Published in My Office Today – May 2009

There are many ways to communicate to those in our department, office, our clients, and vendors but it has become increasingly difficult to manage the most effective ways to communicate. Here are some of the most common problems and best practices to have more efficient communication. Let’s take a look at the many elements to this communication jungle such as mail/letters, email, phones, document sharing, instant messaging, texting, note taking, and software programs.

Mail/Letters
Even though this relic form of communication seems a thing of the past it is still a very viable form, but there are some obvious problems with it. Delivery is almost always slow. You can rarely depend on the delivery date as it can have a 1-2 day error margin; incredibly frustrating when you need documents signed. There is always little interaction involved, you send and wait for a response. Tracking is even worse as you can’t track when they received it and what the next step in the process is.

But there are reasons to still use this snail pace; it should most definitely be an option for official business communications such as legal documents. Although, while it’s incredibly useful for business communications you should always have it integrated with a document management system so you can track revisions, have a singular master copy, know who sent the original communication, and what the response was.

Email
We all remember when email was such a novelty and was hardly useful but now we seem to depend on email for almost every communication need. Doing so provides many problems though. When email is used for every style of communication you’ll find inboxes will fill with short emails between staff members. And many of those staff members will also use email as a form of document transfer with each other. Both of these issues cause large storage problems, a management disaster, and a missed opportunity to track due dates.

This new, faster form of snail mail should continue to be a mainstay in the office; it can help every office incredibly. You should always use email for client/vendor communications and non-confidential file transfer. Internal projects always need to be discussed with multiple people who aren’t always in the same room, which is why email helps project development thrive. When you cannot say it in person or over the phone then it is necessary to use email. It is important to be able to discern which form of communication is more useful for the appropriate communication type. Email is incredibly useful when dealing with client/vendor relationships that are in different time zones; enabling you to keep the project moving forward without waiting for them to get into the office for a phone call.

Phones vs Email
We have become so dependent on phones especially since many people have even foregone their home lines for only a cell phone. But utilizing the phone for your business in an effective way is entirely different. Everyone is familiar with the long voicemails we receive from a client or staff member, which is so scattered or cryptic that you have to call them back, defeating the purpose of leaving a message. Many times staff members will call other members who are out of the office to remind them to check their email; this kind of one-way communication is wasteful and costly. Cell phones have allowed us to do business anywhere but still lack reliability, which creates problems when listing specific details and your call is dropped; email is a better method of delivering specific details. Many people choose to deal with important issues/problems over the phone, which is a smart decision as many clients/vendors appreciate it but communication over the phone doesn’t provide historical data like email.

The right office phone system can truly help your office communicate and interact more richly. The use of Voice Over IP (VOIP) can dramatically reduce your monthly phone bill especially if your call volume is high. Voice mail should only be used to communicate short messages, with exact detail, otherwise your just prompting the recipient to call you back to hear the same message.

Receptionist vs. Voicemail
The use of a receptionist as opposed to voicemail can provide a better client experience. Having the receptionist log each call offers many benefits such as: tracking, billing opportunities, delegation, and historical data. Through well-established policies, voicemail should be reserved for clients who demand to leave a message concerning confidential matters and to leave specific requested information. By instituting these policies we can reduce the time spent listening to voicemail. While some will argue that voicemail is more efficient you have to look at the true cost incurred by using such a system. Receptionists historically have a low cost and are usually used for many things other than answering the phone. So the cost of logging a message is very low, we would need to manage the time spent dealing with the client, keeping the calls brief and logging important information only. Alternatively, the cost of an owner or manager listening to messages over and over again is very high. And the cost of putting the information into a system by the owner and manger is even higher. With the multiple benefits of a friendly voice for our clients to speak and the elimination of owners wasting time by listening and logging call is a strong consideration for using both a receptionist and voicemail.

Receptionist rather than voicemail should handle urgent matters where the person leaving the message has no expectation when you will receive that message.

