Project reports have an important roles to play in project management and in keeping stakeholders informed about milestones, issues, resolutions, costs, risks and next steps. But simply broadcasting the weekly "view from the project manager's chair" is a waste of time and effort if there's no thought about what each stakeholder actually needs to know or interest in whether the message is getting through. This blog suggests 5 ways to turn project reporting from just bureaucracy into an effective stakeholder engagement tool.Read More
Many marketing techniques are equally useful inside the organisation and can make stakeholder engagement much easier for internal service providers such as PMO's, risk management and IT. This article picks up on customer retention research published in this month's HBR and provides plenty of suggestions for how PMO's can apply the same thinking to nurture and maintain good relationships with executives, partners, internal suppliers and customers.Read More
How do you keep customers coming back? An HBR article suggests that the customer relationship is more important than value proposition. This blog-post suggests 6 ways to use customer communications to build that relationship and boost retention.Read More
Insights from a younger generation: 5 communication techniques that work
Reverse mentoring has been around for quite a while. It tends to be associated with topics such as technology, social media and current trends, and the premise is that older executives need to be open to learning (ie. about new technologies) from the younger generation joining the workforce.
I recently had an accidental lesson in the value of reverse mentoring and it had nothing to do with learning about tech. Instead it was about my stock-in-trade: communications. What I learned is that young people can help us to look afresh at a topic that we think we know well. Through the eyes of young people unencumbered by 2×2 matrices, mindmaps and theory, we can be reminded of the basics that perhaps we take for granted or have forgotten why they matter.
Learning from real-world experience
My company recently sponsored a sixth-form student, Josh, who had volunteered* to join a school trip to Sri Lanka to help a community still recovering from the tsunami of 2004. The sponsorship deal was: in return for money to support the expedition, Josh would write an article for me about his volunteering experience, specifically on the topic of communications.
What resulted was rather unexpected: he produced a 5-point framework of communications best practice (see below).
Each point is not new and not rocket science. However, together they provide a reminder that real communication – not just talking at someone but really getting your message across – is less about what you say and more about how you say it. These are simple communication techniques that he’s demonstrated work in practice and that we should all remember whether we’re engaging customers, employees or colleagues.
It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it
Josh and his volunteer colleagues learned through their experiences in Sri Lanka about how to communicate when you strip away the comfort-blanket of a shared language. The volunteers found themselves having to teach a community who spoke no English; and worse, they had none of the familiar tech on which to access Google Translate or YouTube “How to teach English” videos.
When two parties use the same language, it’s tempting to rely on the words to do the communicating for us. It’s easy to forget about other factors that may create communications barriers: channel, trust, motivation. Apparently it was George Bernard Shaw who said: ‘England and America are two countries divided by a common language’. Getting the message right is clearly essential but getting the message across requires other factors as well. As Josh says in his article, “Language is optional”.
What’s in it for me?
“Climb the ladder, but bring someone with you” was a plea from RICS President Elect Amanda Clack in a recent presentation about winning the war for talent. Mentoring in the workplace can be a valuable way of sharing skills and insights for leadership and career development.
Art Markman suggests that mentors themselves learn through mentoring. “When you teach something to another person, you discover all of the details that you don’t completely understand yourself”. I didn’t set out to teach Josh basic communications skills. I set him a challenge to think about what he’d learned. Much like reverse mentoring when senior executives learn about social networking from millennials, I’ve gained from what Josh has worked out for himself. To mis-quote Mr Markman, when you help another person learn, you discover all of the details that you’re overlooking.
Josh’s 5 tips for effective communication:
- What’s in it for me?
When there is an incentive for your audience to engage and participate, it’s much easier to get your message across.
- Keep it simple, keep it clear.
Communication doesn’t have to be complicated – “liberal use of high-fives cannot be underestimated” (certainly with 5-year olds – a different technique might be appropriate in your workplace!).
- Build trust.
Finding a common point of interest can provide a basis on which to connect with someone and start a dialogue.
- Be flexible.
Choose a method of communication that suits your audience, not you. A medium that enables people to participate in the dialogue will encourage engagement.
- Language is optional.
It is not needed to really connect with someone. If both parties are interested in what is going on, both can easily understand it without a word being exchanged.
