It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it—because personality always wins the day.
— Arthur Miller
[Sunday, 11:40 a.m. The showroom of Devox Sports Shoes & Sportswear in a posh market of a metro. Mr and Mrs Oberoi walk towards the showroom from the parking lot holding a box of Devox shoes. Mr Oberoi is an HR executive with a multinational company. He is dressed in a red t-shirt, a pair of long khaki shorts, and sandals. Mrs Oberoi is wearing a plain, light blue salwar kameez. She is holding a shopping bag and a small purse. Mr Oberoi enters the shop first as Mrs Oberoi decides to linger outside to look at the display windows. On entering the shop, he is greeted by Rahul, a young sales executive trainee who is on a visit to the showroom from the company’s headquarters.]
Dear Mr Khare,
12 June 2009
A customer, Mr Sunil Oberoi, wants to return a pair of shoes he bought from this showroom a week ago. He claims that there is a manufacturing defect in the design. In fact, he is accusing us of selling seconds from this shop. Mr Sharma and I tried to convince him about our policies, but all in vain. Finally, to prevent him from creating a scene, we promised that we would let him know our decision after consulting the head office. I have also been successful in convincing him to take the shoes back with him. But he will certainly want an answer from us within a couple of days.
Please advise us as to what course of action we should take.
[The following day (Tuesday), Rahul leaves town on an official tour. On Wednesday morning, Mr Sharma finds the following message from Mr Khare on the fax machine]:
“If he is a Rs 4,500 customer, don't ask any questions, take the shoes back, give him a new pair, and salute him. But if he is a Rs 1,250 customer, then tell him clearly that it is not possible. Please remember that the customer is king, but kings are also big and small and rich and poor.”
AN ANALYSIS OF THE CASE
Who is the most effective communicator in this situation, and why? This question was taken up and answered by over 1,500 participants in various communication workshops. Seventy per cent of participants considered Rahul to be the most effective communicator. Why?
Rahul is convincing, polite, calm, flexible, and clever. He uses proper gestures, gives options, and behaves as a professional salesperson—his communication is audience-conscious. He knows what, when, and how much to say.
An important dimension of business communication is the you-attitude of the speaker. The interest of the listener/ receiver must be the informing principle of the message. Rahul observes this principle by eventually convincing the reluctant Mr Oberoi to keep the shoes till they hear from the head office.
Mr Oberoi would not have appreciated Rahul’s first reason for not taking back the shoes—“We can't take these back. Our policy is not to take back goods that have been sold”. But the other reason given by Rahul concerns Mr Oberoi’s interest and hence motivates him effectively—“In the absence of a receipt, they might just get misplaced”. If they did get misplaced, it would be Mr Oberoi’s own fault for not producing the receipt. Rahul is successful in manipulating the whole situation effectively through his ability to communicate not just from his own point of view but from his listener’s point of view too.
Rahul’s audience-directed communication is also seen in his assurance that he would get back to Mr Oberoi over the phone. He also insists, “in case we are not able to get through to you, you could also try calling us”. The phrase, “not able to get through to you” conveys that not being able to contact Mr Oberoi would be an unintended circumstance.
Reluctantly, Mr Oberoi accepts Rahul’s suggestion, as it is in his own interest. An important requirement for communication to be convincing is a tone of sincerity. The message must be perceived by the audience as a true and reliable statement of the speaker’s intentions. We find this ring of reassuring sincerity in Rahul’s final “Sure” to Mr Oberoi.
The other central player in this case is Mr Oberoi. Mr Oberoi is confident and persisting. He has the air of a well-dressed, relaxed executive, but he is not able to keep his cool while pressing his point. He flares up. He is impatient. Instead of being a persuasive communicator, he tries to force the issue in a way that is not in good taste.
To some extent, Mr Oberoi’s attitude is reflected in his dress and choice of colours (brick red and khaki), and the style of shorts (long) and sandals (casual). He is casual in his argument, which is not well-planned. He jumps from one argument to another. First he brings up the manufacturing defect, then the seconds issue, and, finally, his own desire to not wear something that looks old. Mr Oberoi’s argument that he had noticed the “defect” at the time of making the purchase, but did not “bother about it much” is not very convincing.
