I guess being a former retail guy the idea that non-response is even an option escapes me. Between complaints that we've heard about non-responsiveness in other parts of the organization, discussions I'm hearing from having a staff member on the Rapid Response Task Force, and getting positive feedback for responses that I took for granted as just normal business, its becoming clear to me that not everybody gets back to everybody timely. I'll readily admit that we have opportunities to improve on parts of HR, but response time is one thing we do well (or at least we hear that often). Here are some basics if you're struggling with your email and voice mail.
1. Organize telephone coverage - Each and every department in the company should identify a support staff person whose primary responsibility is to catch calls that don't get picked up by others. This is a manager's responsibility to organize, and then to call up IT to set up a rollover protocol so that all unanswered phones after no more than three rings roll to this individual. Then, and this is important, have a second individual whose reponsibility it is to answer the rolled-over calls if the primary person is on the phone or away from their desk.
2. Always answer a ringing telephone - While you have a designated person and backup for rolled-over phone calls, each person on staff should answer their phone unless they are in meetings or in the middle of work requiring concentration. In such cases, the central resource person and backup can handle your calls. This is a retailers' "code" since every call can be a customer and a sale, but the same principle applies in our business: every call can be an important stakeholder. Also, missed important calls turn into multiple elevated calls that turn into your having to explain or defend why you didn't take the call in the first place. The time wasted cleaning up after not picking up the phone is much more than the time wasted if the call wasn't important.
3. VOICE MAIL IS A LAST RESORT!!!!! - If all else fails, and calls go to voice mail, it should be your internal departmental standard to return all telephone voice messages within 24 hours unless the voice mail indicates that the message is more urgent. This does not apply to time wasters like unsolicited telephone sales calls. You have no obligation to reply to calls you didn't seek from people with whom we have no business relationship.
4. Answer your emails completely and daily - I check email at 6 a.m. before going to the Y or getting in the shower, and I check it again at 11 p.m. before going to bed. That way, almost nothing happens overnight that isn't handled before I get to the office in the morning, and nothing happens during the day that isn't dealt with by day's end. Just like with phone calls, one unanswered email often turns into 6 progressively more urgent follow-up emails that end up copied to your boss and their boss and their boss, which begets more emails asking why you haven't responded. When I started zeroing-out my inbox every night my email volume dropped 20-30% because there were no escalation emails. To have peace and balance to your evening, make sure and turn your blackberry OFF after you get home, turn it on for your late email check, and then turn it off again.
5. Manage your Out of Office communications - Never leave the office without changing your voice mail and activating your Out of Office tool in Outlook. In both your voice mail message and Out of Office message, indicate when you'll be back in the office (to manage expectations for returned calls) and give the name and contact information for an alternate contact for urgent matters. You don't need an Assistant; it can be your central phone answering resource person for the department, a colleague, or your supervisor. Then, while on the road, again return your calls within 24 hours and your emails nightly. I have found that even a voice mail to a caller at 9:00 after there's nobody in their office, but saying that you're travelling, you returned their call, and would they please call you again on "x" day when you're back in the office, satisfies 99% of callers and stop escalation emails and phone calls.
6. Its not policy or technology; its you! - I don't have a blackberry and don't intend to get one. Our remote web access is fabulous (thank you IT), and between my work PC, home PC, business center at whatever hotel I'm in, and my plain Jane cell phone I get back to everyone daily. We don't need a change of policy or improvement in technology to become a more responsive company; and please don't try to tell me that the reason you're not returning calls is that you're "not important enough to have a blackberry". Response time is discipline, work ethic, and a genuine heart to serve your customers (internal and external); nothing more.
If you're in a leadership position and want to change our culture to one of ultra-responsive customer service, go organize your team, teach this as a departmental value, make it part of your performance expectations for each person, and most importantly do this yourself and lead by example. It's way more effective than a new policy or a capital expense request and its Management 101.