Did you know there are over 200 Chinese dialects?
Some of them are similar with only a slight variation in pronunciation. Others are radically different and sound like completely unique languages. But why are there so many dialects and with such variance?
The most variations occur in the southern, mountainous half of China where–during ancient times–people didn’t have the capability to easily move about and mingle with neighboring villages. Those mountains were like walls. They created a barrier to communication, sometimes resulting in two neighboring communities that spoke wildly different dialects (and had an almost nonexistent relationship).
But you know what, the exact same thing can happen in our agencies.
Sometimes there are 'walls' that inhibit strong relationships or reduce the quality of our communication, resulting in clients and agencies speaking different ‘dialects’ (not being on the same page). The difference is, our walls are usually man-made, often beginning and ending in poor communication.
That’s why we’ve given a communication system so much thought, to remove the barriers that get in the way of building strong relationships and successful teams. With that goal in mind, we’ve determined that a reliable agency communication system must have these five key features:
This one is kind of a no-brainer. You have to communicate in some fashion and it should be easy for everyone involved. And you certainly can’t have quality business conversations that are one-sided (unless you’re in the loony bin like this guy).
The 'no barriers' concept could be mistaken as having an open door policy with clients–unscheduled and unlimited access to your team’s time via any channel necessary (phone, email, video, or walking right into your office). At first thought, the open door policy makes sense because you really don’t want to stop clients (or your team) from interacting. After all, we know that barriers don’t encourage great relationships.
But no barriers doesn’t mean unobstructed access to your agency, it simply involves having structure in place–communication channels and response time expectations–that clients and your team can depend on. Structured communication channels could come in many forms such as a virtual support desk, a dedicated chatting channel, a shared task management board, a team intranet, and more.
Even with an open door policy–especially with open door policy–it’s important to put structure first. A structured communication method should do two things:
You want clients to reach out to you in an efficient way without wasting anybody’s time. This goes with internal interaction as well.
Emails and phone calls don’t provide much structure. While they seem efficient (quick and easy to execute), they both lend themselves to long winded, even ranting conversations and often waste loads of time. In addition, unscheduled phone calls are disruptive to concentration and workflow, and emails can easily lead down an inbox black hole. These types of distractions and time wasting situations are minimised or avoided by sticking to structured communication channels.
You want to be able to record all interactions and information for later use, which happens to be the next feature of a great communication system…
Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.
– David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
Ever forget your shopping list at home? You think and think, but always seem to forget a few critical items. It’s so easy to forget a simple shopping list, how could we possibly remember every piece of important information we receive each day?
For most people in their daily lives, if it doesn’t get on the calendar it doesn’t get done. Communication and the resulting actions can be treated the same way at a busy agency.
If a piece of information is passed but not recorded, the actions that were supposed to be taken can go left undone. Just as bad, the wrong actions could be taken if a key piece of information was lost or distorted.
Recording all interactions is like 'putting it on the calendar', it’s the essential first step to getting everything done. That’s one benefit of documenting communication. Another benefit is the opportunity for future reference. When documented well, conversations are available to search and retrieve. So if you ever forget, have a dispute (internally or with clients), or want to review operations, everything is documented and waiting with a timestamp. This adds a level of transparency that everyone involved can appreciate and rely on.
But a great communication system doesn’t just record interactions willy-nilly, it’s also done in a centralised location(s).
Centralising communication is important for two reasons:
It’s incredibly frustrating when you know a team member has a critical piece of information in their inbox (or brain), yet they’re out of the office until the following week. This happens all the time with decentralised business communication.
Decentralised communication also poses the risk of bits of information falling between the cracks. In person at the office, through email, phone conversations, within chat applications, etc., every time information is passed from one person to another there is a risk of something getting lost or changed. But documenting and centralising information reduces the need to pass information using pure memory. You can always double check or simply point others to the original source.
Which moves us right along to feature three of a great agency communication system…
When it comes to performing at a high degree of efficiency as a team, transparency is our best friend. A great communication system virtually guarantees that all team members stay on the same page, and it’s only possible with centralised communication.
At Endzone Software, we believe that adding more to a system–adding structure, processes, rules and boundaries–removes complexity from our agency and day to day work lives. That’s why we want all client / agency communication to be completely visible among our team. We also want all task related updates and internal communication to be documented and visible as well.
