Business communication – only connect?

Business communication – only connect?

Good business communication is a much undervalued skill. For example, in an earlier post – Is your cashflow flowing? – I highlighted, as a joke, precisely how to frame an invoice to be absolutely sure that you wouldn’t get paid. And the examples I gave aren’t fictional – I’ve seen all of them at one time or another, on one invoice or another.

Though admittedly not all at the same time – as in this mockup

As you can see, the trick is to miss out vital information like your name and address, what you are actually invoicing for, and your bank details.

For extra security you can add items you didn’t say you were charging for, add VAT you didn’t include in the original quotation, omit any customer purchase order numbes or references, and wait to send your invoice as long as possible after the work has been done.

For a really sophisticated solution, make sure you don’t actually send the invoice to someone who will know anything about it – ideally on a different site.

But…

Having posted that some time ago I came across a real-life example of failed communication – and I can do no better than quote the friend who had the experience.

I have a hospital appointment this week, organised with admirable speed. Individual staff I have spoken to have been lovely. But… but…

They sent me a letter. “Please phone the Unit if…” etc. Did the letter include a phone number? No.

Does the Unit appear on the online list of hospital departments, so I can find the phone number? No.

Hospitals are big. I have been told to go to Entrance 3. Did they send a hospital map? No.

Does their website contain a clearly accessible hospital map? No.

I needed to have a pre-procedure Covid test at the hospital. Did they send me written instructions on how to find the testing site? No.

How hard is any of this, really?

Those who have eyes to see, let them see…

And if you’re even faintly worried about your own processes – or your own business communication – I’ll be happy to assist. Just call me on 01359 240717 or send me an email.

Communication failure: when systems collide…

Communication failure: when systems collide…

Communication is the key to successful business – yet all too often communication between businesses can fall at the first hurdle. Sometimes with potentially serious consequences.

A good friend, who chairs his village Parish Council, was told that a recent storm had damaged a tree overhanging one of the approach roads. A branch had broken, snapping a cable as it fell, and was now hanging down into the middle of the road.

He drove out to check for himself what had happened, took a few photographs, and phoned his county Highways department to report the issue.

A conversation…

‘There’s a broken cable, you say?’

‘Yes.’

‘We don’t deal with those. You’ll have to call whoever owns the cable. That’s our policy.’

So he called OpenReach, who were responsible for the cable.

‘There’s a broken branch, you say?’

‘Yes.’

‘Well, we don’t deal with trees. It’s company policy.’

At this point he confesses that he slightly lost his cool. ‘It’s dangerous. There’s a broken cable that Highways don’t want to know about, and the branch is a hazard to traffic.’

‘Sorry. Can’t do anything until that branch is sorted out. Like I said, it’s company policy. We’ve had too many problems dealing with trees.’

‘Seriously?’

‘Sorry…’

Communication breakdown – irresistible force and immovable object?

On reflection, my friend could understand the problem. He remembered seeing a crew coming to cut back trees that had grown to a point where they were fouling overhead cables. Doubtless their work led to a flood of calls from angry landowners, with the result that the company had decided not to do tree work at all. Which was logical – but unhelpful…

Luckily, as it turned out, the call handler at OpenReach was ready to go the extra mile, and rang back to say there was an engineer on site. The engineer, too, had gone the extra mile and called in a cherry-picker vehicle to repair the cable. And when my friend revisited the site, the cable had been fixed.

And the branch had been removed.

So – thanks to two people prepared to take the initiative – all was well. But his story did highlight an issue I’ve come across before. I’m reminded, for instance, of those familiar scenes in the early days of railway privatisation. You’d often see a group of people in a mixture of uniforms, suits, and safety gear gathered on a station platform to argue about who, precisely, was responsible for what in dealing with a problem. Sometimes, it would seem, without a satisfactory outcome…

And the conclusion?

It’s great to have logical systems. It’s sensible to protect yourself from unnecessary problems. But not, perhaps, at the cost of leaving clients and potential clients in danger – or simply in a place where no one will take responsibility for a potentially dangerous situation..

After all, good customer service has always involved going the extra mile…

And if you’d like to go the extra mile, you’re welcome to offer me a (virtual) cup of coffee while we have an hour’s consultation. No charge – just call me on 01359 240717 or drop me an email.

 

 

 

Are you listening?

Are you listening?

Listening?

Well of course you are, or you wouldn’t be reading this. But… is your business listening?