*Volunteer Sri Lanka (VSL)
The organisation that Josh volunteered to help is Volunteer Sri Lanka. The article that Josh wrote in exchange for sponsorship provides an insight into the issues that the community there is still grappling with, and a refreshingly cheerful account of finding fulfillment in seemingly mundane work.
Guest post by: Josh Clarke, based on his experiences as a volunteer with Volunteer Sri Lanka*
Communication: our ability to transfer ideas and beliefs is what defines and drives societies. It is when communication becomes difficult that groups can thrive or die. Things like fatigue and tiredness can make communication difficult; hunger or thirst, discomfort and loud noises can all make a group flounder. Coincidentally, all of the things that inhibit communication are prevalent on a fiercely independent, humid island in the Indian Ocean. An island that is still feeling the effects of a fierce civil war, incredible poverty and corruption: that island is Sri Lanka.
Upon arrival in Colombo two things hit you: the first is the incredible humidity. The second is the sound of unadulterated chaos. The traffic can only be described as laughable, and that is exactly what our 14 strong band of students did. We laughed. In our sleep deprived minds we thought that the throngs of mopeds and trucks weaving, screaming and crashing was deeply amusing; that was until we saw the police armed with Kalashnikovs at toll barriers, and armoured convoys pulled over at the side of the road. Sri Lanka has gone through incredible turmoil over the last 25 years. News reports and Wikipedia were all well and good but we hadn’t really realised what it meant in reality. Being unable to distinguish traffic police from army personnel was a wakeup call.
Sri Lanka is an enigma. After the infamous “Boxing Day” tsunami foreign aid and financial support flooded into the small nation, and it does show. New highways have replaced dilapidated and deeply concerning coastal roads. With sky scrapers towering up in Colombo and a developing tourist trade, Sri Lanka certainly looks the part. However, as clichéd as it may be, looks really can be deceiving. The funding appears to stop a few miles inland. As volunteers in the country, this was one of several issues we hoped to help address, to help those who had lost everything in the tsunami, and to whom the money should really have reached.
We were staying with a man named Janaka de Silva, who was unanimously known as ‘Don Janaka’ or, more ominously, ‘the Godfather’. Janaka lost both his parents to the turmoil after the tsunami hit, and since then has devoted his life and earnings with his family to help those who are in dire need. He has established a series of projects such as assisting teachers in a nursery, teaching children with severe learning difficulties or simply colouring with the elderly to bring a bit of fun to their otherwise very dull and uncomfortable lives. He is, without a shadow of a doubt, a most generous and caring person. If you have a problem then “ask Janaka”; want some currency converted? “ask Janaka”; want a SIM card that can call the UK? “ask Janaka”; want to know where to get the best pizza on the beach? “ask Janaka”; need to go to the hospital? “ask Janaka”. Janaka was the fount of all knowledge and all commodities. Just don’t ask where he gets stuff, or how he seemingly knows everyone! Perhaps the Godfather title was more apt than we first imagined.
Learning on the job
On day three after a weekend acclimatising, my first project was to head down to the elders’ home. This was a form of assisted living for those who had lost their family in the tsunami and needed help in the day-to-day, however this was very different from any assisted living group in the UK. I had absolutely no idea what to expect, so I was surprised to learn that a fair few spoke some broken English, although they seemed far more coherent when they realised you were dishing out biscuits.
- Lesson 1 in communication: getting your point across is far easier when there is an incentive for others, in this case “Munchee Burbons”, a knock off of the venerable Bourbon chocolate biscuit.
As we were soon to find out, biscuits were far more important than we originally realised. The rest of the day was spent colouring with the women, as the men walked down to church. After a lunch of very hot curry, it was time for our main project that we would continue for the two weeks that we were in Sri Lanka: renovating and repainting classrooms for a local school. This was monotonous and often painful work, but fulfilling none-the-less. The real fun was to be had at the morning projects like the nursery.
Fortunately my second project was the nursery but I was utterly, woefully under-prepared. Chaos does not cover it. Hyperactive five year olds jabbering away in Sinhalese were a formidable task to take on. That was until we introduced the universal sign for “well done” – the high-five. At the end of each day at the nursery my hands were red raw from high-fiving hundreds of excited children. It was at this point that the volunteering trip suddenly came into perspective. Seeing a genuine joy from being spun around, tickled, and picked up and high-fived was incredible, all without a word understood by either party.
