Straight away a colleague and I dropped everything and scrambled to meet her request: We pulled together a set of talking points and backup material that she could use and got it to her that evening. The next day we identified resources from our firm that could help, assuming that this work would get started right away. We then waited to hear from our client about next steps -- and continued to wait.
After almost a month of not hearing anything -- despite sending repeated emails and voice messages -- the client called to say that her CFO was preoccupied with closing an acquisition and getting ready for the end of the fiscal year, so the streamlining work would be deferred.
I don't know about you, but I see this phenomenon more and more these days: Everything is portrayed as urgent and requires immediate response, as though we're living in a constant state of emergency. It's not just in regard to external customers or clients, as in my example. Many of the people who work in staff functions such as IT, HR, Legal, and Finance are also under siege from a constant stream of urgent requests from their internal business partners. For example, the forecasting manager of a large company told me recently that much of her time, and that of her people, was spent creating customized spreadsheets for business areas in response to urgent questions about and adjustments to the official forecast.
In reality, when everything is labeled "urgent," nothing really is. But because friends, family, and business partners often carry smartphones, we assume that they are available to us 24/7, anywhere in the world. As a result, people sit in meetings tapping away at their mobile devices and catch up on phone calls while walking to and from the bathroom. In some ways, technology has turned us into rapid-response junkies.
One of the most difficult aspects of this instant-response culture is figuring out how to respond appropriately to clients and customers (both internal and external). On one hand, we know that our customers expect and value responsiveness, which we want to provide. On the other hand, not every request needs an instant response. In fact, doing so too often will not only reinforce the customer's expectation of instant-response on everything, but also might not always yield the best results. For example, in the forecasting example described earlier, the large number of customized spreadsheets rendered the "official" forecast less and less useful. Over time, business units began using their own versions of the forecast, which created disconnects between units and less confidence in the whole planning cycle.
While there's no easy answer to this dilemma, here are a few ideas to keep in mind:
Don't assume that "urgent" means "immediately." Explore with your customer what she is really trying to accomplish and when it's actually needed. Sometimes the sense of urgency is just a way of conveying a person's importance and power, or even a reflection of personal anxiety.In the case described at the beginning of this post, my client was probably anxious about her meeting with the CFO and didn't want to go in empty-handed. Giving her an article or two to share with the CFO might have been sufficient, and would have given her the same opportunity to find out where process streamlining fell on the priority scale.
Try to distinguish between an urgent crisis and an urgent request. There are times when customers have issues that need to be resolved right away, and diving in immediately is the right thing to do. But, depending on your business, this is often the exception rather than the norm. Probe your customer about what would happen if you got back to her in a couple of days or the next week. Oftentimes, as long as you commit to a specific time, this will be sufficient.
Be prepared to say no. Good customer service doesn't necessarily mean doing everything that the client wants; more importantly it means doing what is best for the customer -- even when the customer may not realize it. Talk through the implications and outcomes of what the customer is asking for and make sure it's the right thing to do. For our forecasting manager, doing this might have avoided a lot of spreadsheets, and put more attention on making the official forecast more useful.
How do you deal with the expectation for instant response?
Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online