Click, Send. The Joys…and Pain of Email!

My latest piece is a reminder that email may be wonderfully convenient, but it can also be problematic!

Not that long ago communication was a lot more straightforward.  Not better, necessarily, but certainly easier to manage.  Letters, memos, phone calls (with their attendant pink message slips) and face to face meetings pretty much covered the gamut of how we got our thoughts across, questions answered, sales made and deals done.  Those weren’t necessarily the “good old days.”  There was a painful lag time built in to nearly every aspect of work, a mountain of refined tree products to keep track of, sort and file, and for those of a certain age, the joy of a sleepless Sunday night grinding over what awaited on Monday morning.

Now? A totally different story in so many ways.  Voicemail has replaced pink message slips, with the virtue that everyone but my father leaves real information in the message, not just a notation that they called.  Texting enables quick, informal interactions.  Messaging lets you interrupt someone’s work with a question the minute it comes to you.  Voice and video conferencing enable far-flung offices and colleagues to come together virtually to solve problems and work together.  Sometimes you can have a live one-on-one conversation on the phone or even—gasp!—face-to-face.

There are, of course, pros and cons to each of these communications modes.  Some inject one person’s sense of urgency into someone else’s work stream. Others create a way to dodge a difficult issue indefinitely. Still others make resource balancing and inclusion possible in a way not possible before.  Overall, I’d rather work in this world than the old, but it is a different beast, and it’s often a bit too easy to sort something out superficially without really getting to the heart of a situation.  This last point brings me to what I think, in many ways, is the worst communications method of all: email.

Email? Yes, email.  According to several polls I’ve read, ranging from consulting firm McKinsey to USA Today, the average worker spends anywhere from 3 to 6 hours a day dealing with work and personal email.  The split varies by study, but the result is striking.  Think about this: nearly 40% of a work day is taken up by email reading, responding and sending, not counting what one hopes is thinking time behind the responses and sends.  Don’t get me wrong: email is an essential tool.  It provides a document trail.  It’s useful for transferring information, documents, images, instructions and the like.  Email can be dealt with any time of the day or night, making those Sunday night heebie-jeebies a bit less burdensome.  I live on email.  You live on email.  It’s an ingrained and essential part of business.

But email also has some toxic side effects.  Putting aside the obvious ones, namely that it is a Sisyphean process and a time suck, email creates and reinforces some terrible habits.  Most prominent among these is that it promotes passive aggressive behavior.  A second cousin to Facebook trolling, email can encourage—and according to several studies, it does to a great degree—support saying things that would never be said to a person’s face or in a meeting.  Let’s face it—we all get them: emails that are the electronic version of a rock being tossed by someone hiding behind a bush.  Polite in its wording, hostile or demeaning in its connotation.

Almost as bad, email can encourage laziness.  Using the magic forwarding button, a problem is blithely swept off your desk to someone else’s inbox.  That the issue in question may be stuck in that cycle for ages is often ignored.  In one case I am acquainted with, a person who raised an issue, found it passed around his organization for two weeks, and wound up on his desk with his boss’s request to look into the matter, oblivious to the fact that at the very bottom of the long, long thread, this person’s original question was sitting there!  Just because you pass something off to someone in an email doesn’t mean the problem is sorted out; it just means the problem’s gone from your inbox.

Another challenge with email is the lack of context.  How many times have you read an email from someone and completely gotten the meaning wrong? Be honest now.  You’re in a bad mood, you’re tired, cranky, distracted, stressed, and an email comes in.  You read it and your blood pressure goes through the roof and you immediately write back a scathing response.  Then you reread the original email and find that what you thought it said isn’t exactly what it really did say.  Context is critical.  We are creatures of 5 senses, and absent body language, tone of voice or eye contact, words can mean so many different things, as much dependent on the reader’s mood and attention span at the time as anything else.

If you get an email that seems over the top, my advice is to take a deep breath, grab a (decaf) coffee or a cup of water, then reread it to make sure what you think you read is what was meant.  Then, pick up the phone (or arrange a call if there are time zones involved) and have a live conversation.  Remember that the sender is subject to life and work stresses too, there may be language barriers to be considered, and frankly, most people can’t put thoughts down in writing anymore anyway, so there are lots of things working against you.

So, the next time you sit down to sort out your emails, don’t just do everything possible to get through them as quickly as you can; you may be missing something truly important and worth your attention.  Also, don’t “reply all” unless you absolutely have to.  20 people don’t need to get an email from you that says “OK”.

