A stream of information

Making information flow between the islands is the key to eradicating them.

Some form of information flow will take place in any business, however slowly or haphazardly. In my example of the carpentry business, even in Scenario A information did flow from the customer to Jimmy the office assistant, and from Jimmy to his boss. The stream of information was only just enough of a trickle to get the job done and not to lose customers.

But a properly planned information flow will increase effectiveness. This can only be achieved by taking a strategic decision to look at the business holistically and to work out where the important information points are. Tactical solutions may fix a short-term problem but in the long term they don’t work and only create more islands.

So what are they key information flows in a business? Well, for most service companies the major drivers are communicating effectively with clients, and then delivering on promises. Most of the drivers come from the following:

  1. What the customer wants.
  2. What we already know about the customer that will help us to communicate with them.
  3. Our ability to deliver what the customer wants (and do it profitably).
  4. How and when we are going to deliver.
  5. How we keep the customer informed of progress and handle any problems.

There are also lots of communication and information flow points around sales and marketing that are more externally focused. The focus here is on operational information, which tends to be internal. It doesn’t take a genius to see that once you start handling your internal and customer communication better, then sales and marketing becomes much easier.

Let’s look at the above points in turn.

1. What does the customer want?

As I’m sure you already know, customers don’t always tell you what they want, and often don’t really know themselves. If your marketing is right, that’s why they’ve come to you, for your professional expertise. It’s vital that you draw out of them what they want by careful questioning. You need a structured approach to getting this information out of your customer, which is captured in a way that promotes its flow to those who will actually carry out the work. If you get this wrong, you risk failing to deliver and losing all your profit through poor estimation and planning.

2. What do we already know about the customer that will assist us in communicating with them?

This is the difference between Jimmy in Scenario A and Scenario B in Post 2. Access to information about previous projects not only helped Jimmy to make the customer feel valued and build a rapport with him, but it also had huge practical benefit in helping to find out what the customer wanted. This will have value right the way through the project.

Too many businesses stop their customer databases at the point where a sale is made; to be fair, a lot of CRM software is very focused on helping make the sale and forecasting a revenue pipeline, but ignore what happens after that.

The sales process, and the systems that support it, needs to be heavily integrated with the delivery side of the business. The two should feed each other, enabling both to be more effective. If your customer database contains a complete log of the work you’ve done for each customer, how you performed and how profitable it was, then you will be far better at making a profit out of those customers when they come back for more. You’ll also be able to tell from more than gut feeling which are your nightmare customers who keep changing their minds and cause a lot of hidden costs, then you can raise your prices in future with them so they either become profitable or go away and bother someone else!

3. Are we able to deliver what the customer wants (and do it profitably)?

Time and again, I see a battle between sales and operations, with sales making promises that operations teams struggle to deliver. Having a background in delivery, I admit to a little bias towards the operations side in these arguments; but while it is certainly true that salespeople are sometimes guilty of chasing commissions over the best interests of the business, more often than not they are just doing their job of making sales – they don’t really have the correct information to hand to make their promises realistic. If they don’t have an easy way of estimating projects (or a capable colleague) and can’t see your team’s availability, of course they are going to say ‘yes’ to win the business. However, if they can easily and quickly find out that a project of type X takes a week, and that there is no availability until next month, they will be able to say honestly to the client: “We’ve done hundreds of projects like this and they typically take about a week. I can see we have a slot at the beginning of next month – obviously I’ll come back to you with a full proposal but would you like me to book you in provisionally?”.

This is all about information flow between sales and operations. If the flow is effective, salespeople have everything they need to make an appropriate sale, and will love it if they can make provisional bookings, which are halfway to closing the sale. And operations will no longer find themselves exclaiming “You promised WHAT?!” at the sales team.

4. How and when are we going to deliver?

This is partially covered by the above point, but let’s look at it from an operational perspective. The key thing here is that when a contract is signed, you either have a very good idea of what the client is expecting, or you’ve sold a piece of scoping work where this will be defined properly. If you know this, then you should be able to estimate the time and people required to deliver it. But project management is not our focus here…

A knowledge base of your company’s experience on these sort of projects will be a massive help in estimating the project, and the information that is absolutely vital here is your schedule. Who is doing what and when, and where are your gaps? Quite often, smaller businesses will have this in a big spreadsheet somewhere. The problem with this is that only one person can access the spreadsheet at any one time (unless it’s a Google Spreadsheet of course), and it’s fairly difficult to present in any other way than on a spreadsheet. Salespeople can’t check it from a client meeting, and you have no linkage to your customer database or time tracking. It’s a proper information island. This information needs to be made available to everyone in the business and linked to customer and project information.

5. How do we keep the customer informed of progress and handle any problems?

Keeping your customer informed of progress will depend on the nature of your work. If you’re building them a home office, it’ll be pretty obvious to them how you’re getting on, but for other projects there may be key metrics about the project that you want to share or that the customer demands. If you have information islands, how are you going to give that information to the customer? The answer is most likely that someone spends an hour every week compiling a report for a single customer, manually collating different bits of information. Maybe they get good at it and it only takes half an hour, but wouldn’t it be better to click a button and the report is automatically emailed out? Or better, give the customer a web portal where they can view key data?

How a business reacts to problems shows customers how committed they are to customer service. Do you call customers saying there was a problem but you resolved it before they noticed, or that you are working on it and here’s the timescale and plan for resolution? (This is GOOD information flow).

Or do they call your customer service department to report it, have no update when it’s still outstanding a week later and they receive their bill because no one told accounts about the issue? (This is NO information flow, just islands).

The next post will examine how to achieve this.