Establishing a Communication Workflow

Consultants and managers wear many hats – writing code, taking phone calls, answering emails, and meeting with new customers. Customers will always have questions, software products will have bugs, designs will need revisions, and servers will go down. When it comes to managing the perpetual influx of emails and phone calls, it can feel like a game of infinite pinball.

Having processes in place to handle these requests will not only reduce turnaround time, but it will also contribute to overall customer satisfaction. With a little time management, however, that endless drip can turn into a well-planned communication workflow and great customer experience.

Pro Tip: Keep track of email and call volume by time and day to begin identifying patterns in your communications. Assign the task of email monitoring to one team member who can push email and phone requests to individual queues. Better yet, use automated filtering software to map common requests to specific support staff team members.

Responding Buys Time

Responding to daily emails and phone calls is one of those management tasks that does not initially seem important, but it is actually one of the most crucial elements of running a good business. As soon as a call or email comes through, answer immediately. Not only does this make the customer feel important (and they are), but it also gives the team the opportunity to get more information while the customer is available. This courteous response will reassure the customer, since they now have confirmation that someone is looking into their issues, and it will also become a positive team habit.

Schedule time throughout the day to check email. If there is a message that needs a response, handle it then. If there are no messages, then continue on with the present task. Google Mail (or Gmail) users can enable the favicon counter in the lab settings to see new messages notifications at a glance. Another addon, Inbox Preview, shows snippets of emails even while the inbox is loading, which can be a real time saver. Quickly scan the subjects and senders to identify critical issues that need responding to and then prioritize them as soon as the inbox loads. Learn to use filters and labels to quickly get the inbox down to zero.

Sometimes customer email comes in while a team is in the middle of a task for another customer. Honestly, they should not stop work for one customer to address the immediate needs of another customer. This mental disruption splits the focus for both customer projects. Communicating frequently and clearly with customers buys the team time to address the task at hand and the new one when the current task is complete. A customer who has a serious issue (servers down, liability issues, etc.) needs realistic expectations and it is the team’s job to set these for the customer. Without a response, customers will think that their task is either unseen or is already being worked on. More than likely, neither of these assumptions is a reality, but the customer should never be left wondering. Send them a quick email, ask for additional details if needed, and let them know the person who has prioritized their task. This clear communication will calm them and prevent escalation to other more intrusive communications like the follow-up phone call or worse yet the unexpected walk-in. Sending a response buys everyone involved some time to handle tasks as planned.

Pro Tip: After a call, send an email summarizing the problem, solutions that might have been discussed, and any next-step actions that the customer or support team needs to take. Never assume that the customer was taking notes – if it was an emergency, then they were likely not even really listening attentively. Now all parties have a written record of the conversation and a carefully organized plan of action.

Scheduling Budgets Time

As already mentioned, jumping into a task as soon as it comes through the email chute disrupts focus on tasks already in progress. This disturbance is counter productive to lean management practices as it pushes the pre-scheduled tasks for that day to the end of the queue. Pushing the requested task to the queue allows the team to give the customer a precise completion estimate. This tentative scheduling helps the customer understand that the team is working on their issue and gives the customer a time to look out for its completion. Now they are not expecting the problem to be resolved immediately, and they also have confidence that when they are top in the queue they cannot somehow be bumped to a lower priority.

That said, if a customer notifies the team of a critical issue, that task should take priority. If the customer is in the medical industry, it could really be a matter of life and death. While many things are not actually critical even when a customer is in a panic, an open dialogue is important to determine what they perceive as critical to their business operations. Issues may not be seem urgent to the person working on the task but if it is important to the customer then it should be handled with the same care that the customer would give the task. When the decision to escalate priorities affects the timeline of another project, email the affected customers immediately to adjust their expectations. This protocol serves to reassure the customer, in that they now know that when they have an emergency the team will respond quickly. By turning unscheduled work into scheduled work, the team not only builds positive relationships with customers but also removes unnecessary anxiety from the process.

Remember that the business challenges of the customer are the challenges the creative team is hired to solve. It is the responsibility of everyone involved in the process to seek meaningful solutions. Since the creative team can only account for their scheduled time working on problems, it is also important to build in time for triaging unexpected issues. Expect the unexpected by budgeting a little time each day to handle whatever might be affecting customers that day. Be realistic about peak performance during an 8-hour working day by not scheduling more than 6 hours each day for planned work. If the budgeted time is not needed, then that is bonus time to get ahead on scheduled tasks – and that is a win for everyone.

Pro Tip: Create email templates for common responses that are kind, courteous, and informative. This will help reduce time during future communications. Also, adopt a disaster management policy so that customers know up-front what to expect and how and when their tickets will be escalated.

Working Spends Time

By buying time through quick responses and budgeting time through scheduling, the team has the freedom to work consistently and without panic. Every task is laid out like a road map, guiding them through the day’s agenda. The customer does not feel neglected, and the team does not feel overloaded. If something urgent does come up, they already have time built in for that. And, of course, if a crisis arises that needs extra time and all hands on deck, the schedule can be rearranged to address that issue. Most customers understand the need to rearrange priorities when they know clearly what is going on. It is the unknown and absent communication that creates anxiety in the service process.

When it is time to do the work, the creative team should work hard. Having real deadlines and real expectations laid out through careful communication and scheduling should give the designers, developers, and strategists the clear direction they need to actually do the assigned work. Each team member should come to the office that day mentally prepared for a particular customer’s tasks, the priority of each task, the communication procedure for issues that take longer than planned, and the proper response to the unexpected. This mental preparation will help keep stress levels low and focus high.

Pro Tip: Mentally resetting will help refocus the creative parts of the mind on the task while the subconscious mind continues to solve the problems. If stress levels tend to build throughout the day or when working with a particular customer, then consider setting aside a few minutes each hour to simply relax. Play some calming music, go for a walk to get the endorphins up, take the laptop outside for a new perspective, and generally do something to reduce environmental factors that contribute to anxiety.

At Artisans Collaborative, we work hard to provide high-value products and services. Much of a product’s value is tied to the customer’s expectation, which not only includes the features of the final product, but also when that product is delivered. What is the best way to create high-value? Manage expectations. When a project is not completed on time, that lapse in expectation decreases the perceived value of the product. A lack of communication (and quite possibly over communication) adds stress to the process and that too decreases the value of the product. While there are many other ways that a service can decrease in value, implementing workflow time management practices can help manage expectations and introduce new value. So buy lots of time and budget it wisely, so you can spend it well.