Mr Oberoi’s approach and attitude are marked by his sense of being a customer, a buyer who always enjoys the upper hand in a deal. However, he lacks the most important dimensions of communication—coherence, logic, and a tone of persuasive reasoning. He is not persuasive enough; he assumes that as a customer he is always right. His conversation with Mrs Oberoi, who claims to have predicted that “they won't take them back”, shows that he believes that things can be forced. First, he questions the validity of the real situation; then he challenges the predicted end: “Is that so? They will have to take them back; you will see”. These are words that suggest claims instead of negotiations.
Throughout the conversation, Mr Oberoi exhibits a sense of arrogance, which acts to hide his helplessness in the given situation. He says, almost like a helpless child, “Anyway, I want to return them!”. Similarly, when he fears failure, he raises his voice and exclaims “What!”, questioning the absurdity of the whole situation. Mr Oberoi becomes emotional and betrays his weaknesses. In sheer disgust, he gives up the argument and his goal of exchanging the shoes, simply dropping them on the floor and saying, “Please do whatever you want to do with them”.
At this point, Mr Oberoi has completely failed as an effective communicator. Communication is successful only when its goal is fulfilled; the purpose of communication is to inform, persuade, or motivate the listener towards a desired action. In each situation/ case, there is a positive change intended to be brought about in the audience or the receiver of the communication—a change of attitude, perception, or belief. So, in the ultimate analysis, all business communication is purposive and goal-directed. Therefore, the measure of effectiveness depends on the extent to which the final goal is achieved.
The purpose of communication is to inform, persuade, or motivate the listener towards a desired action.
Does Mr Oberoi succeed in his purpose? Is he able to spell out what exactly he wants? Does he want to return the shoes and get his money back? Or does he want to get the shoes replaced by a different pair of the same quality and price? He is not exactly precise in his communication. He allows the issue of “seconds” to develop into the main concern, without getting to his real point. From his talk with Mrs Oberoi, it is possible to conclude that his purpose was to see that “they (the shop) take them (the shoes) back”. In other words, he intended to return the shoes, as suggested by his exclamation to Rahul, “And then you tell me that I can't return it (the shoes)”.
In the ultimate analysis, all business communication is purposive and goal-directed. Therefore, the measure of effectiveness depends on the extent to which the final goal is achieved.
Mr Oberoi is also not consistent in his reasoning. He first points at the possible manufacturing defect, “The stripes are not aligned identically”. Later, he shifts to another line of reasoning: “They look old”. Mr Oberoi’s arguments are not focused and range from the shoes having a manufacturing defect to being seconds stock to being old. He is not convincing in his argument. To convince, one has to state facts. Facts are objective and certain. They are not based on the feelings or wishes of the speaker or listener. Unfortunately, from the very beginning, Mr Oberoi gives subjective reasons. His reasons are always preceded by a qualifying, subjective statement. “I have a feeling…” or “It seems to be…”. Now, “feeling” is not “thinking”, just as “seems” is not “reality”. They lack the logical force of an argument based on objective facts that are verifiable and demonstrable. The use of such modifiers may help the speaker sound polite, but it certainly weakens the logic and factual strength of the statement.
In contrast to Mr Oberoi’s expressions, we see that Rahul makes categorical statements that are assertive in nature. “Sir, we don't have ‘seconds’ stock in this showroom”, “Sir, this is the way they are designed. It is not a manufacturing defect”. Throughout the exchange, Rahul is categorical and brief. We can appreciate the difference in the force of these two kinds of statements by looking at the following conversation between Rahul and Mr Oberoi:
Then I have a feeling that this showroom is selling defective pieces. They are not from fresh stock.
Sir, as I have informed you, we do not keep any seconds in this showroom as a policy. In fact, we don't have much seconds stock because our production line is most modern.
The difference is obvious and it lies in the nature of the language used by the two speakers. Hence, one of the very basic dimensions of effective communication is the knowledge and use of proper language for a specific purpose. Just as communication is always purposive, language is also purposive. The purpose can be to inform, persuade, create, or argue. One can use language by also combining some of these purposes.
