by Jack Warren
This may seem a bit redundant to those who read my column, Be Accessible, a few weeks ago, but this specific angle was brought to mind by a story related to me by an acquaintance recently. During our conversation, he told the story of his young son who had written a letter to the head football coach for his favorite college football team. That was one year ago and he hasn’t heard back. Now let me immediately interject that this is completely reasonable. As I’ve mentioned many times, I know too well the avalanche of information under which the typical college (and even high school) coach is buried. I only write this today to encourage you to factor in the benefits and consequences.
When I was a boy, long before the days of the internet, I decided to reach out to my favorite Major League Baseball player. I had no way to look up his address, so like a kid who’s penned a letter to “Santa Claus, North Pole”, I naively addressed the letter to “Tiger Stadium, Detroit, Michigan.” My adult self would have been surprised to have received any kind of reply, but my young, optimistic self whole-heartedly expected a reply. And what do you know – several weeks later I received an envelope with my name on it and a return address with the beautiful navy and orange Tiger logo. Inside was an autographed photo. I didn’t change my allegiance from the Cubs, but this player still remains my favorite of all-time.
Here’s the deal. Every day you’ve got chances to make an impact (as I wrote in my column Ten Second Impact), but one of the barriers to doing this effectively is by not developing some kind of system to at least acknowledge your inbound communications. How many lifelong fans of your program have you made by doing something as simple as shaking the hand of a fan who’s wearing your team’s jersey at the grocery store? I think about Arizona State’s Tracy Smith recently setting aside one hour for an impromptu Q&A session on Twitter. What random benefit might Coach Smith have gained by this small expenditure of time and effort?
On the other hand, a letter or email comes into your office and because you are very, very busy, you don’t just fail to answer the communication, you don’t even acknowledge its existence. I’d like to say it’s unacceptable, but that’s really taking it too far. What you have potentially done, however, is drive a wedge between you and a fan (or someone seeking advice or information).
So what can be done? In the worst case scenario, set up an auto-reply for your email. The auto-reply ought to state something to the effect that 1) you appreciate the note, 2) you try, but can’t get to everything, and 3) if you don’t hear back, please follow up again. For your regular mail, have a stack of postcards on which you can pen a quick response. Have a staff member address and mail the cards.
This is not meant as a comprehensive checklist on how to handle communications. You can find adequate information on that from many resources. Let it be sufficient to say, however, that the time and resources spent in this one area may pay big dividends down the road.