7 Invaluable Collaboration and Communication Tools for Distributed Companies (Or However You Work Together)
Recently, an internal memo from Yahoo announcing a ban on working from home has sparked a feisty debate about the merits of working remotely. The explanation given for the policy change comes down to one sentence in the memo: “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side.”
As a distributed team ourselves, serving many great companies with flexible work arrangements, we don’t think people’s physical presence in one place is necessary to create the best workplace or the best work. Where we do agree with Yahoo is how vital communication and collaboration are to a company’s success.
The nature of remote work actually compels companies to grapple with and figure out how people communicate and collaborate best. Fortunately, connection and communication are what technology and the web have made so much easier. Finding the right communication tools becomes even more pressing for distributed companies since that toolbox helps create our shared space.
It’s a challenge to consistently be up to date on what people are working on because it involves digging through a clutter of information within emails, project management tools, and lists. So we use iDoneThis to keep us in sync and get a high-level view of everything that’s happening.
At the end of the day, you reply to an email asking what you got done, and the next morning, everyone get a digest. With this daily overview keeping us on the same page, we can hit the ground running without the hassle of coordinating ourselves or too many meetings. The meetings we do have are more focused and efficient since everyone has written down and shared what they’ve done.
This transparent record of team progress (or lack of it) allows for feedback, support, and intervention, providing another point for communication and collaboration, and our ability to review helps us better understand how the pieces of the work puzzle fit together and see whether what we’re doing aligns with our goals.
Project management is tricky because elements are always shifting and moving around. It’s hard for teams to know the exact details of every task, and because information doesn’t permeate quite as easily to distributed teams, everyone has to be diligent about monitoring and responding to task and project management tools.
We like Asana because it’s good at showing the nitty gritty details of a project and keeping a record of all the activity associated with particular tasks. It also moves conversations about specific tasks out of the collective space so that you’re not having to “overhear” details that don’t pertain to you without your control. Since information exchange is asynchronous, we don’t have to live in the application. We can get more of our actual work done while always being up to date because information changes in Asana in real-time.
We tried out Trello for project management but it didn’t quite do the trick for how we work. Whereas we use Asana for viewing the trees, we use Trello for viewing the forest.
Trello’s design is intuitive and familiar from the get-go, recalling the simplicity and responsiveness of using a whiteboard and index cards while keeping a better record. Because its design lends itself well to flexibility and the long-view, we use Trello for brainstorming, long-term planning, and developing our roadmap. We like the clutter-free space that allows us to play with ideas and move items about to help us find our direction.
We use GitHub, a distributed version control system and code repository (or “repo”), to manage our code. We don’t have to worry about conflicting pieces of code or juggling different versions, since GitHub helps us keep track of our files and how they’ve changed, while allowing our team to work on files at the same time.
Two powerful GitHub features are issues and pull requests. We use GitHub’s issue tracker to share customer service problems and bugs. Our workflow becomes simpler since issues and code can refer to each other. For instance, you can write “closes #123” as part of your commit message, and then that issue number is closed. The pull request lists all changes to the code in a way that is easy to navigate, allowing us to review and have a discussion. This way, we can give feedback and sign off on code before finally syncing with the repo.
We use GitHub’s wiki feature to store both technical and general reference documents. So, along with information about the code, there are documents such as guides for resolving common customer service requests or how to handle social media. In any case, the wiki equips newbies to the team or to a task with grounding information.
The chat client Campfire is where we hang out during the day. It’s our virtual office, giving us a channel to have conversations ranging from watercooler talk to a two-minute question about a customer issue to a detailed exchange about some logic. We can share screenshots, links, code, and files to get quick opinions or have a laugh.
The best thing is that conversations are all saved, searchable, and visible to everyone, so information is always there as a reference. Many of us also share images and files with CloudApp, and use a Campfire client like Flint or an extension like Kindling for extra features like notifications.