- Lesson two of communication: keep it simple, keep it clear. Also, liberal use of high-fives cannot be underestimated.
Janaka’s flagship project is “the Bakery Girls Project”. In Sri Lanka, if a woman is sexually abused she is cast out from society by her family. She is considered a disgrace and quite literally shut away in gated communities. Men are not allowed in, but as I am a qualified first-aider I was granted special access with a few others to teach the girls some basic first aid. This caused much amusement. Teaching them CPR with the “little Anny” CPR doll resulted in them being unable to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation as they were completely incapacitated from giggling. It must have been quite a strange thing from their perspective.
The main point of the Bakery Girls Project is to provide vocational training for 17 and 18 year olds who are soon to have to rejoin normal society. They are taught some basic life-skills including English and how to be very good cooks, so they can support themselves in later life. I can personally testify to their baking skills as they often provided a lunch of bread rolls and various pastries. Watching them learn and progress was magical. It was the small differences we were making that were so rewarding. Even if it was teaching them how to ask for a knife and fork in English, or English words for local fruits, it was stunning. Through the small but constant progress, each lesson revealed a fantastic sense of humour. Ambitious drawings of both the volunteers and the girls were exchanged. This produced an unofficial competition to see who could draw the best impression of the other (see the picture of me above!).
- Lesson three of communication: find common ground. An ability to relate, even from lives that are polar opposites, works wonders; even if it is just drawing very bad pictures.
- Lesson four of communication: be flexible. There was a lot of trial and error as we tried to find ways of explaining what we were talking about. Demonstrating what a fork is worked up to a point but the breakthough was the humble whiteboard. Everyone could draw pictures and be involved.
At this point things took a downturn for me with a trip to hospital after a severe reaction to mosquito bites. On my return, I was given the luxury of choosing which projects I’d like to do. It was a no-brainer: off to the nursery I went. I sat down at one of the small colourful tables to lend a hand to some of the kids who were learning the English alphabet (at around age 5 I might add). I was immediately claimed as a throne for one of the children. He perched on my knee before thrusting a crayon into my hand and demanding I draw pictures of cats. This small child was called Pamadu and over the course of the next week I would become quite attached to the little hyperactive menace. We shared our love for cats through my pictures and his drawings, all without understanding a word either of us was saying. Then we decided that we’d done enough “work” and we should go out and play on the swings. This was to become a sort of routine for us, and we began to develop an un-spoken way of communicating using pointing, mime and of course, high-fives.
- Lesson five of communication: language is optional. It is not needed to really connect with someone. If both parties are interested in what is going on, such as in this case, our mutual appreciation of cats, both can easily understand it without a word being exchanged.
The country was amazing, the climate indescribable, the people incredible, the sea warm and the beer cold. However, one of the things that I’ve taken away from Sri Lanka is that none of the aesthetics matter. On the surface it may bedysfunctional, but deep down there is real kindness. It is the people like Pamadu and Janaka that I’ll remember. Against all the odds they always managed to crack a smile, slap you on the back or show you yet another picture of a cat.
*About Volunteer Sr Lanka
Volunteer Sri Lanka (VSL) is based in Galle, Southern Sri Lanka. It is run and administrated by the De Silva family who lost relatives in the 2004 tsunami. VSL hosts multinational volunteers of all age ranges and all vocations: we had theatre nurses next to primary school teachers, even some volunteers had been through Syria a few weeks before our paths crossed. My team consisted of 14 students who raised in excess of £1000. This money is used to support the projects in-country over the course of the year. The projects VSL is involved with range from accompanying the elderly and tending to their care, rebuilding or renovating schools in the area, teaching at a local nursery, assisting in an orphanage (girls only), and helping out at a school for children with learning difficulties and mental illness. However those are only the projects that the team and I worked on. As needs change and the political climate shifts, other projects will become available and ones that we worked on will become more independent and will not need as much support from volunteers.
