Too much information Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2007

Basic communications supposedly started with the cavemen about 130,000 years ago.

Those Neanderthal dudes really knew how to cut to the chase and get their message across. Using symbols and markings, they told what needed to be known: “Where’s the food, fire and danger?” When friend or foe came across the message, it was immediately understood.

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, took a giant communications leap when he spoke through this instrument to a nearby companion device and said, “Mr. Watson, come here. I need you.” It was artful in its simplicity (the message, not the phone).

Since those times, there have been huge changes in communications, but with innovation comes excess. Today, businesspeople often provide TMI — too much information.

Examining e-mails that have been returned to me because the recipient was out of the office, I have been struck by how much people will tell you about where they are, what they’re doing and why. Examples include this one from an employee who obviously decided to stop working but continued to collect a paycheck: “I’m sorry I cannot read your e-mail today because I am out of the office. Actually, my boss thinks I’m taking my sick grandmother to the doctor, but instead, I’m on an interview that will hopefully lead to a better job so I can not only take my grandmother to the doctor but make enough to even pay the bill for her exam.”

The same goes for out-of-the-office voicemail messages: “I’m not in today because I seem to have the bug that’s going around. I spent all night in the bathroom, but by tomorrow, I’ll have this beat. Leave a message after the beep and I’ll get around to you one of these days.”

We’ve all been frustrated listening to and reading this drivel when we’re simply trying to get a question answered. Just think about the dollars that are wasted in corporate America, including your organization, because people have the misguided sense that others want to know the details but were afraid to ask.

Telling people what he thought they wanted to know worked for Dr. David Reuben, author of “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask.” No doubt he made millions giving people information they didn’t ask for, but he was a notable exception, and his subject matter was more compelling than most.

The newest TMI phenomenons are blogs, which have evolved from the traditional intimate diary with a running account of the author’s life. It used to be that a diary was for teenagers dealing with everything from peer pressure to raging hormones. The safety net was knowing that what was inscribed would never be read by another living soul.

Today, modern blogs, which are public on the Internet and transcend age boundaries, often include the scribe’s innermost secrets. Some also have graphics that provide too much visual information, leaving little to the imagination.

Since this is a business column, I will stick to offering suggestions as to how you can manage your employees’ voicemail messages and outof-office e-mail replies for the greater good. I am a proponent of establishing your own e-mail/voicemail police, whose job is to protect and serve — protect your organization’s image and serve your customers’ needs.

Some might think this is a form of censorship; I prefer to think of it as an extension of marketing to enhance a company’s perception.

Start with surveying your employees’ current responses for their business e-mail/voicemail messages and be prepared to be shocked by both the content and length.

Next, have your HR or PR staff put together brief scripts that get the desired message across. Each message should be tailored to the person’s job function and provide an alternative contact when there is an immediate need.

Establish standards of what is appropriate. Explain to your employees why you are doing this and that it is another technique to demonstrate how your organization is better than your competition. Consider ending all voice messages with the same tag line emphasizing your best attribute, such as, “Prompt service is our No. 1 priority,” or, “Getting to the point makes us better.” This beats gratuitous endings such as, “Have a stupendous day.”

Most employees will appreciate the scripted assistance because it gives them one less thing to do. For those who don’t, buy them a diary in which they can continue to record their personalized messages, and make them promise to keep those messages to themselves and never share them with your customers.

MICHAEL FEUER is co-founder of OfficeMax, which he started in 1988 with one store and $20,000 of his own money, along with a then-partner and group of private investors. During 16 years as CEO, he grew the company to almost 1,000 stores with sales approximating $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. In 2004, Feuer launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a venture capital operating firm that focuses on buying control and/or making substantial investments in retail-oriented businesses and businesses that serve retail. Reach Feuer with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.