Our communication toolbox is incomplete without Google Groups. We’re still a relatively small team so we send our emails to the entire group while tagging our intended recipients in the subject line.
This transparency helps with information permeation without interrupting people at every turn. We can dip a toe in the email waters to see what’s going on, and we know when we have to dive in and focus on emails that are sent to our or the whole group’s attention.
Finally, we hold our weekly team meetings over Hangouts as our regular dose of face-to-face interaction. People regularly hop over from chat to Hangouts because so many things are easier to talk about “in-person.” We could be discussing one of our book club selections or going over a particular problem. What’s great is how the ability to see each other adds to our camaraderie.
Whether people are located in one office, at home, at a coworking space, or coffeeshop, everyone has to work together to effectively communicate and collaborate. And when it comes to communication tools, as Jamie Wilkinson of VHX said, “It’s a question of having a good Swiss army knife … having small tools that do certain things really well.” We’re using these seven as our handy Swiss army knife. We’d love to hear about what your team or company uses!
“Many think of management as cutting deals and laying people off and hiring people and buying and selling companies. That’s not management, that’s dealmaking. Management is the opportunity to help people become better people. Practiced that way, it’s a magnificent profession.”—Clayton Christensen in Wired, “Clayton Christensen Wants to Transform Capitalism”
How C2I Intel Overcomes the Knowledge Gap to Deliver the Lowdown
Knowledge is power, and when you’re an entrepreneur and running a small business, it’s a challenge to get sufficient people-power to catch all the relevant information and news out there. We talked with Michelle Frome, president of C2I Intel, which solves that problem by delivering that knowledge directly, providing competitor and industry intelligence to help companies gain a leg up.
Michelle’s path to providing the business scoop was indirect. Brought on by a company to help build an electronic medical record product, she found that she needed a way to keep track of confusing and evolving regulations, as well as keep up with competitors. She worked with programmers in Vietnam to create the technology that would automate much of that work. With the medical records project up in the air, Michelle and her team decided to focus on developing the software for business intelligence instead, bringing in review teams to help target, tailor, and finetune the research.
Recently, C2I Intel was accepted into Tampa’s version of Shark Tank, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce’s Startup Scholars Program, which aims to ignite innovation and foster entrepreneurship in the area. Michelle saw how helpful her product and expertise would be to many of her fellow applicants, explaining, “We’ve actually been working with the other companies that were there. There’s a woman who designed this thing that turns any water bottle into a baby bottle. She spent money on a mold, and it fit every single bottle except one. She had to spend more on a new mold where she could’ve had us keep track of the changing trends of water bottles. We could’ve let her know.”
Michelle needed a way to deal with her own knowledge gap, between herself, the domestic team dispersed throughout the U.S., and the overseas team. Michelle found it especially challenging to be kept abreast of the Vietnam team’s accomplishments, given the twelve-hour time difference and language gap. “I’m not a software person, so I was constantly having to bug them all the time to find out what’s going on. With iDoneThis, it’s so much easier because I’m able to find out exactly where they are with projects, any issues that they’ve had with it, any software glitches, and what they’ve done to fix it.”
That easy communication also works when dealing with current and future investors. “It’s been nice because we’ve actually been able to chronicle our daily activities,” Michelle comments. “We can forward the daily summaries over to our investors so they know where we are with projects, and we can show people how far we’ve come.”
Getting everyone on board with using a new tool is always a challenge, and the C2I Intel teams also felt some bumps in implementation. The ability to tailor the email delivery times became key for such a widely distributed team. Michelle also emphasizes the importance of setting clear expectations not just for her team but herself. The team can see from her own entries that she’s meeting and bringing on new clients, and everyone can hit the ground running.
From beta testing with a handful of clients over the summer, C2I Intel is aiming to grow to one hundred within the next few months. Such fast expansion can bring into high focus how time is being spent. Using iDoneThis has translated to more efficient meetings and handling of information. As Michelle recalls, “there was so much time wasted going over the status of our project that we weren’t making any progress. This way, we don’t have to spend time recapping.”