‘Content marketing’ has spawned a new industry. ‘Cutting-through-the-noise content marketing’ has evolved to address the challenge of getting information noticed in the continuous noise of ‘stuff’ being pushed out every day. There is lots of advice out there about how to write better content; but rather than effectively just trying to shout louder, I think there is an alternative approach that may help us get our message across more effectively: by applying some design thinking before taking pen to paper.
Noise is a real issue that affects our ability to operate effectively. According to acoustics experts Resonics, noise distracts, increases stress, causes confusion, demotivates. As well as being an issue in an open plan office, I think noise is a real problem for people trying to spot the useful and relevant information in a sea of emails, social media, phone calls, brochures, apps, ad popups and even your desktop operating system pinging messages at you.
Engagement or turn-off?
The problem affects internal communications just as much as B2B or B2C communications. Internal email, project updates, texts, instant messaging and the intranet combine with external messages to create an environment where important information gets missed, or people just don’t have time to read it all.
In the face of all this opinion, advice and enticements to download the latest whitepaper, I find myself switching off rather than being engaged. Which is a shame because I’m sure that, buried in there somewhere are valuable nuggets that someone has worked hard to produce.
How to communicate effectively in this noisy environment?
Advice for being heard midst the chatter tends to focus on content quality. According to digital marketing ninja Dave Chaffey: “as the volume of content marketing grows, the importance of high quality editorial and journalism increases to help cut through the noise … focus on publishing less but doing it better.” Amen to that, but what if there’s not much you can do about the content (eg. you’re sending out a report) or creative writing is not one of your core skills?
The first thing to remember is that the purpose of all this communication is primarily to build relationships with customers, prospects and stakeholders. My current book-of-the-month is “Universal Principles of Design” and it has inspired me to think that applying some of these design principles can help all of us be more creative about how we go about engaging with our audiences.
Here are 5 simple ideas as a starting point:
Focus 80% of communication effort on listening and only 20% on ‘talking’.
For business leaders, walking the floor provides the opportunity to engage employees by being visible and accessible, listening to concerns, asking for suggestions, recognising achievements, and responding to questions. If you can’t literally be out there with customers and stakeholders, spend a bit of time on internal/external forums listening and being helpful eg. connecting project teams to people with relevant experience. O2/Telefonica UK CEO Ronan Dunne would use Twitter to listen to customers; internal forums or user community groups can be equally useful.
“Aesthetic designs foster positive relationships with people”, (source: Universal Principles of Design). Time taken to consider the first impressions of your business case, user-manual, website or report is not wasted. For example, Sphero makes the BB-8™ robot. It is expensive and it is small, which might invite the buyer-response “Is that it?”. But the slick design of the BB-8 packaging creates a positive expectation of something special inside.
Engaging with someone is much easier when they are starting with a positive frame of mind rather than disappointment. Where it is clear that not much care and attention has been taken in the way something is presented, the recipient will spend time looking for the faults rather than your core message. Where your audience is pressed for time, aesthetic design may help your document get to the top of their reading list.
Consistency of style and appearance enhances recognition and sets expectations. Companies use consistent branding for exactly this reason, but the same techniques can be used to mitigate the risk of your emails or updates getting missed or overlooked.
Create a ‘brand’ for documents that relate to the same topic: it can be as simple as creating a project mnemonic and using it in the subject line of all related internal emails as a flag to stakeholders; or having an icon or consistent colour theme that is used on all related presentations and reports.
A user interface can use this technique to group related information. The AppGate XDP secure access system from Cryptzone uses consistent colour and icons in the user interface to draw attention to important security notifications.
Instead of pushing out content directly or top-down, use existing networks and communities to promote your messages indirectly or peer-to-peer. Building relationships with influencers can simply be a case of giving time and attention: reading and sharing their material, using it in your own publications/reports, or involving them in decisions or process development. Check out “4 Ways to Get Influencers to Spread Your Brand Message” for more ideas.
“Desire line” is the preferred method of travel or interaction. Posting information on the intranet may be the accepted way of communicating to co-workers or project teams, but is that where your audience actually goes to find information?
Observe how your audience chooses to get information eg. via computer or from friends and colleagues, direct email or from the project office, detailed report or 1-paragraph summary? If they print out every proposal to read on the train home, present yours either pre-printed or in a format that is print friendly. We’re getting used to the idea that if you want people to see your web content, make it mobile friendly because that’s the device that your audience is like to be using. Similarly, as Forrester’s Kerry Bodine points out, just because it’s called an intranet doesn’t mean that the information has to be delivered via computer.