The Challenge of December

Every industry and business has its own rhythm and cycles, with slow periods interspersed with times of exhausting activity.  Making sure you understand, anticipate and plan for both is the difference between a good year and, well, a not so good one.  While there’s an argument for any number of months being a candidate for toughest time to get work done, I think many companies would vote for December (or more properly, the week before Thanksgiving through the New Year holiday). Distractions are many, the stresses of personal lives inject themselves into the workplace, and frankly, no one’s really in the mood to work.  That said, the business of business needs to continue, and therein lies the challenge.

Even with creative pressure-reducing solutions like non-calendar year-ends and offset quarters, there’s no getting away from what the season is.  Summer months can be slow and hard to get things done because of the weather and vacations, the fall can be tough because people are just coming back from those vacations and reluctantly getting back into the swing of things, but this time of year is a festive season for pretty much everyone.  It’s natural, after a long year’s effort to want to slow down a bit and enjoy the lights, displays, office decorations and such.  It’s a time for breaking what can be a tedious routine for most of the year and peoples’ moods change.

When I managed sales and marketing teams, my weekly status meetings around this time of year were filled with excuses for slowing activity. To be fair, it is hard to break through your prospect’s own holiday lethargy, and the number of times I personally heard, “well, at this point, let’s just get things finished after the first of the year…” is hard to count—but it was a lot.  I’ve learned, and I passed the same onto my teams, that this time of year is a great time to reach out to customers and prospects, not to try and extract more business (though that’s always worth the try), but to connect and say thanks for the business they’ve already given you or the time they’ve allocated you in the past year to pitch your wares.

Of course there’s a secondary reason: people by from people they like and trust.  And the only way you can build trust is for prospects and customers to get to know you, not just as a representative of your company, but as a person.  At the end of the day, just as all politics is local, all business is personal.  So if you’re feeling festive, now is a great time to help your counterpart break up their routine even as you are able to modify yours.  If you can get the deal done before the end of the year, great.  But if not, you’re at least well-positioned to get the job done as soon as the last glass of champagne has been finished at the turn of the year.

For marketers December should be a time of both planning and preparation for the next year’s set of activities, but also a time to burnish the business’s image a bit.  Thanking customers publicly in the media, demonstrating pride in the relationship, offering up messages of thanks to the communities in which you operate are all useful ways to keep focused on the business objectives without having to put aside the spirit of the season.

Lastly, if you’re the owner or an executive of the business, now is the best time of all to show employees and the public what you’re made of.  For so many, this is a time of need and worry. Take some of the good fortune your business enjoys and share it around in some way.  You don’t need to make a big deal about what you do, but organizing events that benefit the community and involve employees and management, donating to help those less fortunate, even extending those efforts to include customers and partners if they wish to participate, not only does a wonderful thing for the community, but sends an important business message to customers about what kind of a company they are partnered with.  Doing well by doing good is a powerful way to build loyalty, and that’s a foundation for future growth.

Yes, this is a difficult time to stay focused and get stuff done, but by going with the flow of the season and incorporating it into your work effort, that stuff will get done, and you’ll be able to demonstrate to all that business isn’t, well, all business.

Building a Culture for Success

Having spent most of my professional career in the technology world, I’ve seen, and been a part of bringing some pretty amazing innovations to the market.  Some have truly changed how we get things done, and some others were just plain cool.  What has always been interesting to me, though, is why some companies make it and some do not.  I don’t mean those who get gobbled up and become part of some other company; I’m talking about first-to-market companies, market leaders, name brands that just…go…away.  You can name them in every industry, and it can be a depressing exercise. Yes, there are market forces involved, strategic missteps and technology changes (think VHS vs. Betamax) that do in many apparently thriving companies, but there’s one other that can be just as deadly to a business’s health: company culture.

In my experience, a company’s culture, it’s approach to getting things done, decision-making, customer service and how employees are treated can trump many other factors in determining long term success or failure of the business.  As part of the leadership teams of quite a number of companies over the years who wrestled with driving positive cultures, I can boil the topic down to two points: it starts and must be led from the very top of the organization, and it’s really, really hard to change.  As it happens, I have recent experience with both points.

A friend of mine runs the leadership training program for a globally known, very large company which designs and builds big metal things we all see every day.  This company is in an industry that has its ups and downs and the company has been generally successful, especially of late.  But in a conversation recently, my friend mentioned that while most of the people he works with are bright, open-minded and eager to improve, there is an unshakable fear of failure. In spite of efforts from top management, the company’s culture is such that even a single failed effort can spell doom for the person’s career.  The result is that things move slowly, cautiously, and innovation is limited to special groups within the company—everyone else plays it safe and works hard to prevent the boat from rocking.  Hierarchies are rigid, there’s an unfortunate amount of corporate toadying to superiors, and the status quo is maintained.  This company isn’t going out of business, but it’s leaving so much opportunity behind.