There’s also a single, comprehensive source of reference. “Bringing on a lot of new clients can get really overwhelming, but now we have one platform that collects all the information. We’re not having to go hunt for it. It’s right there every morning!”
We’re impressed with C2I Intel’s focus on helping startups take off by delivering information and excited that iDoneThis is making it easier to do so!
Share More Feedback and Recognition with Individual Likes & Comments Per Done
Many of you told us that you wanted to be able to give specific feedback on people’s dones, and we couldn’t have agreed more. So we’ve revamped the feedback system so that you can now add comments and likes to individual dones — on the web and through your email digests!
These changes may seem simple, but for us, these small improvements are significant. We had a hunch that improving the feedback system to make it more responsive and interactive would be key to increasing the engagement and fulfillment of our members with their work. Since launching the feedback per done feature on February 6, we noticed some interesting trends that indicate we’re on the right track. We thought we’d share some of those preliminary observations, based on three measurements: number of likes over time, number of users giving likes, and number of comments over time.
First off, our users have been receiving more than double the number of likes from their fellow team members since the launch of the new feature. (You’ll notice a drop-off of activity over the holidays.)
In planning for the feedback per done feature, we’d seen how the most commonly used words in comments on overall dones were quick expressions of gratitude and praise, like “thanks” and “great”. So we figured that it was important to have an easy way to give such positive feedback or a virtual pat on the back — that was targeted to a specific accomplishment — with one click.
On the flipside, people not only appreciate a nice boost of acknowledgment for their deeds, but want to experience the satisfaction of “message received”. Your particular contributions and news of such contributions through your status updates are not lost to nothingness but appreciated through a simple gesture.
We also had to check that the increase in likes weren’t due to that one enthusiastic person in the bunch, clicking on every single entry. Thankfully, the increase in likes isn’t due to “superlikers” getting click-happy, but an overall boost in involvement.
The increases in both the number of likes and number of likers translate into something of a team mood ring, showing a collective team positivity and appreciation. So we’re excited that more people are giving and getting recognition for their accomplishments and sharing positive feedback. The more people are able to visibly give and receive recognition for their work, shaping a work environment of support and progress, the more satisfaction they’ll find in what they do.
Open communication of dones is a great opportunity to start conversations and give feedback through comments. While we were hoping to see a similar boost in the usage of comments, that hasn’t happened quite yet.
At the same time, we’re not discouraged by the lack of a consistent increase in comments. Before the new feedback system was put into place, the website UI was confusing, especially when it came to entering your dones. People were writing down their dones in the comment box by mistake. Now, placement of the comment feature is much clearer, so we think there are fewer mistaken entries. We’ll have to re-examine once the numbers start fluctuating less.
Overall, we’re encouraged and excited by our new individual likes and comments feature. By the end of 2012, we saw how active teams on iDoneThis shared five times as many likes and comments every day than those teams that eventually fell inactive. That visible interaction represents the kind of deeper connection we want usage of iDoneThis to encourage between employees and their work.
Dan Pink, who has written a lot about motivation and engagement at work, has pointed out the weakness of modern workplaces in communicating feedback, that “[o]ne of the key challenges of organizations today is to make the feedback that people get inside the organization as rich, relevant, and frequent as the feedback they get outside of the organization through their smartphones, games, and social networks.”
We’re aiming to make that happen, enriching and enabling the process of providing useful, relevant, frequent, and supportive feedback. The ability to share feedback on specific dones is a great step toward that goal and toward cultivating a positive feedback loop of greater appreciation, happier work performance, and catalyzing progress.
“I … went to work again–work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite–ultimately recovering some measure of power.”—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, on why she wrote The Yellow Wall-paper, after a specialist had told her to refrain from intellectual life, “never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again,” — words which led her to near “mental ruin.” Indeed, it is heartening to remember that there is the possibility of power, joy, growth, and service in work.