Consider that venerable comedy cliché, the old married couple:

“Are you even listening to me?”

“Of course I am. You asked me to fix the shelf.”

“Well?”

“And you’ve asked me the same darned thing every day this week.”

(Other domestic disputes are available…)

The problem here is two (very different) definitions of ‘listening’. You could call them ‘passive’ and ‘active’. It’s good to hear and understand what another person is saying – but real listening demands an active response.

Such as fixing the shelf. For example…

Listening – active or passive?

So – thinking about your business – is your ‘listening’ active or passive?

How, for example, do you respond to complaints? Do you write off the people who make them as ‘difficult customers’? Mutter ‘There’s no pleasing some people’? Or – worse still – ignore what they’re saying? Because your focus is somewhere else?

It happens – especially with a new and growing business. Because the bigger your enterprise becomes, the greater the distance between the people who talk to customers, and the people who make the decisions. And that can happen almost without your realising it. So what’s the answer?

In my book, it’s a simple one. Process.

Consider, for example, how much freedom your staff have when they’re talking to customers. If your process is too rigid, the results can be damaging. A friend is still talking about his conversation with an electricity supply company – eight years ago. He called them to help in winding up his late father’s estate. Told them what had happened, and what information he needed. And got a reply straight out of the manual. ‘Oh, I’m sorry.We can only give that information to the customer. Data protection, you know.’ Under the circumstances his answer was surprisingly reasonable. ‘That’ll be a little tricky, because he’s dead!’

Sadly, there are still companies that don’t have a process for dealing with the death of a client. But stories like that do show the risks involved in imposing overly strict protocols. Especially those which insist that customers change their way of working to accommodate your processes.

And that’s mission-critical when you’re talking about disabled customers.

A whole new ball game…

Do you listen to your disabled customers?  Are you legally compliant?

Because Covid-19 has created a whole new group of disabled people – those who are shielding for medical reasons.  And your current working practices may no longer fill the bill.

Just consider this extract from a social media post – from a vulnerable customer dealing with a (perfectly pleasant) staff member. The snag is that the perfectly pleasant staff member is working with a process set by a management team who don’t appear to care about their customers. .

We need to get an engineer out to check it is not the socket.

It wasn’t the socket a year ago, it’s not likely to be the socket now is it?

Well no, but then we would get BT out to check it wasn’t an external issue.

So, can’t we check external first?

That’s not the way we do it.

But the way you do it I can’t do, because I’m shielded.

I understand that. Shall I arrange a refund …

You can write a letter of complaint if you would like.

How would I get the letter to you with no stamps and not allowed out?

How many conversations like that are happening in your business?

Make yours a listening business

So – time for an action plan.

To make yours a listening business you need to take a long, hard look at all your processes. Are they fit for purpose? Properly inclusive? And legally compliant? And could you produce documentation that would prove it?

Do your staff understand any new ways of working? Have they been trained? Can they get the support they need when they’re faced with something unexpected? And do they ask for it?

But above all, do they understand – and deliver – the right behaviours when they’re dealing with customers? Because sometimes even the best processes aren’t quite enough.

The social media post above concluded with a telling comment from the frustrated customer:

At one stage he said “if I wasn’t happy for someone to come out” like this was a choice!

So – do your customers have the choices they need? Choices that actually meet their needs?

Time for a little active listening…?

And there’s no charge if you need some help right now…

These are challenging times – so I am happy to help you review what you do, how you do it, and how you might deal with any glitches. I can do it virtually, via phone calls and online conference software, and I am happy to do it FREE OF CHARGE to help any business in the current situation. Just call 01359 240717 or email kate@businessplumber.co.uk. (You can buy me a coffee some other time…)

Changing a process? Check that it’s working!

Changing a process? Check that it’s working!

Changing a process is never easy, but it’s even more challenging when you need to do it quickly. And in the pandemic conditions at the time of writing the truth is that most of us – including the government – are having to ‘make it up as we go along’.

Which means – inevitably – that things don’t always work out the way you want them to.

A good friend has been organising his volunteer group to support the community, and in particular their village shop. They’re helping out with taking orders and delivering supplies to people in lockdown. And they’re also collecting orders from suppliers – including an excellent local bakery.

A job my friend took upon himself, but had never done before.

