Welcome to the Sidebar’s advice column, where black panthers, Black Panthers, and Black Panther alike sit down for a chat with our very own Muffle. Her advice might be bad, but hey, at least someone’s listening. Today we’re talking about difficulties communicating at work.
My job is client-facing, meaning I interact directly with people/offices that partner with the company I work for. One client in particular has a very bad stutter, such that a 10-minute conversation will take at least 25-30 minutes. The client is a nice man and I bear him no ill will, it’s just incredibly inconvenient to speak with him on the phone when I have other client questions to field and requests to answer.
My question is this: does it make me ableist or cruel to communicate with this client only via email? Personally I’m not sure why this client insists on calling our support line rather than emailing, but we’ve taken to not answering his calls unless there is absolutely nothing else happening. His emails on the other hand get a prompt response. I’m not trying to be mean to this client; I know his stutter isn’t something he volunteered for or can control. I just don’t know to what degree empathy for his plight should override practicality.
He also has a habit of emailing us asking that we call him (which strikes me as absurd) and my response is usually to reply via email asking what specifically he wants.
Let me know if I’m being a jerk!
Funny Gag Name
I’m cringing just imagining how much this must suck for everyone involved. First for your poor customer, who has such a debilitating speech impediment, and second for you and your team; it can be incredibly awkward to try to help someone you can barely understand, and frustrating to have to labor your way to a point that others might hit more efficiently, especially when you’re busy and have other things to do.
That being said, I’m afraid you’re in the wrong here. For any number of reasons, your client prefers to speak on the phone despite his stutter. Give him credit for that: it takes no small amount of bravery to communicate in a manner that is difficult for you (ask me some time about what happened the first time I tried to speak French in Paris). Maybe he’s chosen to communicate verbally in an effort to improve his speech, or maybe he wants to make his condition more visible to those who don’t suffer from it. He’s also your client, and that puts you under an obligation to cater to his preference to the extent reasonably feasible, and suffering through an unwieldy conversation isn’t that heavy of a burden. I wouldn’t go so far as to say you’re being ableist, but this seems like a situation in which your empathy would be of greater value than the efficiency you gain by ignoring his express requests to speak with you on the phone. Plus, it’s just better customer service — at the very least, you come off as rather rude.
If these conversations really are interfering with your work, try a different tack than just ignoring him. Let him know that you can’t jump on a call at the moment, but that you’re happy to help him via email; tell him that, if it is more convenient for him, you can schedule a time to speak later in the day, and you can set aside the time you know you’ll need to address his issues. That way, speaking with him won’t interrupt your flow with other projects, and you’ll be in the head-space to give him the time he deserves because you’ve already blocked it off for him.
Rarely is compassion the wrong choice in these situations; when in doubt, patience and empathy will always be the right call.
Snark and tipples,
Got a question for Muffle? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.