The peculiar challenge of knowledge work is that so much of it takes place in our heads and out of sight. In contrast to the era of factory work, knowledge work is nowhere near as visible. You can’t discern the state of progress by looking at tangible output or product.
This poses a particular problem for managers, whose job it is to support their employees and enable progress. You can’t properly manage what you can’t see. Otherwise the result is directives and orders that don’t make sense, veering toward irrelevance and away from the reality of the situation. Leading blindly without understanding the status of projects and the context in which people are working makes as much sense as managing a production line without seeing the state and quality of a product as it is being assembled.
Show and Tell Your Work
The solution is to encourage and cultivate showing your work, or put another way, working out loud. Communicating what you’ve done is vital to moving things along, and it actually should be the other half of your job.
The benefits are clear. With transparency and communication of information, teams and organizations can improve productivity because they are able to manage operational efficiency. With the ability to see all the moving parts, you can figure out how to work better. Then, the opportunity opens up for improving planning and methods, collaborating and striving for more dazzling results, and having a common basis and drawing board to truly innovate together.
Why We Hide
The interesting thing about showing your work, though, is how resistant people — including both the managers and the managed — can be in implementing the practice. The underlying reason for this hesitation comes down to how managers hold people accountable, because it changes how people perceive the intent behind the effort to be more transparent.
Bad managers impede and inhibit progress in two ways. One is the traditional school of managing people that fails to deal with real progress at all. That school subscribes to the mistaken belief that management is about oversight and monitoring for the purpose of Big Brother-type control, thinking that you make things happen by paternalistic brute force.
The other approach is one of disengagement in order to keep the positive image of being liked, thinking that this lack of confrontation and involvement is what is necessary to keep the wheels greased. The crazy result is that one of out every two managers fail to keep people accountable.
Employees then feel resentful of losing autonomy and substantive feedback and become increasingly disengaged, feeling like useless cogs in the machine.
Such managerial failures in approach to accountability is thus why employees themselves can view transparency with such suspicion. As with personal relationships, there’s a difference between transparency for the purpose of engagement and open communication as opposed to for the purpose of coercive oversight. And transparency becomes futile when information goes nowhere or falls on deaf ears.
The Courage To Be Accountable
At the end of the day, both the managed and managers don’t want to feel vulnerable. For employees, transparency can seem a risky business of putting themselves out there, with the potential to look weak or ineffective or ignored, especially in situations with bad management. For managers, transparency and accountability means having difficult conversations, truly getting involved with their teams as people and their work, and getting used to the uncomfortable notion that management isn’t so much about control but support and facilitation.
Accountability does require visibility, but we should never treat people like faceless cogs in a machine. Working out loud should not produce more constraints and traps but more autonomy. If managers are doing their job of helping people make progress, people will want to show their work and together cultivate a vibrant company culture of openness, fruitful feedback, and deep engagement.
8 Expensive Lessons in Project Management, for Free!
When it comes to project management, it’s so much cheaper to learn from someone else’s mistakes. So here are a few of mine!
I’ve been running projects for my whole adult life. I started with computer games at IG. After ten years I switched to marketing and copywriting projects at Articulate Marketing, which I still run. On top of that, I’m now also CEO of Turbine, an online app for purchases, expenses, time off management and HR record-keeping.
Project management is the art, craft and science of getting stuff done by teams. And it’s also like walking through a minefield. These tips – based on my own experience over 20 years – will help you find your way through it.
1. Hire slow, fire fast.
My first boss advised me not hire one person until I needed two of them. I ignored that advice at IG and probably hired too many people too quickly. Some were amazing but a few were amazingly awful. My experience was that the handful of underperforming staff took up more time and energy than the vast majority of good people. The big lesson is to spend more time developing the good people than correcting the bad ones. If necessary, this means firing poor performers who can’t or won’t improve.