New volunteers, new job, new mistakes…

On the first day he arrived at the bakery and was told there were four trays to collect. A staff member – somewhat engaged with a customer – pointed to a stack of four trays on the floor. Which he duly picked up and took back. On arrival it turned out that two of them were part of someone else’s order…

Well, at least it gave his otherwise idle car a good run (by the time he’d delivered the two trays to their intended destination, collected the two for his own village, and brought them back to the shop…)

He duly issued a warning to other volunteers to check each order very carefully before leaving the bakery.

A warning that sadly did not reach a new volunteer, who was collecting bread for the first time a week later. And walked away with only two of the four trays he should have had.

When my friend went back for his next collection he politely suggested they could label the trays to avoid confusion. Sadly the bakery staff were more concerned with avoiding blame. Even though he’d already said he wasn’t interested in blaming anybody. He simply wanted to prevent any more mistakes…

The lesson?

This is a classic case of faulty plumbing. The bakery were simply ‘doing what they’d always done’ without taking into account that volunteers had no idea what that was, or how it worked. Their staff were frightened, busy and preoccupied, so they felt stressed and vulnerable. When – inevitably – something went wrong, they assumed someone must be to blame. No one really was. The problem, quite simply, was in the system. It wasn’t designed for volunteers.

So if you’re changing a process in the middle of a crisis, don’t feel bad if things don’t work first time. Mistakes are bound to happen. The trick is to learn from them – and to stop them happening again.

In the meantime – in those especially challenging moments – be kind to yourself, your team, and everyone else. Stay safe, and stay well!

And there’s no charge if you need some help…

These are challenging times – so I am happy to help you review what you do, how you do it, and how you might deal with any glitches. I can do it virtually, via phone calls and online conference software, and I am happy to do it FREE OF CHARGE to help any business in the current situation. Just call 01359 240717 or email kate@businessplumber.co.uk. (You can buy me a coffee some other time…)

Giving instructions (because no, it’s not obvious…!)

Giving instructions (because no, it’s not obvious…!)

Giving instructions to other people can be a bit of a minefield.

Take ‘Boil the water’, for example. Simple enough, you’d think, even for a child. Except a child won’t know what ‘boiling water’ actually looks like.

So the (irritating) result is likely to be a series of interruptions by a small person saying ‘Is it boiling yet?’

The answer, of course, is to explain what ‘boiling water’ actually looks like. And give the necessary safety lecture at the same time. But you might not do the same if you’re giving instructions to an adult. And when they’re struggling, it’s all too easy to respond with disparaging comments on their commitment and their capabilities.

The truth is that if it’s a task you’re very familiar with, it’s blindingly obvious how to do it. To you. Others may see it differently…

When men didn’t cook…

I’m reminded of one of my earliest memories…

I was sitting with my Mum and my newborn baby sister. My Dad came in with a saucepan of peeled potatoes – and asked what to do next.

Mum told him to put the pan on the gas.

‘But – won’t that burn the pan?’ he asked, with a worried expression.

‘Not,’ said Mum, acidly, ‘if you put water in first.’

He looked, if anything, even more worried. ‘But… how much water?’

‘Enough!’ said Mum.

‘Enough to…?’

‘To cover the potatoes!’ she snapped.

She was annoyed, understandably. But the truth was that he’d never, in his life, cooked a meal before. So it was important, for him, to have someone giving instructions he could understand.

Sound familiar?

It’s all too easy to get annoyed when someone fails to understand apparently simple instructions. And the results, sadly, are predictable.

Option one: the experienced person will give up, and do the job themselves. In which case they are doomed to continue doing it for ever after.

Or option two: the inexperienced person will be left to struggle on as best they can. In which case the results may well be less than wonderful.

Either way, there are two additional and very predictable results. The experienced person will be left believing their colleague is ‘playing dumb’, perhaps to avoid doing the work. And the inexperienced person will feel inadequate, frustrated, and resentful. Because they haven’t received the support they need.

So – is there an alternative?

Of course there is!

The art of giving instructions…

  1. The two people (or the two teams, or the two businesses) need to get together.
  2. They then need to work through the list of tasks that have to be done.
  3. At each stage they should check that both understand a) what needs doing and b) how to do it.

That should, at very least, minimise the problems.

Does this take time?  Yes.

Can you afford not to?  Only you can decide.

One thing is certain – if you keep thinking that anything about a task, or a process, is ‘obvious’ then you won’t even see there’s a question to answer…

So if you’d like a simple set of instructions for – well – creating a simple set of instructions, then why not buy me a cup of coffee? And we’ll discuss what I can do and how I can help. Just call 01359 240717 or email kate@businessplumber.co.uk