Effective Communication and Follow Up
Here at Extensitech, we frequently receive compliments about communicating, following through, and following up in a timely manner. From the project proposal process, through the project itself and afterwards as we continue with enhancements and support, effective communication is often what sets us apart from other developers.
I don’t mean to brag. I don’t think our practices are all that revolutionary, and I’m honestly a bit surprised that most of these practices aren’t more common. Being praised for those practices often takes me by surprise. I cannot deny, though, that the most common complaint I hear about other developers with whom our clients have worked, or attempted to work, is that there was poor communication and lack of follow up. That doesn’t mean that no one does it as well as we do (although I’m proud enough to think so at times), but it does indicate that some could do it better. It also doesn’t mean that we’re perfect, and we welcome you to contribute your own comments and insights.
I suppose, given that our communication practices are such a competitive advantage, that there would be some benefit to keeping those practices to ourselves. However, that’s just not in our nature. More importantly, these same practices are applicable to other industries, including those of our clients. In fact, you’ll find these principles supported by xBase, the platform on which most of our custom solutions are based, so I suppose it’s not much of a secret, anyway.
First, consider perhaps the simplest communication to understand: a face-to-face business meeting. In such a meeting, a few key things need to be communicated.
Communication: What is the current situation, and what actions are the attendees expected to accomplish?
This is really the crux of the current communication. What’s going on, and what are we going to do about it? It’s equally important whether this is a crisis, or simply a review of progress that’s going along fine. All parties need to know where we stand, and what’s expected, so that they can plan their contributions accordingly. No party should never be left wondering, “What do you suppose those guys are up to? Why haven’t we heard from them yet?”
Expectation: When do we expect those things to be done?
If we don’t have any expectations of when things are going to happen, you can be sure that one or more parties will answer the question with “whenever”. Either that, or they’ll give more attention to things that do have a timeframe in which they have to be finished, and those other things will get precedence.
Follow Up: When are we going to meet again, even if (especially if) these things are not done on time?
This last is key, and often forgotten. The answer should never be “When I hear from so-and-so,” unless you really have no interest in when it gets done. If you do not have a meeting on the calendar, or a reminder that will come up, or an open “objective” or “task” on your list waiting to be closed out, then the pace of your objectives, if they have a pace at all, is out of your hands.
If you have ever worked with me (or even just know me socially) you might notice that when saying goodbyes I almost always end with “I’ll talk to you Saturday” or “We’ll get back together Tuesday if I don’t talk to you sooner” or “I’ll look for your email and give you a call tomorrow.” This has become a habit, but it’s not accidental. Setting expectations for follow up is key to ensuring that the follow up happens at all.
Nowadays, though, especially for us, communication is not often in a formal, face-to-face meeting. We communicate via text message, instant messaging, email, phone calls, voicemail, online meetings, and more. In effect, we have dozens of these “meetings” going on at once, a little at a time. Let’s consider how these key components play out in this environment.
Our first task is to communicate clearly, to all who need to know, what the situation is and what we, and they, need to do about it. Of course, this message needs to be clear and concise. More often, though, the issue comes when we decide how to deliver the message. In a face-to-face meeting, this is fairly simple: you say what you need to say and make sure everyone understand. Here are some tips, though, for other communication channels commonly used:
Phone or Online Meeting
For the most part, phone or online meetings are just like in-person meetings, with one important difference. Even if you’re using cameras, body language and facial expressions aren’t as easy to read, if you can see them at all. Ask frequently, “Does that make sense?”, “Would you agree?”, “Will this work for you?” and so forth. Often, people are hesitant to admit that they don’t understand you. Give them plenty of opportunity to ask questions, or even criticize what you’ve said. If everyone’s not on the same page, we’re not going to finish the story at the same time. (Or we might not even be reading the same story!)
Ideally, you’d like other participants in the meeting to repeat back what you’ve said in their own words. That’s pretty awkward to ask for, but not awkward at all to do yourself. When I’ve just been the recipient of some new information, even if I think I understand it, I try to say something like, “Just to be sure I understand you, I’m going to do x and y, and then when you’re done z we’ll get back together?” Many, many times I’ve found that what I thought I understood wasn’t quite right, or even was way off base, but if I hadn’t said out loud what I thought I understood, we wouldn’t have figured that out until much later.
Voicemail or Email
Voicemail or email provide a one-way communication, with reasonable assurance that the other party received, or will receive, your message.
