Bridging the Communication Gap

I’m reasonably certain that most shearers really want to be in touch with most of their clients.

Ask any shearer what he or she has the most trouble with in this profession, and I’ve almost no doubt that they will answer “scheduling”.  Dig a bit deeper, though, and you’re going to find that, despite the incredibly onerous task of figuring out the number of hours required for each farm, routing multiple farms for multiple-day trips out of town in the most efficient way possible, trying to work around rain and extreme cold and extreme heat, putting clients’ preferences and busy schedules into the formula –  despite all this – which is, really, quite a lot – what shearers really have the most trouble with is communication.

Map of a few days' work
Routing map of a few days’ work

Before starting to play the violins, let’s ask any farm owner what he is she has the most trouble with when it comes to shearers, and they will say, “no one ever returns my call.”  Yes, OK.  It’s a professional hazard.  But I wish to just state for the record that this really is not completely true.  We do want to communicate and I hope that this article arms fiber farm clients with some insights into how best to get in touch with and retain their shearer.

When I started out shearing for other people some 14-15 years ago I made two vows:  I would always show up for one animal, and I would always return phone calls.  I have only been half successful.  I’ll tell you why, below, how I try to cope with the onslaught of hairy animals every spring, and how you, the farm owner, can best deal with that peculiar breed of human called “shearers”.

I’m reasonably certain that most shearers really want to be in touch with most of their clients. But isn’t there something we can do to streamline the insanity of the plethora of 21st century communication methods?  Seriously. It’s out of control.  A few years ago I finally put some of my tech education to work and set up a database for shearing; the database has a field called “method of contact” because clients get in touch with me in so many different formats that I cannot keep them straight.  I’m going to list these methods of contact in order from absolutely hideous to pretty much OK and workable:

  1. Message in any format to a totally different shearer (“I had Joe scheduled to come but he hasn’t gotten in touch with me lately  – maybe you could come instead?  Maybe you could call him for me?” – no seriously, really, don’t do this.)
  2. Public post on some random Facebook group tagging the shearer (“hey Joe, when ya comin my way?”  We will never see it.)
  3. Private message to a shearer’s Instagram account (yeah, no, really, please don’t do this either)
  4. Private message to a personal Facebook account (if you’re not “friends” with Joe, the request may not be detected for weeks)
  5. Private message to our Facebook business page (this has a tendency to flash by as an alert on one’s phone and then disappear until one does quite a bit of fiddling around to actually find this message.  Highly unreliable method of contact.).
  6. Phone call (to any number of phone numbers any of us might possess) (“hey Joe, can you call me back? I want to talk about shearing.”  Please see below about phone calls.)
  7. Text.  Text good.
  8. Email.  Email good.
Three weeks in May
Three weeks in May (deliberately blurry to protect client privacy)

Why numbers 1-5 are lousy should be reasonably obvious.  Let’s talk about number 6.  The telephone.  It’s May.  We’re up at dawn, out the door, and on the road. All day.  We’re trying to give all we have to each client, not rush them, but also not be late to the next farm.  We’ve scheduled the heck out of the day because, well, it’s May and that is when pretty much Every Single Fiber Farm Wants Us There. We haven’t stopped for lunch.  We’re driving and shearing and driving and shearing.  We’re really lucky if we land at a hotel before 10 or 11 pm and even luckier if we’ve scored some dinner.  Should we call you back at 11?  Should we call you when we are driving, often in the boondocks with no cell service?  And exactly what order should we call the other 8 people back who rang us during the day?  At 11 o’clock at night.  That, my friends, is the problem with the phone.  We are not anti-social (well, you can check with your shearer to get a pulse on that).  We are not ignoring you.  We are tapped out.  Phone calls: no good.

