November – Cooks Make Tastier Food When They Can See Their Customers

A November article in Harvard Business Review got me thinking again about how typical planning and building departments relate to customers. Here are a few problems and simple solutions:

  1. Data Entry
    The clerk or planner sits at their desk or on a stool asking the customer questions or looking at a paper form and entering data into the computer. Meanwhile, the customer stands their watching, sometimes patiently, sometimes not. There are simple ways to address this issue.
    a. Have dual screens, one facing the clerk and planner, the other facing the customer. They can help you catch spelling errors as you proceed.
    b. Same dual screens but let the customer fill out the form while you watch.
  2. I Need To Check
    While talking to the customer, answering a question, or taking in applications, you need to get advice from your boss or a specialist; like an engineer or tree specialist. You disappear from the customer for a time to discuss the matter. In the meantime, the applicant or customer sits and waits. Why not call the specialist out to the counter or bring the customer back with you. The wait time issue disappears when they participate in the transaction.
  3. Review Committees
    Many communities have an inter-discipline review committee that meets weekly to go over applications. Members don’t want to reveal any differences of opinion to the applicant and are nervous transacting business in front of the applicant so the applicant is not allowed to attend.  But then the decisions from this meeting are often wrong because the group didn’t really understand the project. A better approach is to invite the applicant into the meeting. And then, problem solve together to clarify issues. This avoids the round robin practiced in so many communities.
  4. Phone Calls and Emails
    What happens if I can’t understand something on the application, or one small piece of data is missing? I will prepare a response to the applicant and put it in the queue. Then, when it comes back, in it goes to the bottom of the stack. Or; I am a building inspector and am running late to the site. When I get there, the contractor has left and I can’t do the inspection. Or; I am filling out my application and have a question. I call the planning office and leave a voice mail, which is never returned. So, I file without data or sufficient understanding and start the round robin. All of this could be solved with a simple phone call.

the Management Doctor


 Reader Response

What struck me about this article is the use of emails and it drives me crazy to be honest. It has been my experience that email is used way too much and it actually can be counterproductive. Don’t get me wrong, email is a tremendously powerful tool for rapid communication and it definitely has its place. It is awesome, but it needs to be used correctly.

The problem arises when we rely upon too heavily on email; when we collaborate with it, and when we use it to replace official correspondence. I see staff members choosing to send short or lengthy emails rather than picking up the phone or calling a brief meeting and talking directly. Email is a one-way communication device and you have no idea that the recipient received it, or more importantly, understood it. Yes, one receives out of office messages, undeliverable messages, and replies but when the recipient doesn’t understand or misinterprets what you wrote, you either start an inefficient email conversation or someone is on the wrong path and you don’t know it immediately. A phone call or a meeting allows two-way communication and both parties can receive immediate feedback to foster and confirm understandings. Are we on the same page yet? At least that’s the goal of effective communication.

When you collaborate with a group by email, how often does someone miss the “reply all” button and hit the “reply” button or sends an email to a different person in or outside the group? Then you have an incomplete conversation, or more likely, multiple conversations. How often is the conclusion sent around? How often does the conversation get layered to the point that the email scrolls on and on and on. I stop reading those emails and either make the call or set up a brief meeting as it is often too time consuming to figure out the status of the “conversation.”  Sometimes you’re at the end and you find that the facts, interpretations, and “analysis” are now all residing in multiple emails all over the system. God help the late-comer to the conversation who is asked to decide something! Someone then has to synthesize all that mess into the cohesive report. Well, we all must admit to doing just that and we all know how challenging and inefficient it can be.

Last thing, when we use email to replace official correspondence because we are in a hurry, we can get into trouble. If we are making an official determination, we all should use agency letterhead and if you want the recipient to get it quickly, send it as an attachment to an email. It you’re not doing that, you are placing all that email in the official file right? There are other tools out there for collaboration but the problem I have found is that our over-reliance on email, including our bad habits, is so ingrained in the workplace and that it is almost impossible to move off the platform. What seems to work best are quick phone calls and brief meetings and less reliance on emails and more use of the simple letter.

Jim Campbell