If the matter requires immediate communication, though, then this is a last resort. Try for a meeting in person, by phone or by online meeting, and think of the voicemail or email as a mini-meeting about the meeting you need to have. (“The situation is that we need a meeting and I’d like you to call me back. I’ll try again this afternoon if I haven’t heard from you.”)
Voicemail to a mobile phone has the advantage of urgency, because the person presumably has the phone with them. Email, or voicemail to an office phone, may not be as quickly noticed because they may be out. Email has the advantage of arriving on the person’s computer, where they probably also have relevant documents and their scheduling and/or task management software. If you have to leave a voicemail, and don’t hear back immediately, send an email as well.
Another advantage of email is that you can send one email to many people at once. Use CC liberally, so that anyone who needs to know is “in the loop”. You want to make sure not just that a person knows what the status and timeline is for their own action items, but that others know, too, so that they can plan accordingly.
Text or Instant Message
Many people don’t like to use text or instant messages (IM) for business communications, because they’re too informal or because there’s not an easy way to create a permanent record. Both these concerns are valid. Texting or IM’ing someone you don’t know very well can be invasive, and can interrupt someone in the middle of other things they’re doing, and most IM software is separate from email, scheduling, and other software, so it can get lost in the shuffle.
Nonetheless, it can be a valuable business tool if used judiciously. First, never text or IM someone unless you’re sure they won’t mind, preferably by explicitly asking them. Second, use text or IM only for quick messages or questions, not for the main communication tool for planning, or communicating key details (send email instead, so the recipient can easily file and/or schedule what you’re communicating). Third, until you hear back, assume the message wasn’t received, and send your communication again by another channel.
Unless you’re absolutely sure that all parts of your communication have not just been sent, but have been read and understood clearly, use multiple communication methods. If you’ve left a voicemail, send an email, too. If you haven’t heard back from a text, try a voicemail. If you’ve had a meeting, follow up with an outline of what you talked about. Meetings can be forgotten or misunderstood, and one-way communication could fail without you knowing. If it’s important, make sure your message got across, and was fully understood.
When we’re communicating via all of these channels, with dozens of people at a time, it’s critical that everyone, including both yourself and the recipient(s) knows when to expect a response.
Often, this can be interpreted as rushing the other person. Make clear that that isn’t the case (unless, of course, it actually is). I often tell people, “I don’t want to rush you, but I just want to know when to expect this, so I can schedule accordingly. I want to be ready when you are.” Even if (especially if) it’s going to be a long time until you hear back or get results, you want to know when to schedule a follow up, to be sure the response actually comes. People get busy, and have other priorities and commitments. You need to be able to schedule a time, after which you know you should be concerned if you haven’t heard back (more on that shortly).
Just as the recipient might misinterpret this step as “rushing”, so you, the sender, could mistake this for a need to rush things. That’s not the case at all. Just because you’re asking for a reasonable timeframe doesn’t mean you need to demand that everything be faster. This is about setting the pace, whether it’s fast or not, and making sure that you’re not actually rushing someone who really needs more time, or moving too slow when someone else is trying to move more quickly.
Coincidentally, last night I heard an MMA (mixed martial arts) sensei talking to one of his fighters. (Long story, but to be clear, I was only a spectator.) He said, “I hear fighters all the time say, ‘I was tired and got sloppy.’ That shouldn’t happen. If you’re tired, be tired, but stay focused. If your arms are fatigued, block more and throw less punches, or use kicks. When your arms aren’t fatigued anymore, go back to punching. It’s your choice how often you move. Set the pace.”
The same is true with setting expectations about follow up and follow through. You don’t always have to be fast to be effective. If you’re already busy, let things stretch out a bit and don’t rush the other parties. If you really need something done quickly, be clear about that, too. Whatever the pace, though, be sure everyone knows what that pace is, so they can plan accordingly.
Once you find out what the expected response time is, don’t just make a “mental note”. Make a real, honest-to-God note that you’re actually going to see when that time arrives. If you’ve got your next meeting set, put it on the calendar. If you’re waiting on someone else, create a “task” or “objective” or set a reminder. Make sure that if you don’t hear back, you’re not going to just forget the whole effort.
In xBase, for example, we have three tools for this. You can use other tools, of course, but the same principles apply.