This is only a handful of ideas. If you’re a CX or service designer, what design principles do you use to engage your audience? Is ‘noise’ and issue in your organisation? If you’re running a project, do you have any tips for making sure that your stakeholders don’t miss the information they need?
We all know customer satisfaction is important, for internal customers as well as corporate clients. But in the dash to set about satisfying customer needs, there is a point that may get overlooked: who exactly is the customer you need to be impressing?
Traditionally the customer was considered to be the individual with the term ‘purchasing’ somewhere in his job title. However, it has long been recognized that organizational buying is a process involving several individuals. A much referenced paper from the 1970’s by Webster & Wind (Webster Frederick E. Jr. and Yoram Wind, “A General Model for Understanding Organizational Buying Behavior”) focuses attention on the buying centre: “those individuals and groups who participate in the purchasing decision-making process”.
The problem with the ‘buying centre’ is that it doesn’t necessarily include a key customer – the end user. The end user may not have direct involvement in the decision to buy from one vendor or another, but he/she potentially has significant influence. Consider a processed food manufacturer. The decision of which packaging supplier to use will be driven by senior managers in marketing, operations, finance and the MD. The guy in the warehouse who has to deal with the packaging deliveries coming in on the lorries won’t be involved in the decision. But he does have indirect influence. Issues and grumbles about late loads, early deliveries, incomplete loads or loads stacked in the wrong order will filter through to the factory manager and thus on to the ‘buying centre’, impacting future buying decisions. So, who is ‘marking’ the guy in the warehouse to check that he’s happy? To achieve our objective for customer satisfaction, we need a wider definition of who the customer is.
An excellent book, “Raving Fans: A Revolutionary Approach to Customer Service” by Ken Blanchard has this definition of the customer: “everyone touched by the product or service”. This acknowledges that every employee involved with the product and the process of dealing with the vendor, from the warehouse through the accounts department to the managing director, should be on our list of “customers”. The buyer-seller relationship goes beyond the interaction between the salesperson and the purchasing agent. By implication, the opportunities to influence customer satisfaction involve a wide range of employees in the customer’s organisation, and a correspondingly wide range of employees in the vendor’s organisation – wherever the two organisations interact.
“Customer satisfaction” will depend on what is important to each ‘customer’. Achieving customer satisfaction therefore requires a good understanding of the individuals involved, their issues, prejudices, job requirements and goals, what it would take to create ‘Wow!” experiences. And of course the customer is continuously changing – people leave or move jobs. A customer satisfaction strategy needs to be flexible and continuously reviewed, requiring good, cross-functional, internal sharing and collaboration. This is beginning to feel like we’re trying to hit a continually shifting target. In this situation, information is king, and your best sources of information are the people at the coal-face by which I mean not only your employees, but also partners, associates and suppliers who are interacting with customers on your behalf. They understand how the customer’s business operates, who the individuals are, their day to day needs and gripes, and they probably know the customer’s perceptions of your competitors.
So the challenge is how to create a customer satisfaction strategy that addresses everything that you do for the client organisation, enabling your team (internal and external) to be responsive and relevant even as the client changes and evolves. Perhaps we can learn from the principles of Agile Software Development? The concept of Agile Marketing is catching on. I would be interested to know your thoughts if you have any experience in this area. I look forward to your comments.
Running a small business means juggling IT, marketing, purchasing, accounts, HR etc, as well as working for clients. I’m sure I’m not alone in facing the dilemma of whether to do all the tasks yourself or outsource. I’ve been in business for over 15 years and have tended to do the former. My company is not complex, and I’ve managed to figure out what’s been required.
However, this year I opted to call in the help of a design agency to refresh the company’s brand and website. Good project management requires admitting when you don't have all the skills needed to do the job!