Now let’s talk about texting.  Texting is the next best invention since strong black coffee, in my humble opinion. But it has its limitations. For example, I know for a fact that Every Single Shearer receives at least one of these every season: “I need a shearer.  When can you come?”  I’m not exaggerating.  I can send screenshots to the unbelievers.  Such a message of course is intriguing, until we learn that the farm is 2000 miles away and involves a herd of Yaks. But before we’ve learned about the yaks, we have had to compose a text asking what species, how many, what state, what’s your name, what’s your address, etc.  So texting is not always the best tool in the hands of the “person of few words.”

Email.  Email is cool  Email has always been cool, but then again, I cut my Internet teeth on email and not phone apps.  I’ll always prefer a keyboard over an awkward 3″ wide phone screen, and email allows me to more easily send attachments and preparation instructions.  But it’s not always instantaneous.  I get so much email that if I set alerts to notify me of each incoming message, I could write a symphony with the bells.  Email is wonderful for details.  For an instant message on the day of an appointment, text is king/queen (does one have to be gender-inclusive when referring to royalty???) .

Intake forms.  I have one.  I love my intake form.  If your shearer has one, fill it out.   He/she will love you for it.  My intake form gives me most of the information I need to assess if I am able to do the job and what constraints there may be (e.g. is it weather dependent, I need to bring additional help, owners are new and request extra time to lead them through the process, special needs animals, etc.)

Ask your shearer what their communication preferences are.  They will tell you!

Now I’m going to talk about a few subjects that are not quite comfy but necessary.

  1. When you don’t get back to us.  If you have contacted us to request shearing or are a previous client but you don’t respond to our communications.  We aren’t the lovesick girl just waiting by the phone; we are businesspeople who need to know if you still wish to book an appointment or not.  If you don’t (and this is especially true of previous/existing clients), the polite thing is to respond with a straight “no thank you.”  This closes your case and makes our lives easier.  Keeping you on our back burner (‘need to contact so and so again’) takes time and energy, both of which are in short supply during the season.  Just let us know.  (I literally have a field in my database for “no response”. I hate that field.)
  2. You double book shearers.  This is a way to end up with no shearer at all.  Choose your shearer for the season and stick with him/her. If you change your mind, let them know immediately. I’ve heard stories of shearers driving for hours to show up at a job, only to find all the animals already shorn.  Here’s the thing: we know each other and we talk with each other.  And we don’t take kindly to this sort of thing.
  3. You haven’t heard from us in a while.  If you have made a shearing request and have not gotten a reply, please reach out.  Your text may have gotten buried under a hundred others, or your email may have gone to the spam folder.  We may or may not be able to give you a definitive answer about our schedule depending on about 18 different variables, but we don’t want you sitting by the phone waiting for our call.  If you made a request late in the season (e.g., any time after mid-April), however, please do not expect us to show up the next week or even the next month.  Most shearers book up in the winter and any new requests are fit in, or put into the summer schedule.  We routinely refer farms to other shearers if we are simply unable to get to you.  This isn’t a popularity contest: it’s all about the animals.  Just keep in touch.
  4. On the other hand …. you contact us every week.  This does not help. We work on logistics, not on how much we like you or your animals or how often you ping us.  Repeated check-ins only serve to stress us out.  We know you are there and that you need our services, but if we are in New Jersey and you are in North Carolina you may need to wait until we are actually in your state. We’re not trying to be jerks.  I don’t know any shearer who actively tries to be a jerk.  We’re just doing the best we can.

I recently talked about the intensity of shearing season to a journalist who has covered numerous war zones. I said, “it’s like boot camp but more out of control”.  He nodded and commented that there is no way that any ordinary person would understand, would want to understand, or would want to be in our shoes.  The work is exhilarating; it taxes every part of our mind and body, digs at our emotions, is frustrating and rewarding, sometimes dangerous, often joyous and nearly always really, really dirty, all at the same time. Remaining objective and professional is our goal.  But we can’t always answer the phone.

A cheat sheet for farm owners:  Be kind.  Be clear.  Text.  Email.  Book early.  Be flexible.  We like cookies.

 

 

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