Objectives are things that need to be done. In Microsoft Outlook, they’re called Tasks. In other programs, their called “to-dos” or something similar.
These don’t show on the calendar itself (although they often show near it) because you’re not exactly sure when they’ll happen. They can have a start, and a due date/time, and eventually an end (when the objective is completed). The due date might change over time, as deadlines are missed or situations change.
The open objective itself lets you know that something still needs to be done. A due date lets you know when you need to get back to it. (Some people prefer to use the due date for the “final” due date. I prefer to use it as more of a “when do I need to follow up” date, because that way it will come up on my list well before the final deadline.)
Activities show on the calendar. They can be meetings, phone calls, emails, etc. These are things with dates and times that either were done, or are on the schedule to be done. If objectives are “what needs to be done”, Activities are “what are we doing about it?”.
If you have a pretty good idea of when you and the other party or parties are getting back together, a future scheduled meeting (or phone call, or online meeting) is ideal.
Microsoft Outlook (and some other programs) have only “Events” on the calendar, and emails are completely separate. However, you can use “events” for more than just meetings, and just remember that your email folder might have relevant “activities,” too.
One shortcoming, in my opinion, of most calendaring software is that when the end time is past, the activity is assumed to be done. In xBase, a meeting shows up in “current activities” at the start time, and doesn’t go away unless you close it. This ensures that the activity actually happened, and also gives you a chance to add notes, add follow-on activities or new, related objectives, and so forth. If you’re using Outlook or some other calendaring software, you can still make sure that you review your calendar at the end of the day, to make sure you’ve added notes, or rescheduled, or added follow-ons, for all the events that supposedly happened that day.
Reminders will actually pop up at a given time, not just wait for you to check your current activities or open objectives. These are, of course, available in many other programs, too.
In practice, never dismiss a reminder unless you’ve actually taken care of it. Use “snooze” (where available, such as in xBase, Google or Outlook) to be sure you don’t get distracted and miss the reminder altogether.
In xBase, you can add reminders to an Objective, to a particular Activity, or to a “thread” of Activities (like a series of emails, but a thread can also include other activity types like phone calls or meetings).
Putting it all together
To make the most of these tools (or similar tools in other software), I make it a practice to always have something scheduled in the future for each and every client I’m working with, unless there really are no future expectations or opportunities. Even if there are no immediate needs, I’ll have an objective and/or reminder scheduled several months out, just to consider touching base and seeing if they need anything else. If I’m expecting a call on Tuesday, I have an objective for Wednesday, just in case the call never comes.
In xBase, there’s actually a feature that will warn you, when you mark an activity as closed, that one or more of the contacts on the activity has nothing scheduled for the future, and offer to create a follow-up reminder for the “thread”. You can shut this feature off, but I personally wouldn’t recommend it unless you truly work with people once and only once, with no expectation of future interaction. That’s possible in some industries, but it’s rare.
Keeping Your Eye on the Ball
To summarize all this, it’s useful to think of “the ball”. That’s the ball as in, “The ball’s in your court,” or “I dropped the ball.”
When you communicate (by telling the situation and what needs to be done about it), you’re putting the ball (or some of the balls) in someone else’s court. To be sure the ball actually made it to the other person’s court, use the right communication channels, be they meetings, phone calls, voicemails or even text or IM, and use them correctly.
Make sure you, and everyone else, knows when to expect the ball back. This is a complex game, and you cannot sit still on the court (or sit by the phone) waiting for the return, but you also want to be sure you’re there when the ball comes back.
Finally, don’t drop the ball, and don’t let anyone else drop it either. Make sure you know when your deliverables are expected (of course) but also make sure that if the ball’s not back when expected, you will remember to follow up and see if it’s getting dropped.
I hope all of this has been helpful to you, and that at least some of it has been new and inspiring.
If you’re already an Extensitech client, you have probably heard of most, if not all, of this. If you’d like to know more about how to use xBase to achieve these goals, schedule an online meeting with us and we’ll demonstrate how to leverage the features in xBase. If you have the current version, all the tools above are included, and if you have an older version much of it is, and all of it could be.
If you’re not yet a client, and these methods sound good to you, give us a call for a free consultation. Even if you decide not to have us build you a custom solution, we can demonstrate how we do these things in xBase, and discuss how you can apply these principles either with xBase or with other software if that’s right for you.
Tags: Chris Cain, For Clients, For Potential Clients
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