In my case, after I sold the games company, I kept things small using contractors, freelancers, and outsourcing and only recently have I begun to hire full-time employees again. I’ve made more money, and I’ve been far happier with the new, slow-but-steady approach. My first boss was right.
2. Every new relationship needs a honeymoon.
The human aspect of project management is vital, especially for long-distance relationships like the one I have with my Turbine development team. We had a bit of a rocky patch last year because I forgot that they were people and focused too hard on the product and my concerns about it. Today, things are much better because we have more regular contact and, more importantly, we try to talk more about ourselves and share a bit of water-cooler gossip.
Having paid hundreds of thousands of pounds in financial incentives over the years, my experience is that they are mostly worthless. Why? At best they motivate people to work more hours for a short period of time. At worst, they are taken for granted (which has no benefit at all) or unobtainable (which is actually demotivating).
Find other ways to motivate your staff: set worthwhile goals, give team members respect and autonomy, and create a feeling of belonging to a team with a mission. Maslov’s hierarchy of needs is an essential guide into human motivation. Also, give people a good, productive working environment. Read Peopleware. Don’t fall prey to productivity myths.
4. See eye to eye with the client.
Most of the time, when a project goes badly wrong it’s because of a fundamental flaw in communications with the client. With projects, like software development, that are likely to have changing requirements, the key is to talk often, expect changes and plan for them. With creative projects it’s best to spend the time up front talking to and questioning the client until you arrive at a good, mutually understood brief.
My experience has also taught me two fundamental lessons about client communication: first, sometimes the best kind of conversation is a question, not a statement. Second, sometimes the best answer is no answer. When Kennedy got a belligerent message from Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis, followed quickly by a more conciliatory one, he ignored the first and responded to the second. Do likewise!
Every project has bugs. When I got married, my friend Sophie said, “Three things will go wrong. Don’t worry about them.” This is great advice: bugs don’t cause stress; your reaction to them does.
So if you can accept the inevitable hiccups, even plan for them and agree how you’ll deal with difficulties up front, you’ll have a more successful project. This means going beyond a diagnosis of the individual problem, figuring out why the problem arose and adjusting your processes and systems to avoid that type of problem occurring again.
7. Know when to give up.
I have shut down three big projects in my life. At the time, the decisions were difficult and painful. Looking back, in every case, it was the right decision because it freed me to do something better. One of the arts of managing projects (as opposed to project management) is knowing when to kill them. Google is good at this. They cull stuff all the time. But W.C. Fields said it best: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”
8. Make tea, not war
As the project’s manager you are the lynchpin, so be a friend to your emotions and stay sane. Over the past few years, I’ve realised that my time is more valuable than my money. You only have so many days in your life, spend them on projects that make you happy, better and richer. (Or reading my Devil’s Project Management Dictionary!)
And when I have a problem that’s stressing me out, which is inevitable from time to time, I find that a nice cup of tea is the universal solvent. Try it!
The Business Perks of Traveling Back to the Future
Sometimes the sheer clarity of hindsight is like life’s annoying way of saying, “I told you so!” Looking in the rearview mirror to see what went wrong is integral to learning from our mistakes, but we often wish for hindsight’s clear vision when we’re forging our way forward.
Research psychologist Gary Klein has a startling prescription for that feeling: imagine your plan’s death.
According to Klein, one way to tap into the power of hindsight is a practice called the premortem. In the more familiar postmortem, you analyze an unsuccessful event after it has occurred to figure out what went wrong.
In the premortem, the analysis faces the event head-on while presuming it has failed to generate plausible reasons for the failure. Performing premortems can help identify problems in advance and tune you into early warning signs because you know what to watch out for.
