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Establish a Communication Protocol

blog Jul 05, 2012

Communication is arguably the most important skill you can have in life and in business. If you can communicate with different people, on different levels, and in different languages, you are what helps build bridges and tie people together. This is true in your personal life, your business and in the world. And in today's online society, communication skills are even more important. I intend to address the basics here.

I find it interesting when I ask an interviewee, "Do you have good communication skills?" and they simply reply, "Yeah." "Very good then, and do you consider yourself to be detail oriented?" (This is asked as I stare down at the application they recently completed with the accuracy and penmanship of a 3rd grader.) "Oh yes, very detail oriented sir." So you hire this person and bring them into the fold of your company and they are aspiring as expected. But have you established what would be considered a standard of communication for your company that helps this valuable new resource represent your company and your service as you would like?

Everyone has a call script and response process and a few email templates. At least I hope they do. What I'm referring to here is a communication protocol that establishes how you communicate with everyone in your company and everyone your company deals with, from clients to vendors. A communication protocol is a set of best practices for your communication that covers phone, in person, meetings, email, and if need be, texting and other social media.

I guarantee that if you have a good sales and/or marketing department or team, they have a set protocol for their processes. A call comes in, they respond ASAP, they follow up, they check back, and they cc engineering or third-party vendors when communicating about product. They are excellent at communication related to their system and processes. Unfortunately, some companies have a problem where that kind of close communication dies off and never returns once the sale is made, but that's fodder for another blog.

Your company needs an overall communication protocol to establish a minimum standard of dialogue and interaction which is directly proportional to the scenario at hand. To put it more simply, the more important the issue, the higher the level of effective communication required. Notice I said "effective"? You may be cc'ing everyone on every email, but at some point you have to recognize that the issue has subsided back down to a priority three, so you can stop cc'ing the President of the client company now.

A complete communication protocol would cover nothing less than the following:

o Who is included in the communications?

o What will be communicated?

- What detail level?

- What levels will we require closed-loop communication?

o When to communicate?

- Establishing communication

- Expanding audience

- Sending communication even though there is nothing to report

- Contracting audience

- Ending communication

o Where will the tracking of the communications be maintained?

o Why is this level or depth of communication required for a given issue?

o How will we communicate?

- Phone

- Email

- Posting on Website

- Sneaker Net

- Snail Mail

A robust communication protocol would also have several examples of use. A few email chains or phone conversations documented from real service tickets are excellent examples. And sometimes the failed service ticket is a good way to establish the "how not to effectively communicate" as well as the "how to effectively communicate" standards. What counts is that you clearly establish some set methods for how to effectively communicate based on the scenario, and that everyone follows that protocol.

I have to point out two of the most misunderstood and overlooked components of communication. First is the need for closed-loop communication. Closed-loop communication means there is a reply expected and required on some levels of communication. It has to be there for high-priority issues; in its absence, you have no way of knowing that what you have conveyed has been understood or executed. Tell me you haven't had an engineer say, "Well I sent them an email telling them what to do." Okay, but did they receive it, and did they do it? Second, communication must take place even when there is nothing to report. By itself, this is useful and important information that top-level executives will use to make critical decisions. As a client, even if I already know that I am in wait status, it is still important to know that I will continue to be in wait status. Knowing this, I may plan a parallel path, choose to wait, or not. Saying to your client, "If you don't hear from us, it means we're working on it," isn't good enough.

With an effective communication protocol in place, what your clients will see is excellence in service and that they know where things are at all times. I cannot count the number of times I have heard a client state that if they are just informed and kept in the loop, they can continue to make progress where possible and adjust accordingly. They may not be happy, they may be losing money, they may be thinking of other options, but they are always up-to-date on the status of this one issue.

Left to their own devices, many companies completely overlook this very critical skill set. Its absence is often lamented by everyone but recognized by few. But the few, the ones who recognize the lack of a communication protocol that can be relied on, are often your clients. Don't be the service provider everyone else is talking about who has poor communications. There's no reason for it.

If you do not have a set communication protocol, you can start one right now by copying my words into a document and claiming them as your own best practice. And remember, as with anything you grow yourself, think Kaizen: Incremental, continuous improvement. Your communication protocol doesn't have to be completed right now or before you start using it. Just get something established, endear your team and company to it, and build it up over time. Your clients will appreciate it.

Final takeaway: Establish a communication protocol for your company and learn to over-communicate!

Side note: Look for further in-depth coverage of this subject in my upcoming book, Getting to the Next Level: A Blueprint for Taking Your Managed Service Business to the Top

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