5 Ways to Avoid Wasting Other People’s Time

As a small-business owner, you and everyone you work with are busier than ever. Here's how to stop wasting other people's time, so you can build solid relationships.
Author, Reinventing You, Harvard Business School Publishing
September 19, 2014

As an entrepreneur, you need to get people—everyone from employees to potential customers and investors—on your side. The fastest way to alienate them is to make them feel as if you’re wasting their time.

When you're trying to build thriving relationships with the people you do business with, here are five "don'ts" to avoid.

Don’t Misrepresent Why You’re Meeting

There’s nothing more insidious than the “switcheroo” in which someone thinks you’re meeting for a certain reason (to discuss a potential business deal), then discovering the meeting is for another purpose altogether. If you want advice or a favor, make sure you’re upfront about that. If you want time for relationship building, don’t couch it as a “technical walk through,” as one podcast host did recently and then spent nearly an hour telling me about her business.

Don’t Just “Drop By”

If you’re close friends or neighbors with someone, it may be just fine to stop by their house to say hello. But the rules are different at work. It’s one thing to offer a friendly hello or even engage in conversation if someone is obviously taking a break. But you can seriously interrupt their productivity if you interrupt while they’re working.

Somerville, Massachusetts-based realtor Thalia Tringo often encounters lookie loos at work—and not just at open houses. "[These] people just 'drop by’ my office without an appointment to try to have a surprise meeting," she says, "usually to try to sell me something or ask that I recommend them to my clients.” That’s the opposite of a winning strategy, however. As Tringo explains, “It's very unlikely that I'll use or recommend anyone who has that little respect for my time.”

Don’t Create Endless Communication Loops

If someone has told you they hate phone calls, then it makes sense to email them instead. But unless they’ve explicitly articulated a preference, how do you know which way is best to get in touch?

Go back to first principles: What's the fastest and most efficient way to communicate about a particular topic? If you’re trying to schedule a lunch meeting, it could take 10 back-and-forth emails to establish a date that works for you both. (Next Thursday? No, how about the following Monday? No, what about the 25th?) Avoid the madness, and pick up the phone; you can discuss each other’s calendars in real time and end the madness in less than three minutes.

Don’t Skimp on Preparation

You might think business development is a numbers game—the more cold calls you make, the more likely you are to make a sale. While that's sometimes true, other times, you can get a lot further with a targeted approach.

As one attorney told me, “A law firm I'd previously worked for a few years back called me up to ask if we might give them work.” Not a bad idea, but there were a few problems with the caller’s approach—notably, that he had no idea who he wanted to talk to (he had asked the switchboard to put him in touch with the “person in charge”) and, because he hadn’t done his homework, had no idea that the person in charge used to work at his very firm. The firm was hoping to win a contract that could have run close to half a million dollars, but the caller's approach backfired badly. As the attorney told me, “The basics weren't even there.”

Don’t Create False Deadlines

Just as you need to respect your colleagues’ and clients’ time, you also need to extend the same courtesy to your employees. As Monique Valcour, a professor at the French business school EDHEC, explains, wasting subordinates’ time—such as by demanding a report immediately, then ignoring it—is a kind of “abuse of power" in companies. “Sometimes this happens simply because high-power people are used to issuing commands," Valcour says, "and their power makes lower-level employees feel compelled to move the command to the top of their priority list. Sometimes high-power people feel a need to make others jump just to reinforce their own sense of power.” For obvious reasons, this is incredibly demoralizing within an organization.

In today’s busy world, wasting other people’s time is one of the worst sins possible. You'll benefit more by being viewed as someone who prepares thoroughly and is respectful of others’ schedules, and you’ll be welcomed back every time.

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and the forthcoming Stand Out. You can subscribe to her e-newsletter and follow her on Twitter.

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Photo: Getty Images

Author, Reinventing You, Harvard Business School Publishing