These are the basic steps for conducting a premortem:
1. Prepare: Everyone should be familiar with the plan before starting the premortem. 2. Picture: Imagine the plan has failed miserably and how that feels. 3. Generate: Each person makes a list of plausible reasons for the failure. 4. Share: Take turns sharing one reason at a time, collecting them into a master list. 5. Revamp: Revisit the plan armed with the reasons and revise. 6. Review: Return to the list every so often to check in with any relevant concerns.
Premortems employ prospective hindsight. The paradoxical term involves the mind trick of imagining that an event has already happened. Prospective hindsight “increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%,” says Klein, citing one of the better-titled studies, “Back to the Future: Temporal Perspective in the Explanation of Events”.
The researchers found that people generate reasons more efficiently, and often in more detail, when they conceive of an outcome or event as certain. So while many techniques such as risk analysis share the desired effect of making better plans and decisions, the premortem is not about imagining what might or could go wrong, looking for potential holes. Its effectiveness relies on imagining that things did go wrong before coming up with plausible reasons.
The mind works differently when we ask “what now?” instead of “what if?”
The power of the premortem lies in its great leveling effect. Starting a conversation from a point where the project has already failed is liberating. It extracts some of the politics and politeness that can muddle the planning stages. Klein recounts how one executive at a Fortune 50-size company reasoned that a billion-dollar project had failed because of waning interest in the wake of the CEO’s retirement. Sharing that type of thought in other circumstances may be a no-no.
The failed-starting point also helps neutralize cognitive biases resulting from the overinvestment and overconfidence of people who have strong feelings of ownership and authorship of a plan. Instead of flying over objections or identification of problems as a matter of course (the drive-by “Problems? Questions?”), the exercise increases participation and buy-in from objectors who get a real opportunity to share their opinion.
Mentally traveling back to the future is a great way to open up your field of vision to new possibilities and insights and pave the way to better decision-making. Prospective hindsight isn’t 20/20, and projects are sometimes just bound to fail. But at least we can tune up our planning processes and give voice to our team members who would’ve said, “I told you so!” in their head.
“Dreaming is at the heart of disruption — it is only when we dream that we can hope to create something truly new, something that will overtake old habits, old customs, and old ways of thinking and being… And the more we dream ourselves into becoming who we want to be, the closer we’ll come to accomplishing our resolutions.”—
Whitney Johnson, in a great HBR blog post about paying attention to our dreams and who we are.
As Chief Happiness Officer, Ginni ensures that iDoneThis is helping teams and companies stay connected, enhance productivity, and improve their inner work life. Every so often, a team leader will reach out to ask why some team members just aren’t getting on board. Ginni reached out to friend, time coach and productivity expert Elizabeth Grace Saunders for some advice. (This is the 2nd of a 3-part “Manager’s Series”).
Previously, I addressed how emotions such as overwhelm can prevent your team members from implementing changes. But sometimes the key factor limiting people’s behavior isn’t how they’re feeling but not knowing how to integrate the change into their own work habits.
As a time coach, trainer, and author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment, I’ve seen that people can understand how a tool or technique functions as an independent entity. But the gap between how something works and how something works for them isn’t easy for many to cross. That’s why in Chapter 7 of my book, I include a step-by-step guide of all the areas to consider when you’re crafting your own routine.
To get you started, I’ll explain four of those considerations here. Go through these with your team the next time you’re trying to implement a new practice, such as having everyone use iDoneThis. Remember that team members may have different answers to these questions resulting in dissimilar methods—that’s natural and normal. The method isn’t as important as achieving the end goal of lasting behavioral change.
1. How Much Time Do I Need to Set Aside for This Activity?
The time you think it takes to complete an activity can be misleading. Depending on the task, you may also have to consider how long it takes to prepare for the task and to shift mental gears. For example, if you’re asking for a new type of report each week, you’re not just requesting the time it takes to write and send the report itself.
As a team, think through the true “time cost” of the habit change and determine whether or not it fits in everyone’s schedule. Depending on the size of the time commitment, this may also mean deciding as a group what will not happen or take lower priority.
