, when receiving a call from an unknown number, some people decline the call (27 percent), some wait for a voicemail (21 percent), some Google the number (18 percent), and some do nothing (20 percent) – but none of these pick up the phone. Only around 14 percent of those we asked said they would actually answer the call.

As a business based around conversations, if people simply don’t answer their phone – whether because they’re anxious or they just don’t want to – what can we really do? Receiving cold calls isn’t nice, and especially not from an unknown number.

Well, there’s a couple of things we can do. First, we can consider the customer journey as a whole and take a holistic view of the communications. For example, ContactEngine may try to call a customer about their delivery details.

They may not pick up. Fair enough. But we can configure the conversation so that if there’s no answer, it leaves a pre-recorded voicemail explaining why we called and setting an expectation about what will happen next – for example, that we will send an email, and asking them to look out for it.

Or we could send an SMS – ‘We tried to call you earlier’ – and let them know what our next move will be: ‘We’ll try again tomorrow’. Adding context, or attempting contact via a different channel, makes the communications more trustworthy and increases the chances of contact.

Secondly, we can ask people when they’d like to be contacted. If a phone call is really necessary, we can ask via a written form of communication when would suit them. Our AI can interpret responses and book a slot, and they can be called back at that time by a human. If you’re expecting a call, you’re more likely to answer the phone.

As argued here, gaining permission is key to a successful phone call, and this could be a key to solving telephonobia too.

Consensual telephoning, basically.

These approaches might be unrecognisable to Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, et al – but times are a-changing. Friends celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. If this much has happened, technology-wise, in just those years, I wonder where we’ll be in another 25? Hopefully Friends will still be available on Netflix, anyway.

It’s a comfort thing. Don’t @ me.


This article was written in partnership with Zoey Planjer, Head of Customer Journey at ContactEngine.

Jonathan SharpJonathan SharpJune 27, 2019


Today we are swamped with a plethora of digital tools to communicate with one another, from Whatsapp, texting, Facebook, Instagram, to email, and much more. 

We are led to believe that these technologies make communications easier but at the same time we are bombarded with messages daily where instant responses are the norm. This multi-tasking is overwhelming and the lack of focus affects our productivity at work and at home.

People are no longer reaching for the phone and it is fast becoming the lost art of communication. Are we getting lost in the digital noise that surrounds us? Is it time to rediscover the power of voice?

Lack of focus

There are over 20 billion devices connected to the internet today. That equates to three devices for every single person (Gartner). With this mind-blowing statistic, it is not surprising that many people suffer from nomophobia (smartphone addiction).

Nomophobia: Fear of not having access to a smartphone is a growing phenomenon

Let’s face it, if the majority of the workforce are constantly checking Instagram, Facebook, and their messages while trying to work, it’s clear productivity levels will reduce. People now multi-tasking more than ever and instant responses to messages are expected. A total of 83 percent of millennials open text messages within 90 seconds of receiving (Openmarket research), and as they are a generation of instant gratification, naturally they expect an instant response. This results in lack of focus, which leads to jobs being half done or not finished, therefore reducing efficiencies and productivity.

Drowning in Emails

Let’s not just blame social media and messaging applications such as Whatsapp – email is also a major culprit. We send roughly 281.1 billion emails a day, a figure that is estimated to increase to 333.2 billion by 2022, according to Statista. Therefore, we would expect that emails often get ignored, deleted or end up in the junk box. Emails are not the most effective way to communicate and it is much easier to use other tools such as picking up the phone.

Digital noise is ubiquitous and we are beginning to get lost in the abyss. Companies are reverting back to using direct marketing campaigns as they are tangible and cut through the digital noise.

Generation Mute

Millennials and Generation Z are referred to as Generation Mute because they rarely use the phone to call people, if at all. Bankmycell discovered that 75 percent of Millennials don’t use the phone to make calls as it is too time consuming; instead they much prefer to text, use social media, or send an email than to pick up the phone. Eight-one percent of respondents also acknowledged that they often feel anxious about talking on the phone – indeed, that they sometimes must work up the courage to do so (Bankmycell).

Enough practising: Time for the real thing, as oral communication skills are required in most positions

Employer Skills UK discovered that one-in-three job applications don’t have the oral communications skills they require. Naturally, this is an issue for businesses – what was once an expected basic skill has now been eradicated and unbelievably some new recruits are taught how to answer and speak on the phone.

