Email soft­ware like em­pa­thy spell-check

Crys­tal an­a­lyzes styles to put the writer and re­cip­i­ent of a mes­sage on the same page.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - ERIN GRIF­FITH

Like many busy ex­ec­u­tives, Sean Am­mi­rati, a part­ner at Birchmere Ven­tures in Pitts­burgh, had a habit of fir­ing off a se­ries of tired emails af­ter his kids went to bed. Slog­ging through your in­box late in the evening is so com­mon in the tech­nol­ogy in­dus­try that some call it the third shift.

But re­cently Am­mi­rati re­al­ized just how mind­less — and pos­si­bly in­ef­fec­tive — those emails were. All it took was a new piece of soft­ware called Crys­tal.

“Be concise,” it urged him as he com­posed a ram­bling email to an en­tre­pre­neur. “Be log­i­cal,” it said about an­other mis­sive. With each mes­sage that Am­mi­rati wrote the soft­ware sug­gested phrases to use and avoid, all tai­lored to his in­tended re­cip­i­ent.

Launched two months ago by a Nashville start-up of the same name, Crys­tal knows the email style and pref­er­ences of just about ev­ery­one in the English­s­peak­ing pro­fes­sional world. It knows that Am­mi­rati prefers short, blunt lan­guage and that I like sar­casm.

If you’ve ever writ­ten any­thing on the In­ter­net, Crys­tal prob­a­bly knows how you like to cor­re­spond too. By an­a­lyz­ing data from pub­licly avail­able sources like so­cial me­dia and pri­vate peer re­views on its own site, Crys­tal cat­e­go­rizes pro­fes­sion­als into 64 per­son­al­ity types and ex­trap­o­lates their work and com­mu­ni­ca­tion styles from there.

Am­mi­rati was skep­ti­cal when he in­stalled the Crys­tal plug-in for Gmail, which starts at $19 a month for in­di­vid­u­als to use. It will cost $99 for com­pa­nies.

But af­ter a month, he’s sold. He es­ti­mates that around 80% of the 100 emails he sends each day are “semi-warm,” or sent to peo­ple he doesn’t know well.

“I found it to be amazingly, mag­i­cally ac­cu­rate,” he says.

It’s hard to mea­sure whether his emails are ac­tu­ally more ef­fec­tive with Crys­tal — per­haps the in­tro­duc­tion he wrote would have been well-re­ceived de­spite it — but it gives him confi---

dence that his in­ten­tions will be prop­erly un­der­stood.

In to­day’s mo­bile-first world, any­one can dash off an email with­out much thought. A tool like Crys­tal forces the sender to think more about the per­son on the other side of the screen. It’s like spell-check for em­pa­thy.

Such tech­nolo­gies are in­creas­ingly im­por­tant as work com­mu­ni­ca­tions move away from in-per­son meet­ings around a con­fer­ence room ta­ble and to­ward vir­tual chat rooms and in­stant mes­sages.

A friendly smile makes it easy to de­liver a joke to your boss in a live pro­fes­sional set­ting. But in a dig­i­tal en­vi­ron­ment, should you com­pen­sate with a smi­ley face emoti­con or an “LOL”? (The an­swer, for me, is no. Crys­tal says my boss prefers a for­mal gram­mat­i­cal struc­ture and dis­likes ca­sual greet­ings. My sin­cere apolo­gies for all those emoji, sir.)

Com­pa­nies have used per­son­al­ity as­sess­ments to stan­dard­ize hir­ing and train­ing since the in­ven­tion of the My­ers-Briggs test in the 1940s. But so­cial me­dia and its tsunami of data have made that in­for­ma­tion eas­ier to get, no te­dious test re­quired.

A new class of com­pa­nies — in­clud­ing Knozen, a quizbased per­son­al­ity app; Con­spire, an email-anal­y­sis ser­vice; and Crys­tal — spit out sim­i­lar work­place in­sights based on em­ploy­ees’ daily ac­tiv­ity and in­put from peers.

The ris­ing in­ter­est in this kind of in­for­ma­tion co­in­cides with the econ­omy’s migration from blue-col­lar jobs to knowl­edge-worker po­si­tions. It’s es­pe­cially preva­lent in the tech­nol­ogy in­dus­try.

Hu­man re­sources de­part­ments, el­e­vated to the C-suite with ti­tles like chief peo­ple of­fi­cer (or the Sil­i­con Val­ley ver­sion, chief hap­pi­ness of­fi­cer), have swelled in in­flu­ence, and they’re more will­ing than ever be­fore to em­brace data to make per­son­nel de­ci­sions.

That’s a dra­matic change from the 2000s when com­pa­nies had lit­tle in­ter­est in adopt­ing HR soft­ware, says Knozen Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Marc Cenedella, who at the time led fi­nance and op­er­a­tions for To­day, he says, “it’s al­most flipped: They are in­ter­ested in ev­ery new tool there is.”

Be­yond HR de­part­ments, Crys­tal has seen adop­tion among sales­peo­ple com­mu­ni­cat­ing with clients, busi­ness-devel­op­ment ex­ec­u­tives do­ing out­reach and man­agers who want to strengthen their re­la­tion­ship with their teams.

Crys­tal founder Drew D’Agostino be­lieves that his com­pany’s per­son­al­ity data can help in any work sit­u­a­tion — not just with email. Per­son­al­ity dif­fer­ences seep out in high-pres­sure sit­u­a­tions, he says.

“Crys­tal can give us the op­por­tu­nity to step back and say, ‘This is how I ap­proach prob­lems. This is how you ap­proach prob­lems. Let’s keep that in mind when we solve this.’ ”

But first some of us have to get past the creepy Big Brother fac­tor.

Must Crys­tal broad­cast, for ex­am­ple, the fact that I’m fre­quently late? It may be true (OK, it’s def­i­nitely true), but I’d rather not have a scar­let “L” per­ma­nently at­tached to my pro­fes­sional rep­u­ta­tion.

D’Agostino and Knozen’s Cenedella each say that my re­ac­tion — em­bar­rass­ment fol­lowed by swift in­dig­na­tion — tends to hap­pen when the data-driven as­sess­ment is dead-on. In other words, if an al­go­rithm can use my dig­i­tal ex­haust to de­ter­mine that I am ha­bit­u­ally tardy, it’s prob­a­bly not a se­cret.

“The view ex­isted whether or not we were there to re­veal it,” Cenedella says. “Our point of view is, ‘Isn’t it bet­ter for you to know, so then you can do some­thing about it?’ ”

I would still pre­fer to ruin a first im­pres­sion on my own, thank you very much. But I may be an out­lier.

It’s more com­mon for Crys­tal users to be proud of their pro­files and share them, flaws and all, on so­cial me­dia or with co-work­ers, D’Agostino says. For him the re­ac­tion val­i­dates Crys­tal’s goal to im­prove peo­ple’s un­der­stand­ing of one an­other.

“Peo­ple email me, say­ing, ‘It now makes so much sense why I had this ar­gu­ment with my wife, or why I hate when my boss does this,’ ” he says. “It’s go­ing to make re­la­tion­ships health­ier.”

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