Later, we shall examine the role of appropriate language in communication. Here, we should note that Rahul’s use of spoken and written English is characterized by a certain style, which is simple, brief, exact, and professional in tone. His purpose is to convince Mr Oberoi that the company showroom was not dealing in seconds and that he would check with their head office regarding the possibility of taking back Mr Oberoi’s used shoes. When speaking with Mr Khare, his purpose is to inform him about the incident and seek advice on the matter.
Some 20 per cent of participants in various communication workshops thought that as a communicator, Mr Sharma is more successful than others. He is clear, both about his role and his purpose. He is polite, firm, and a good listener. Listening is also an essential aspect of communicating. Not communicating deliberately is, as in Mr Sharma’s case, also purposive. He is strategic in his intervention, helping out rather than joining in the argument. He is the manager and is conscious of his role in helping resolve the problem. As a strategy, he does not directly contradict Mr Oberoi’s complaint. He does not begin by telling Mr Oberoi that he (Mr Oberoi) was wrong and that there was no manufacturing defect in the shoes bought by him. Instead, in a soft manner, he asks Mr Oberoi, “Did you notice this when you made the purchase?”. This question puts forth a “why?” but only after first giving Mr Oberoi a chance to make his point. This shows Mr Sharma’s ability to communicate by asking intelligent questions.
Generally, the interrogative tone tends to make the speaker sound rude or offensive. Had Mr Sharma directly asked, “Why had you not noticed this at the time of buying the shoes?”, his tone would appear to be more accusing and confrontational, changing its very nature and tone. Instead, Mr Sharma uses an indirect approach and asks Mr Oberoi, “Did you notice this when you made the purchase?” This does not question Mr Oberoi’s skill as an observant, careful buyer. Such an implication would have hurt Mr Oberoi, who thought there was something wrong with the design of the shoes, even though he only realized this when his friends pointed it out. Mr Sharma questions Mr Oberoi’s concerns and not his powers of observation. He does not embarrass Mr Oberoi as a customer and allows him to explain his distraction over the choice of colour.
One of the very basic dimensions of effective communication is the knowledge and use of proper language for a specific purpose. Just as communication is always purposive, language is also purposive.
Here, it looks like Mr Sharma knows the strategies of effective communication. He does not contradict the customer. Nor does he go about convincing Mr Oberoi that there was no design or manufacturing defect. On the contrary, he points out that the shoes had a deliberate pattern and shape. As a result, Mr Oberoi gives in and shifts to his next argument (that the shoes looked old). It is essential in such a situation to understand the psychology of the customer, who possibly rejects the shoes because he does not want to wear something that can be passed off as seconds.
Again, Mr Sharma’s communication strategy is to be noted. He does not directly tell Mr Oberoi that it was not a seconds pair. Instead, he responds impersonally. He does not say “we do not keep…” or “our policy…”. Instead, he politely informs Mr Oberoi about the company’s policy. This impersonal communication is best suited to negative situations.
Another strategy used by Mr Sharma is diverting the topic of discussion or contention at a crucial juncture. When Mr Oberoi dumps the shoes on the floor and says, “Please do whatever you want to do with them”, he is obviously frustrated and feeling helpless in the given situation. Here, Mr Sharma moves from the shoes to the question of the receipt. This is a psychological move. It heartens Mr Oberoi as a possible condition for returning the shoes. But as Mr Oberoi does not have the receipt with him, Mr Sharma withdraws from the scene and takes Rahul to his office. By doing so, he gives Mr Oberoi the impression that he is going to further discuss a possible way of helping him.
By creating a break in the conversation, Mr Sharma enables Rahul to return to Mr Oberoi with the final resolution. Here, Rahul involves Mr Oberoi a participant whose interest is being considered by the communicator—“Sir, we will have to refer the matter to our head office. You may check back after two days”. The use of “Sir” directly involves Mr Oberoi. It acknowledges him as an understanding participant who is being persuaded that, if it were up to Rahul, he would have taken the shoes back, but because of the company’s policy, he is unable to do so. However, he is ready to help him by referring the matter to the head office.