Consider a project task:
With centralised and documented communication, all appropriate team members have access to the task conversations and requirements, allowing anyone to jump in at any time to address the next steps. One team member can handle the first step of a task in the morning, update the task, and leave it for someone else to tackle in the afternoon, all with no disconnect between the team members (this is especially useful in a remote agency like ours where team members are spread across the globe).
Clear visibility within the team ensures that nothing slips through the cracks. Everyone knows what is being handled and by whom. From a business perspective, this adds a level of accountability to our time and actions. Transparency also provides an open environment for collaboration and increased interaction.
Of course it doesn’t matter how transparent we are among the team if clients aren’t kept up to speed…
While visibility for the team means total transparency, the right amount of visibility for the client is more modest. We’re not concerned with the client accessing our internal or external communications. Instead, a communication system should provide the right amount of visibility over an entire project or task for the client.
It’s all too common for agencies to receive a support task or take on a new project, communicate a bunch upfront with the client, then disappear for a while as they take action. This can and does work for many, but the client is left in the dark.
Yes, the project could go off without a hitch, but leaving clients in the dark doesn’t help with building long-term, mutually beneficial relationships (which require trust). Think about it this way… you’re probably not afraid of the dark, but put you in a dark and unfamiliar room and you probably wouldn’t be very comfortable either. Clients feel the same way and have a hard time trusting what they can’t see.
On the flip side, over communication isn’t good either. Clients are busy business owners and they care about results more than the bitty details. Over communication can raise all kinds of red flags to a client, including a lack of expertise, organisation, understanding of their needs, and way more.
The key is to only provide the right amount of visibility–being careful not to overload them with too many details–and it’s why we take a different approach.
As part of our communication system, we want to provide instant and clear visibility for our clients on the status of our work. We’ll go into more detail later but for us, the right amount of visibility (and control) for the client means giving them limited access to our task management and workflow via client dashboards. As we move projects around and move through each level of the fulfillment process, clients can check their dashboard to see real time updates on the progress we’re making without having to ping us (and in some situations, they can drag and drop tasks to prioritise our workload - more on that later…). This keeps clients in the loop while demonstrating our competence as an agency.
It’s the right amount of visibility for clients. Yet even with instant access to project status, it’s still important to provide informative, regular reports to our clients, which is the fifth element (<—awesome movie, too) of a great agency communication system…
We can’t get away from reporting, nor should we. Reports are extremely important touch points that demonstrate all the value we created for our clients. That’s why every agency creates reports (even if they don’t have a formal communication system in place).
And just as adding more structure removes complexity in how we efficiently manage tasks and communication, more structure also removes complexity in creating high value reports. Efficient reporting is both a feature and a byproduct of a reliable communication system.
You may cringe at the thought of pulling together scattered information, consulting a bunch of team members, reflecting, then piecing it all together like a puzzle. But we’ve found that our communication system provides the structure needed to quickly and efficiently pull the most important information into a report.
It’s all right there. Interactions are documented and waiting. Actions taken are documented as well (part of our procedure). It’s all timestamped and ready to go. Just a matter of creating a standard operating procedure to pull the necessary information and place it into a report template.
A communication system that neatly records our interactions essentially allows us to create a repeatable and efficient reporting process, one that could be handed off to an assistant or virtual assistant. The system allows us to demonstrate our value more clearly to clients with less overhead or time waste creating reports.
Just as important, documenting communication allows us to look for ways to improve internal operations. Like reporting, we have the foundation to create reliable internal review processes as well. Transparency along with the opportunity for reflection help us to spot strengths, weaknesses, and trends, forcing us to continually optimise our processes (at the benefit of our agency and our clients).
A reliable agency communication system isn’t about the tools we use or any one particular communication tactic. It's about a cohesive strategy that benefits our clients just as much as our agency.
Now let’s recap. To us, a great communication system has 5 key features:
These are the core features we want from our communication system and, as you’ll see later, they influence the tools we use and the processes we follow.
So far, we’ve given you 'what' we think about communication, but not much of 'how' we implement it, but stay tuned. In coming articles, we’ll dive into the exact processes and workflows we follow to serve our clients.
This post is part of our series on creating an effective ongoing communication system in your agency. Start at the beginning of the article series or pop directly to the topic you need help with most right now.
Got questions or want to start a conversation about communication challenges in your agency? Shout at us on Twitter using #clientcommunication.