Full disclosure: the design agency in question is Head-E design run by my colleague Ian but what follows below is not intended to promote his business in particular. It’s been an interesting experience being on the client side of an outsourced project, and what I want to do here is provide a personal case study on the potential benefits of bringing in specialist help. So, here are 5 reasons why outsourcing was the right strategy for my business in this instance:
- Expert Guidance: A key question when outsourcing is whether you’re paying for something that, frankly, you could do yourself. With this particular design & development project, it is fair to say that what has been produced is a much better solution for meeting my business objectives than I could have achieved in-house. The initial ideas that I had sketched out in the brief were limited by my limited knowledge of what was actually possible. By integrating new tools that I wasn’t aware of, a more engaging and information-rich platform has been created.
- Design for manufacture: My original scheme for the design of the website would have been a headache to build because I didn’t understand the implications of some of the features that I wanted to incorporate. Through the design process, the scheme was nudged towards alternative layouts that would be a lot easier and quicker to build.
- Seeing the wood for the trees: An in-house team is often too close to the subject matter and will make assumptions about the audience’s knowledge or use jargon without thinking. For me, it has been invaluable having a 3rd party prepared to say that something doesn’t make sense, or to point out gaps in messaging.
- Professional polish: Not only is the finished site more interesting and feature-rich than would have been achieved had I taken on the job myself, but it incorporates the finishing touches such as bespoke designs and imagery that bring my brand to life and reflect the professionalism that is a core value for my business.
- Time: OK, so this is almost a no-brainer. Outsourcing frees the client to focus on doing everything else. For some managers, perhaps doing the job in-house seems feasible because there is a window of opportunity ie. temporarily spare resource. What is not necessarily factored in is the time that will be taken up on the unexpected, such as waiting for tech support when elements don’t work as advertised, or as happened with my site, a page had to be re-built after it seemed to vanish into the ether during testing! So for me, the benefit of outsourcing has meant not being insanely busy trying to develop a website whilst also delivering client projects; and the knock-on effect of that has been faster time to completion.
What is your experience? Do you outsource or feel perfectly happy doing everything in-house? Are there aspects of your business that you would never outsource? I look forward to your comments.
Meeting customers' needs is central to achieving customer satisfaction. But beware mistaking "want" for "need". Your customers will say they 'want' lower prices. The problem is that many suppliers assume that they must compete on price to keep the business. They drop the price and cut their own margins but don't necessarily keep the customer. If you actually ask customers why they choose you as a supplier and how your company helps them to achieve their objectives, then you may be surprised to learn that there are other factors at play, and that you have other options.
Here are two examples of organisations that cottoned-on to the fact that customers weren't necessarily driven by price.
In the early days, Amazon offered the lowest price. Then they changed strategy. They raised their prices across the board but included free post & packing. So, they went from being a lowest-price provider to most convenient provider. Has it affected sales? Yes - upwards.
The second example is from personal experience from the days of manufacturing cans for the food industry. Supermarket price wars were putting pressure on all players in the supply chain to cut prices. Competition to supply the likes of Heinz and Campbells was fierce. We were not the cheapest supplier on the block so it was potentially bad news if price had become the main differentiator in the market. So we asked our customers why they chose us – what was the most important factor in their buying decision: price, quality, innovation, logistics, choice, service? The answer surprised us. One of the most important factors was dependability. Delivering orders on-time-in-full to the quality spec meant no production hiccups at the factory and no additional costs of stopping the line. And it meant the production manager could focus on solving all the other issues because he could depend on us to do our bit. Dependability was a key differentiator for our organisation.
According to a recent study by IT research and advisory company Gartner technology providers are failing to communicate what differentiates their market offerings. 52% of vendors had trouble working out what made one product better or worse than others on the market. “In the face of sameness, buyers often turn to brand familiarity and reputation.” i.e. no-one ever got fired for buying from IBM.
Vendors may be failing to win new business because they are not communicating what makes them different, or because they don’t know their real value proposition.
Michael Skok has some good advice about creating a compelling value proposition. One of the key points is to actually ask your customers why they buy from you. You know all the features of your product or service but do you know how customers actually benefit from your expertise?
Product differentiation will help you get your foot in door, but may not be the complete answer. Two different products may both offer equally viable solutions for the customer. At that point, buyers will look for the extra clues on which to make their decision. Brand reputation is a subject for another day, but while you may not be IBM, it doesn’t mean you’re out of the running. There is a lot you can do to ensure that your business is appealing for quite different reasons.