Is it time to come full circle and encourage people to speak on the phone more, and dare I say it – to have more meetings face to face, or at least a video call? While there is no doubt that we have gained tremendously from digital communication tools like Instant Messenger, backed by Millennials and Generation Z in the workplace, we also must be careful not to lose our basic communications and social skills of speaking to people over the phone and face to face.

When and why face-to-face and phone calls cut it

The Harvard Business Review recently discovered that face-to-face requests were 34 times likely to garner a more positive response than emails. So why is face-to-face and over the phone or video communications more effective, and in what situations should we use it over digital communications?

1. When speaking to someone directly, either face-to-face or over the phone, we develop a personal connection with them which is important for communications.

2. We can read people’s body language, understand their tone of voice, expressions and emotions

3. In face-to-face meetings, or over the phone, conversation is natural and fluid.

4. Create a good impression on someone, whether it’s a new or existing client. It’s easier face-to-face or on the phone than over email or messages.

5. Relationships can be strengthened with the connections made in the meeting, with small talk, humour, and a deeper conversation.

6. Clarity! Face-to-face and phone conversations are much clearer with less margin for misinterpretation. Communications over digital communications tools are often unclear and lost in translation.

7. Trust and authenticity are also built more quickly with face-to-face or phone conversations rather than text.

8. Believe it or not, issues are resolved more quickly with face-to-face meetings and phone calls as they are often shorter, as opposed to long email trails and messages.

Meeting someone face to face or phoning them is more time consuming, but it is worth the extra effort. After all, you only get back what you put in.

When should you meet, or make a phone or video call?

1. When you need to resolve something urgently that is rather complex. It’s often easier to get results face-to-face or over the phone as you can talk around the issues seeking for a solution.

2. When you are meeting a new client – if you are meeting a new customer or a prospect then it is a good idea to meet with them so they can see who you are and you can spend some time going through your proposal and getting to know them.

3. When you are chasing someone – if a client or employee has been ignoring your emails and messages then pick up the phone and talk to them about it. It will be much quicker.

4. There are times when you must deliver bad news or discuss something personal and empathy is required. This can only be achieved in a face-to-face meeting or on a phone call.

5. When you want to catch up – you have a business issue to chat through and also it’s been a while since you spoke to the person so you want to catch up with them

Look through the digital noise and out onto the horizon of clarity, and next time you are about to fire off an email or instant message, think for a second would this be better communicated by speaking to someone.

If so then arrange a meeting, take time and have lunch with them, pick up the phone, or make a video call. By choosing the right tool to communicate with, your productivity will increase and you will get the results you want. 

Human and social connection is important, let’s not lose that basic skill and let digital tools take over our communications. Sometimes an emoji just won’t cut it!

Paul AinsworthPaul AinsworthJune 20, 2019


A new B2B sales conversion service is bringing back the art of the handwritten letter in a scheme that is proving hugely popular with clients.

Conversion optimisation platform ResponseiQ has unveiled Inkdesk, a fully managed service, defining campaigns and crafting handwritten letters along with sourcing and validating CRM-ready data. They employ actual human writers, not robots, to pen clients’ critical messages on a range of premium paper and envelope options. In the US, the letters can even be mailed from a desired location to gain a postal stamp and provide a “local touch”.

“The development of Inkdesk was driven by mediocre, industry-wide response rates of  four percent for direct mail campaigns,” explains Scott Lee, CEO of ResponseiQ.

“Our mission is to excel our clients’ conversion expectations, so we trialed a handwritten letter service and the response and results have been overwhelming – on average, our beta testers have seen ROI rates of 1657 percent.”

James Morritt, Head of Customer Success at EventsCase, said: “Handwritten letters open more doors than any other marketing campaign we do – we’ve had a 2122 percent ROI since adopting the service. As a result of our outreach via Inkdesk, we’ve just signed a deal with CNBC to use our event management software for the World Economic Forum.”

Scott Lee added: “We’ve spent the past few years caught up in a digital cacophony of programmatic ads and hyper personalisation so we decided to take a step back from the millions of emails and websites shared daily and offer clients an impactful, carefully composed personalised letter. We’re seeing response rates of 48 percent, that’s 12 times more than a traditional direct mailer, which clearly indicates a desire for more considered communications.”



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