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Friday, January 25, 2008

Response Time Basics

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.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Its High Stress Time; So What?

In times of high stress extreme language often enters the workplace. We talk about "the heat of battle", "failure is not an option", etc... and the impression that enters the psyche of some of our co-workers is that we're dealing with life and death. Add to that the feeling that failure to hit numbers may mean their job, and the pressure that mounts is significant. In the past three weeks I've probably done as much pastoral/parish-priest type of counseling than in any period in my career. Its a time of high stress while we still have a closing window to impact Q4 and therefore FY '08, and in such periods stress cracks start to show. If this is you, let me tell you about my week and weekend.

While I was in Texas last Wednesday (and thank you to all the Plano staff for your hospitality, by the way) my good friend of over 20 years John Kennedy of Russellville was killed in a single vehicle accident. John was a plumber, and riding with him in his service truck were his nephew and brand new son-in-law, both of whom had to be life-flighted but who we now believe will recover. I didn't find out about it until I was back home Friday morning, because my family knew how upset I would be and didn't want me to hear about it on the road. I spent about a half hour Friday night with my arms around John's wife Paula, whom I've known since we worked together 24 years ago, while she cried and talked about her husband and what she'd do next.

I got into the office yesterday and learned that Art Stern from our Plano office lost his wife unexpectedly during what was not supposed to have been life threatening surgery. She was laid to rest yesterday. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Art and his family. We had no sooner gotten flowers ordered for the Stern family when we received an email about the accidental drowning of two year old Brenner Burgess, whose dad is Rick of the Rick and Bubba show and is one of our authors. We helped spread the word yesterday to our people about a memorial fund being set up in Brenner's honor.

In dealing with these three deaths, which are part of life and sometimes part of my job, I was struck by the contrast between real life-and-death and the merely life-and-death language that seeps into the workplace in these times of high stress. If you work for your family and to build a better life for yourself, allowing business hyperbole to negatively impact your health and your relationships with those you love works at crossed purposes with why you're at work the first place, doesn't it?

Still, business is what it is and peak times demand additional sacrifice. Here are some tips that have helped our family in the past:

1. If you have a support system, use it. Talk to your spouse or significant other, and then the two of you talk to your kids if you have them. Explain what's going on, ask for their understanding, and tell them when it will be over. You'll be surprised at how supportive and resilient kids can be when you bring them into the conversation and ask them to help the grown-ups.

2. Plan Your Time. Now I know there are some of you who are creative and spontaneous and who think this is old school and rigid, but when you have less time for yourself and family, planning that time and following your plan with discipline is more important than ever. In peak work times, it makes the difference between seeing your family some days and not.

3. Keep Perspective. See above

4. Seek Help if Needed. We counsel with people who are feeling overwhelmed, and often its because we're close and listen. However, if you need someone to talk to in the middle of the night or you don't feel comfortable bringing your issues up in the workplace, we strongly encourage you to use the company's Employee Assistant hotline at 888-887-4114. This is an outside contractor to the company who, due to HIPPA laws, can never share your conversations with the company under any circumstances. Counselors are standing by now.

And remember folks, nothing is life and death but life and death.