On the other hand, I work with a company with a similar scale, albeit in a different set of market segments.  Yes, it too is a huge enterprise with byzantine processes and its share of “30 year men” whose key job function seems to be to get one year closer to retirement.  The difference is, there is a very strong commitment from the very highest levels of the organization to innovate, think outside the box, collaborate internally, and stay focused on the best possible products for their customers.  It’s hardly perfect, and the inertia of a large company is roughly the equivalent of a black hole, but through actions and deeds the company is making considerable progress in pushing this credo throughout the organization.  The result is that people are willing to propose ideas, try new things and if they don’t work out they’re considered learnings that inform the next effort, not a death knell for their career.

Ok, so those are two different views of really big companies, but the points remain the same for any size business.  If you want engaged, energetic employees, you have to actively ensure the work environment you set up—as the executives or business owners—fosters and reinforces that behavior.  I’ve worked in too many companies where getting to the office early turned into a competitive sport, and leaving late became a game of chicken to impress the boss.  If it’s important for you to be perceived as the big kahuna, with the power of employment life or death over people, you’re going to get compliance, not commitment. And your results will reflect that dynamic.

On the other hand, if you’re so laissez faire that a herd of cats would look organized and disciplined, then you’re never going to grow, and neither are your staff.  Key is to bring your leaders and your team together to understand the company’s goals, its objectives and its targets for the year, and make sure everyone knows how and where they contribute.  From there you and your management, right down to the lowest level supervisor, needs to both be engaged in supporting that playbook, and consistent across the team in what behaviors are reinforced and which are discouraged.  There are many reasons why companies succeed or fail—don’t let a bad corporate culture put your business at risk.

 

Know What Problem You’re Solving–Before Buying Technology

I admit it.  I’m part of the problem.  Or used to be. Mea culpa. Guilty. I apologize.  Ah, that feels better!  Always helpful to unburden ones’ self.  So, what heinous acts have I performed that requires a public apology?  I’ve spent most of my professional career trying to get you to buy technology that may or may not have been what you needed.  Sure, I made you want it, sometimes really, really want it, but that doesn’t mean it was right for you or your business.  As an act of contrition, and in the public interest, I’m going to talk about avoiding the irresistible, the shiny object, the unicorn of technology.

The dirty little secret of the technology world is that business executives and owners have been conditioned by the market to make decisions based on technology first and the business needs second.  In the hardware world that usually means more horsepower than is required (with the requisite too-high price tag), or less capability than is needed (to get a “deal”).  In the world of software, the very backbone of any business today, it means succumbing to pretty screens, cool-sounding TLAs (three letter acronyms) and sales pitches which focus on features and functions, not on exploring your needs. The bias is often toward the “what” not the “why” of a buying decision.

In small to mid-sized companies in particular (but believe me, multi-billion-dollar companies are not immune either) systems may seem a perfect fit at the level at which purchasing decisions are made, when it gets to the operational level, the choice often becomes a bad one; the system turns out to not be able to match your business processes so you wind up contorting yours to match the system instead.  Often you lose information fidelity, that is, reports and data you had painstakingly tweaked your existing systems to provide, turn out not to be available in your new system (“but it will be available—in the next version…”); or, the new system does what you need it to do, but it takes an expensive resource to manage the care and feeding–someone you have to hire or contract with to feed the beast.  So, what to do? You still need new tech, you just need the right tech.  Fortunately, there’s a relatively easy way to avoid disappointment and pain (if only we could apply that to our personal lives) by following these steps:

Step One–Before even surveying the market for, say, a new financial or ERP or CRM software package, spend the time to map out the problem you’re trying to solve.  Draw diagrams of your workflow if it’s a process problem, map out the pain points your users and management are experiencing and make sure you’ve got root problem, not the symptoms.  Just doing this one step starts you off with better directional accuracy, and keeps you from grabbing the first cool tool you find on Google.

Step Two—Make sure the problem you’re solving is worth being solved.  A recent analogy ripped from the headlines: in spite of Rt 95 coming to a grinding halt on the July 4th weekend, highway authorities said there were no plans to widen to road to accommodate the problem. Why? It happens 4 times a year.  The rest of the time all is acceptable.  Spending millions to save 8 days of inconvenience a year for motorists makes no sense.  Carry that thinking to your analysis—make sure you understand in the most quantitative terms possible, what the problem is costing the business.  You may find that hiring a part time person, or replacing a low performer may solve the issue without you having to put a nickel down for a new system.

