February 20, 2020

The Virtual CMO Podcast

In recent years, the topic of ghosting gained traction in popular culture, particularly with the rise of online dating. Stories surfaced of people making new romantic connections online, only to discover the mysterious new stranger suddenly went silent or disappeared altogether, often with no explanation. This unsettling cultural phenomenon abandoned rules of politeness and courtesy in favor of abrupt silence, leaving the recipient puzzled and confused as to what went wrong. The epidemic seems to be spreading and ghosting is business is now commonplace as well.

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The dictionary defines ghosting as “the practice of ending a personal relationship with someone by suddenly and without explanation withdrawing from all communication.” Unfortunately, ghosting is not limited to life outside the workplace. It is becoming all too common for people to complain about being ghosted in their professional lives also. It seems as if this poor interpersonal behavioral pattern has crept into the business world. While the news is filled with stories about the Coronavirus epidemic, I would argue there's another epidemic infecting our professional lives, the unhealthy habit of ghosting.

The Customer Who Goes Missing

Maybe this story sounds familiar. You have a client who has purchased your goods or services. It’s possible they were even a challenging client, one that proved demanding and took a great deal of your time to satisfy. But you tried your hardest and delivered as promised. The invoice gets sent, and you patiently wait for payment. The due date passes, but no payment has been received, so you send a friendly reminder. Again you wait, but nothing happens, send a follow-up email, but there's no reply, leave a voicemail, but there's no callback. A client that wouldn't leave you alone when they needed something, now can't seem to find time in their day to even acknowledge your outreach. The thing is, if they were having some kind of hardship, you’d be willing to work with them. You value them as a customer and would be happy to make some kind of arrangement. But you can’t because you’ve been ghosted. Without any apparent reason or explanation, a good client has suddenly gone dark. As the days and weeks pass by, your willingness to work with them fades, and your anger and frustration grow. You were willing to make things work but never even had the opportunity.

RFP's Falling Into The Void

If you work in an industry that deals with RFP’s (Request for Proposal), bids or quotes, you’re probably all too familiar with being ghosted. A potential client seems interested in your product or service but requests you first submit a proposal. For some businesses, this is a significant amount of work, requiring the involvement of multiple people, many hours of work, and potential sign-offs and approvals. You submit your proposal as requested, just beating the midnight deadline and then…nothing. The days and weeks go by, but you're not receiving any feedback. Email and calls aren't returned, leaving you wondering if your proposal is even under consideration. While the client was all too willing to talk in the days and weeks leading up to submission, once completed, they won't speak at all. Maybe you'll get lucky, and several weeks later, get a form letter thanking you for your submission but stating they've selected someone else. Other times, you've been ghosted and never hear from the client again. They could have been using you to comparison shop, or maybe they just needed a few more quotes to justify the product they wanted to buy. Whatever the reason, what are the odds you'll attempt to do business with them again?

Bosses Scared of Conflict

I had a recent ghosting experience myself that proved quite unsettling. I was a VP of Marketing at a small software company, and we had seen positive results from our marketing efforts. However, the company overall was struggling. There were issues with the product, the sales team struggled to close deals against stiff competition, and internally, there were real corporate culture problems. One day, my colleague, The VP of Sales, informed me that he had taken a new job and was planning to give his notice to our CEO. The CEO was a long-winded fellow who would regularly stop by my office to chat and held meetings that were notorious for their length. The day my colleague resigned, this CEO cleared his calendar of all meetings. Gone were the weekly management meetings. Gone were the one-on-one sessions with his direct reports.

The informal office visits stopped, as well. The CEO confined himself mostly to his office. Passing him in the hallway got an unenthusiastic "hi," if anything at all. I went from being a confidant to not even having an explanation for his silence. It's as if a switch flipped in his mind the day my colleague departed, and my fellow direct reports and I were ghosted as a result. It should come as no surprise that none of us worked there for much longer. Once ghosted, the trust was gone.

I was reminded about how I felt during this period when I read a story earlier this week about what was called “The Valentine’s Day Massacre” at Wayfair. On that day, they laid off 550 people in a move that caught workers entirely by surprise. This is an unfortunate reality in many businesses, but what struck me most was one of the worker's comments. They said they suspected something was up when suddenly their boss, whom they felt close to, stopped speaking to them. Abruptly and without any apparent reason, they got the silent treatment. They had been ghosted. Just as in my case, the writing was on the wall, and the end was near.

