Automating Communications

By Christian Buckley posted 10-18-2013 14:12


Water flows down the path of least resistance. In my experience, so do communications between customer-facing groups and product development teams. If its an easy response, we're right on top of it. Unfortunately, when the issue is cloudy or difficult, human nature is to delay responding. We all hate to admit it, but when it comes to solving complex software problems or responding to detailed customer functionality requests, development teams usually do what it takes to get the product out the door – even if it means bypassing specific customer requests, kicking the can down toe road, so to speak, which means revisiting the same problems later. But keeping development on schedule and providing continual feedback to your customers should not be mutually exclusive.


Communication is the key. The aspects of good communication are simple, whether in an email, within a broadcast message posted to your company website, or even within your marketing messaging: they should be clear, concise, consistent, and they should manage expectations. This point deserves emphasis: it is one thing to create a communication strategy that answers the technical requirements, but an entirely separate issue to create a strategy that anticipates questions and provides solutions.”


But who has time for clear and concise communication? Everyone, if you have the right tools. Put the tools in front of the people, and make them as simple as possible (the tools, not the people). One of the topics on which I often present is the problem of end user productivity, and how structured collaboration (ECM platforms, SharePoint) and unstructured collaboration (social tools, like Yammer) can both cause confusion if not implemented in a way that makes clear the preferred methods of communication. The issue is education as much as it is about the technology platforms used. You cannot simply assume that because Yammer is so easy to use out of the box that everyone inherently understands how to make the most of it. 


There is no single communication strategy that will work for every organization, but a lot you can learn from the experiences of others. Based on my experience in project and operations management where I was dealing with front-line customer issues, product and development team interactions around the delivery of the platforms my customers used, here's one roadmap to improving communication:

  1. Train your customer-facing teams to properly capture the information.
    Make yourself the communication evangelist for your team or company, constantly looking for teaching moments. Advocate capturing requirements via entire sentences, rather than our increasing habit to chop up language into tweet-ready fragments. Persuade people to break each issue down into logical steps, and to carefully capture the viewed behavior, expected results, and then their specific ask -- including who they are requesting help from, and when they need it. Seems basic, I know, but how much time do you spend "collaborating" with people around unclear communications? Too much time, I'll wager.


  1. Automate the mechanisms for entering information.
    This might be the implementation of an issue tracking platform, with a form accessed via your main company portal within SharePoint. It might be a simple list form in SharePoint itself, or maybe an Issues group in Yammer. Implement your solutions in a way that allows people to easily access and share this information. This should be a no-brainer – log in, define the appropriate issue, prioritize your information, and then leave your data. The easier you make it, the likelier they are to use it. Automate through workflow whenever possible removing the guess work of who needs to review, and whether they received it. Simplify the end user interface wherever possible.


  1. Set up a process for deciphering this information.
    Once you have the information, what will you do with it? It’s one thing to set up a vehicle for capturing and documenting customer information, it’s another thing to get your product development team to respond – so that your sales team can provide timely feedback. If your organization is in the dev or operations space, make the review of these inputs part of your daily/weekly/monthly review process. Assign priority and responsibility. Once again, this may be highly automated.


  1. Assign to necessary technical leads.
    The product team has responded, and the appropriate technical lead – whether part of your internal engineering team or part of a third-party development organization – should be automatically notified. Actually, this is a big incentive for my own product management team. They are acutely aware that the sooner they respond, the sooner the issue gets assigned to an engineer and moves off of their own plate. How’s that for motivation? Instead of the engineering team lead receiving email notification for every single problem that comes across the product team, maybe design your solution to automatically organize and delegate based on metadata and/or issue severity. More opportunities for automation, hiding these steps behind a workflow or form -- but I'd just like to point out the mechanics behind them.


  1. Train customer-facing teams to report back to customers.
    At any given moment, I know that I can log into my SharePoint environment and receive the latest update on any issue or enhancement that was entered the previous week, because the assignment of tasks and the accountability to consume that communication, decipher it, and respond quickly has become part of our company culture. How powerful is that?


No tool will ever solve every team’s problems, but you need to start somewhere. This may seem very structured and overly mechanized for some organizations, but the larger you become, the need for clear steps and automation become more critical. While its nice to think that people will always do the right thing with regard to communication, the reality is that we're all heads-down and busy within our individual roles, and this level of communications automation helps people and teams to be more effective and consistent.

#strategy #SharePoint #sharepoint #planning #bestpractices #communication #Collaboration #informationmanagement #InformationGovernance