Step Three—Match the magnitude of the problem to the requirements of the solution.  Once you know what the problem is costing you and what changes to your processes need to happen, then start looking at solutions.  Key here is to understand what needs to be different once the implementation is done.  Take the time to develop a set of requirements, from the user perspective and the management viewpoint—what needs to happen to streamline the process, and what information is needed for decision-making, and test any solution against those needs. This way you’ll only spend what you need to.

Step Four—Do the math.  Make sure to calculate the total cost of ownership, not just acquisition costs.  Include staffing needs, supplementary fees, support, etc.  Then figure out how long it will take for the new solution to pay for itself and provide a return to the business.  If it’s too long, rethink the solution or review the problem!

Step Five—Make sure you’ve got the expertise at hand to guide the implementation.  More projects fall apart because the people tasked with driving the implementation don’t know enough about the processes being revised, the vagaries of the technology, and/or the capabilities and use of the new system.  In other words, even if your cousin Murray has the time to help on the project, if he can’t meet those three criteria then you should find him something less risky to do.

Overcoming the Challenge of Summer

For many businesses, the summer is a particularly complicated time: it’s hard to keep sales and marketing momentum up when the beach beckons, prospect and customer email vacation autoreplies load up your inbox, and those you do manage to connect with are often reluctant to move things forward “until after Labor Day.”

On the other hand, there’s still the need to close business, somehow, and to keep the sales pipeline filled.  When I ran a sales team, I’d hear all manner of excuses about why deals were slipping, and usually summer-related excuses predominated. But just like time and tide, sales quota attainment waits for no one, so there is a need for smartly applied pressure to advance deals, but that has to be balanced against a fair recognition of the season.  A good sales and marketing team will work together to notch up the creativity a bit to keep things moving.  With that in mind, let’s consider what can be done in the summer months that will help sales efforts, if not perfectly in-period, at least near-term enough to make up for summer deficiencies in the months that follow.

First, think about ways in which you can engage with your prospects.  Now is the perfect time to suggest meeting up for coffee or lunch or a chat about future plans or just visiting because you were in the neighborhood.  Relationship building should never be put off, so use the summer’s slower pace to your advantage by working on the relationship at the same time you’re trying to advance the transaction. Summer is a good time to set up executive meetings to talk more deeply about the future product or service plans of the company.  It does take more work to coordinate, and you certainly want to avoid Friday meetings, but remember they run businesses as well, and they can’t just go fishing for the summer either. Use this time to inform, educate, and continue building bonds.

Second, don’t take customer or your team’s delays as an inevitable part of the season.  As I said earlier, there’s always work that can be done, and that’s as true for your prospects as it is for you. Yes, there’s seasonality in many industries, but chances are you already know that and have set your sales plans to match the dynamics of your industry.  Budgets still need to be worked.  Software still needs to be implemented.  Parts still need to be fabricated.  Shelves still need to be stocked and goods still need to be shipped.  So yes, it may be a little harder, and time frames might get stretched, but summer’s not the time to surrender productivity entirely.  If you’re a sales leader, hold your team accountable to perform to their commitments.  If you’re a sales rep, hold your prospects (politely but firmly) to their commitments.

Third, use the summer to do your own planning and organizing, especially the stuff you never seem to get to.  Reflecting on previous quarters’ performance, and thinking through what worked and what didn’t go as planned is enormously productive, and puts the business in a better position when everyone is back and engaged.  Pull your team together and think about who, where and how you will execute your next big push for sales.  Balance the frustration of out of office messages with your own proactive planning for success.

Summer is a particularly good time for the marketing team to step back and review results and refresh messaging.  Talking with the sales team to get the latest input about what is resonating with prospects and customers is easier to accomplish when the pace is a bit slower, and there’s an opportunity to test new things out of the glare of “prime time.”  Whether it’s a simple set of tweaks or a new program, summer is a great time to get the work done and tested—and it keeps your momentum going, something that is often overlooked.  Especially these days, even a short absence of active marketing makes you invisible faster than ever before.

Lastly, don’t forget to give yourself a break as well.  Far too much research says that we don’t take anywhere near the vacation time we have coming to us.  That doesn’t mean shutting down for most of the summer like our colleagues across the Atlantic do (though I wish it did), but do take some time off, even if it’s just long weekends.  Change up your routine.  You’ll find it freshens the mind, uncovers new ideas, provides more energy to get back to turning over rocks in search of new business, and herding cats to get the deal done.  Summer’s differently paced, for sure, but it can be a productive time as well.