What about the other characters in this case? Ten per cent of participants considered Mr Khare to be the most effective communicator. He is brief, has clarity, and is humourous, decisive, and firm. Above all, he is prompt and unimposing in his role as the final adviser in the case. He offers specific guidelines to be followed by Rahul. Mr Khare is also professional in his advice. He communicates as a senior communicating with a junior and uses assertive sentences. His response to Rahul appears to be an order rather than simple advice. He uses an idiom to justify his discrimination between rich and poor customers (“the customer is king” is a common saying in retail services). Mr Khares shrewdness is communicated through his application of common sense to this policy.
The final character in the case is Mrs Oberoi. She shares only a brief verbal communication with her husband, but we receive many details about her through her non-verbal communication. For example, Mrs Oberoi chooses to stay away from the scene of dialogue. Her silence is deliberate. It communicates her belief that the store would not take back the shoes (or that her husband’s claim was not justified). “I told you; they won't take them back”, she tells Mr Oberoi later in the negotiations. Her clothes and purse communicate her purpose in coming out with her husband—she had come with him to do her own shopping. Her decision to stay out initially appeared to be out of a desire to do some window-shopping. But in the context of the total situation, her staying away seems to be a deliberate decision to allow Mr Oberoi to speak for himself. It is significant that she joins Mr Oberoi only when he is left alone, and her opening words to her husband, “What are they saying?” show her inquisitive mind and cool understanding of the facts as they are. Perhaps she does not share Mr Oberoi’s belief that “They will have to take them back; you will see”.
Verbal communication is given its full force and meaning by the personality of the communicator, who also communicates non-verbally.
Mrs Oberoi uses short, assertive sentences. Her words, “I told you” and “they won't take them back” have a tone of certainty. She is factual. She thinks and speaks more like Rahul than Mr Oberoi.
Rahul’s ability to communicate in writing is seen in his fax to Mr Khare. In this fax, the details of the incident, which was entirely oral, are put into written form. The message gives an accurate account of the incident. It is brief and to the point. Its language is simple and conversational. Its short sentences allow for the smooth flow of ideas. The use of connectives, such as “in fact”, “finally”, and “but”, gives his writing coherence and logic. Thus, Rahul’s written communication is a factual reporting of the incident. In a single chronologically organized paragraph, Rahul is able to convey the entire situation accurately.
What is important in Rahul’s language, both spoken and written, is his use of assertive sentences and the choice of words. These characteristics show him to be a rational and cool-headed person. His professional training as a salesperson informs his communication with Mr Oberoi and Mr Khare. He remains conscious of his relationship with his customer. This is why he uses a courteous “sir” when addressing Mr Oberoi. He is impressive as an effective communicator because he is able to project his personality through language and comes across as a well-organized, clear-headed, smart sales executive.
All the characters in this case communicate both verbally and non-verbally. There are spoken and written forms of communication used to exchange thoughts, inform, argue, convince, advise, and instruct. The verbal communication is given its full force and meaning by the personality of the communicator, who also communicates non-verbally. The speaker’s dress, gestures, body language, tone, clarity of approach, silence, humour, assertiveness, and aggressiveness all combine to constitute his or her personality and establish his or her relationship with the audience, determining the overall message communicated.
Further, the effectiveness of communication depends upon the kind of personalities that are involved—whether they are “I” personalities or “you” personalities or “it” personalities. Accordingly, the communication will be, in the words of Walker Gibson, “tough”, “sweet”, or “stuffy”.1 Gibson believes that when a communicator chooses certain words over others and chooses a certain organization or pattern of words over others, he or she projects a personality “with a particular centre of concern and a particular relation to the person he or she is addressing”. Such dramatizations in language are known as style. The speaker or writer chooses a style of verbal and non-verbal communication to establish a particular centre of interest and relationship with the audience. In other words, the entire act of communication is the index of his or her mind, thoughts, and concerns, and attitudes towards the audience, himself or herself, and the subject. That is, a speaker’s entire personality is at work when he or she seeks to communicate effectively.
- Describe the important characteristics of a successful communicator with examples.
- How do language skills contribute to the effectiveness of communication? Discuss.
- Based on your study of the case, discuss the strong points of Rahul and Mr Sharma as communicators.
- Discuss the importance of tone in oral communication.
- Briefly discuss the part you think personality plays in communication.
- Discuss what you have perceived about the characters in the case through their non-verbal mode of communication.