Chronic Ghosting in Recruiting

One of the most prolific examples of ghosting stories in business comes from the recruiting process. Have you ever applied for a job, go in for an interview, and then never heard anything back? During the lead-up, HR or the recruiter was all over you, asking for documents, arranging calls, setting up interview times. You have what appeared to be a solid interview performance and then hear nothing. Emails go unanswered, phone calls don't get returned, and you have no idea if something went wrong, they hired someone else, or the process simply got stalled out. Ghosting in the recruiting process is a chronic problem. I've heard from countless recruiters who are excited about my fit for a particular job and then suddenly go dark without explanation. Often, they are the ones reaching out to me, and after I express some interest, they stop responding. It makes no sense and is not only rude and unprofessional but damaging to the reputation of the companies they represent. There are individual firms I just ignore now because of their lack of past professionalism.

On the flip side, recruiters and HR professionals talk about how candidates regularly ghost them. Job seekers submit applications but don’t respond to follow-ups or fail to show up for interviews without explanation. Sometimes, they accept a job offer only to disappear after having accepted another offer somewhere else. In today's job market, both candidates and hiring professionals are so guilty of chronic ghosting that looking for new jobs is a source of dread and frustration for many because people have had so many negative experiences. Companies that are actively trying to create positive corporate cultures understand that culture is first on display during the hiring process. It’s the first opportunity for a company to put their values on display. And in a competitive job market, corporate culture is one of the primary ways for a company to attract the best talent, so job seekers take notice.

Salespeople As Frequent Offenders

Salespeople also have a terrible reputation for ghosting. I had a case recently where a salesman called me, but I couldn’t take the call. I returned his message and asked to set up a time to talk. I got silence in return. I tried again, nothing. I tried a different channel, still nothing. Multiple attempts and no response to an outreach initiated by him! I had been ghosted. Then one day, a few weeks later, I saw a caller show up on my caller ID, and it was him. I answered with "Good afternoon," not indicating I knew who was calling. He responded that he had accidentally dialed the wrong number and hung up! There was an opportunity for him to explain why he hadn't replied or even apologize, but he didn't take advantage of it. He simply hung up, and that was the end of that. I had been ghosted.


Why Are People Being Ghosted?

So what's going on here? I've shared a few personal examples, but I'm sure you have many of your own. Why has this behavior so infected our business lives? My theory is that as a society, we are becoming increasingly reluctant to deal with interpersonal conflict. While our lives seem increasingly full of frustrations, we pick and chose how to vent them. It’s easy to get mad at those anonymous drivers on the freeway or that faceless call center agent who can’t seem to resolve your problem. But to people we know or have connected with in some way, it's becoming increasingly more comfortable just to walk away rather than explain yourself. In the age of digital communication, delete, block, or ignore are being all too common approaches. If your company is struggling to pay its bills, why not just ignore inquires instead of having an uncomfortable conversation about your finances? If you want to take the company in a different direction and bring in new people, why explain you're thinking and acknowledge the work of existing employees? Why call back the job candidate if they answer is you’re not interested. If something has changed or there's bad news to deliver, it's becoming increasingly common to avoid the conflict and simply ghost someone.

Your Personal Brand is at Risk

As a marketing professional, I work helping companies build their reputations and brands. Poor customer service is a well-known brand killer. It doesn't take long for word to spread, and in this digital age of online reviews and social media, dissatisfaction spreads quickly. What people would be wise to remember is that we have our personal brands too. When we treat others with disrespect and in a discourteous manner, that sticks to our reputation. Word spreads, and soon others hear about the lack of professionalism. In a world where everyone seems connected by a few degrees of separation, it’s not a stretch to think that the paths of people you know will cross the paths of people you want to do business. What happens when you’re trying to do business, and your potential clients see you have mutual connections? Will they hear the stories from your shared connection about the time you ghosted them? As mentioned at the beginning of this article, ghosting is unsettling. It’s something you remember. It becomes part of the reputation of the person or company that did the ghosting. In a business setting, it's worth taking the time and putting in the effort to respond. Sure, that means some uncomfortable conversations, but that's far better than the damage you'll do by ghosting.

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