Documents
Remember how exhilarating it is to have five different revisions on your desktop; three separate versions in your email and now you don’t remember which one was the right one to send out. Versioning and revisioning has become a large problem in the office, especially if documents are transferred through email to multiple staff members. Many offices struggle with managing documents whether digitally created or physically delivered to the office. There is usually no procedure in place to deal with the amount of documents received and delivered to clients, which only creates more problems and stress. Then you have the problem of how to deal with clients’ confidential data, which needs to comply with certain laws.

Documents should always reside in one place for the office, never on multiple computers or email boxes. It’s important to choose a non-proprietary file format when considering a document management system. Establish procedures for receiving external documents from clients to ensure uniform management. When dealing with client confidential data it is imperative to use a secure service to transfer that data outside of your firm. This helps you stay compliant. Always maintain off-site copies of your documents and data, you never know when the worst can happen. Enable easy access to all of your documents while maintaining appropriate rights for users inside and outside of your firm.

Instant Messaging
Most commonly thought as an activity reserved for teenagers rather than an incredibly powerful tool for the office, instant messaging can provide real value to your business. However, they’re a many owners who would rather not deal with it and for good reason. Most instant messaging clients (programs) are insecure, opening your network to much vulnerability. Almost all clients lack a unified source of historical data, which makes tracking staff communications difficult. Staff members often attempt to transfer documents back and forth to each other, office and home, putting your clients data out in the internet unsecured. Many staff members choose to use instant messaging instead of email, which creates more problems in tracking projects. As with email, instant messaging is incredibly difficult to decipher tone, inflection, and sarcasm making an innocent comment into a lost staff member or client.

When you use a unified instant messaging system you create historical data, which is great for tracking projects and managing staff activities. When a staff member needs to ask quick questions or deliver short messages you’ll find instant messaging to be the right choice instead of email or picking up the phone. It also allows you to discuss private matters without speaking on the phone. Instant messaging unifies the office without needing to pick up the phone or sending an email.

Texting
Everyone seems to be texting these days but it presents many problems when integrating with the office. Texting does not provide unified historical data, which can be a problem when attempting to track correspondence. Many times texting is used for long conversations, which should be done in person or over the phone. Staff members who text often forget that texting should never be used for time sensitive messages as delivery times are unreliable.

Texting is best used when needing to send quick updates that don’t require an email to staff members who are offsite. This kind of communication is extremely helpful when it is used for one-way, non-time sensitive updates about group projects.

Note Taking
Taking notes has been an age-old medium and style of remembering information for use at a later time. But with age it has neglected to keep up with ever-changing technology. There is usually no unified storage besides maybe a filing cabinet. Every staff member takes notes differently and therefore there is no format that is adhered to. When notes are updated there is no historical data to associate with that note that there has been a change. And unless client/project folders are used there is even less information about how notes are associated with these relationships.

But if you were to have a unified storage system that keeps all notes in a digital format you can then access these notes from virtually anywhere. Every office should establish some type of note taking guidelines that help staff members format their notes in a way that everyone can decipher them and make actionable decisions from them. With your storage system it is advantageous to have some way to link these notes to your client/project files in your network. This allows your staff to have all the necessary information available before they speak with a client about a specific project.

Software
Many owners after toiling away on their own decide to move to multiple software programs to help them manage their practice but often end up becoming the computer technician of the office having to fix every issue. They then find that having all these programs do help accomplish certain tasks but lack tracking and historical data between these programs. Retrieving data from multiple programs becomes increasingly laborious and tedious. While delegation and accountability is incredibly difficult to manage. Sharing data between programs is almost non-existent as well as running reports in the same format.

It’s time to have software help you rather than work against you. Every owner should consider reducing the amount of programs they use to the fewest possible excluding their industry specific applications. This not only helps with management and technical issues but can save money on license fees. If possible, using one program can dramatically improve tracking items from daily tasks, delegation, accountability, sharing data, and reporting. Using fewer programs will decrease the amount of time it takes to retrieve data, which will save money and frustration.

While there is a jungle of communication options to journey, it is important to remember that when choosing to always consider the management aspect of your choices. Often times owners will choose options that increase management involvement or commitments rather than saving time. These individual options almost always end up costing more money than saving time. Make sure that we consider each of these communications methods; looking at the big picture while solving each inherent problem before implementing a solution.

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