2. What’s the Right Start Time or Trigger?
To lower the force required to break inertia and build momentum for a new routine, pick a start time or trigger event. This prevents the fuss involved in having to make (and remake) the decision of whether this activity stands as your highest priority of the moment. It also removes any lack of clarity about how and when the routine will fit into your schedule, which helps with realistic expectations. Without a start time or trigger, you can come to the end of the day, fall into bed, and realize that you didn’t do what you intended to do.
Start times work well when you have a high level of control over your schedule. They are sometimes necessary if you have a set limit on when you need to leave work.
Examples of a start time: I’ll reply with my iDoneThis update when the scheduled e-mail reminder arrives at 6 p.m.; I’ll go to the gym at 6 a.m.
Start triggers work well if your schedule is open to variables outside your control, which means that your life can’t run on clockwork precision. In order for start triggers to be effective, they must happen every time you want to start the desired activity. So don’t choose a trigger that doesn’t always happen for something you want to be a regular routine.
Examples of a start trigger: I will reply with my iDoneThis update after I finish my last task of the day; I’ll go to the gym after my daily 11 a.m. team call is over.
3. What Are Potential Barriers to Success?
Even with the best of routines, outside factors can significantly impact your ability to follow through. In fact, these external forces are the very reason that many people resist making and practicing routines. They reason: If I can’t implement perfectly and someone might mess up my plans, why even bother? But the fact that life happens doesn’t mean that you should give up all hope of making and following new routines. What you can do instead is to anticipate and prepare for potential barriers to success.
As a team, brainstorm how to avoid barriers to success, such as winding down regular business at least x minutes before people have to leave the office so they have time to do a daily wrap-up.
4. What Reminders Will Ensure That I Can’t Forget?
Sometimes you need more than one reminder to push you to do what you wanted to do, especially when forming a new habit. Each person needs different cues, but here are some ideas of what could work for team members aiming to implement iDoneThis:
Set a daily alarm or text reminder on their mobile phones.
Schedule an e-mail pop-up note on your computer.
Put up a sign on the office door asking if they’ve completed the key wrap up activities.
Give people a card that they can set on top of their handbag or keys when they arrive in the office that asks, “Have you done iDoneThis?”
Great customer service requires great communication. LaunchBit, an ad network for email newsletters, manages a ton of communication with their publishing and advertising partners. CEO and co-founder Elizabeth Yin shares LaunchBit’s secrets to speedy, efficient customer service, dealing with high volume while maintaining high quality.
When my co-founder and I first started LaunchBit, we were working with just a handful of publishers and advertisers, and it was easy to respond to everyone. As a small startup, speed was our advantage in winning over new customers. Losing momentum with a customer was a real risk, because it was hard to gain back their interest in our product. In those beginning stages, each customer is critical.
Very quickly, business boomed, and we found ourselves struggling just to maintain our individual inboxes. Yet, our priority remains to respond with the same high level of speed and service in order to stay fresh in the minds of our customers.
In a given week, the emails number in the low thousands. So how do we get through them all with just four full-time employees? We found that staying organized and finding tools that can fill the role of a good traffic cop, helping to direct email smartly and efficiently, work best to deliver quality customer service.
Here are three key tools we use:
We use FreshDesk, a helpdesk software, to coordinate and direct our email. We connect all our customer-facing email addresses (such as hello [at] launchbit [dot] com) to Freshdesk. From there, we’re able to track email threads and assign them to different members on our team.
If we receive technical questions, the threads are assigned to the right engineer who can answer and close out the thread when the conversation is complete. We also hire a contractor for one or two hours per day to assign emails to our team members.
We often get similar emails from customers. Though we update the FAQs on our website with the most common inquiries, inevitably a good number of customers will write in to ask one of these questions. We use one-click templates that everyone on our team can draw from to respond in a second.
My inbox also receives a lot of customer support emails. When I first set up LaunchBit, I used my own email address to stay in touch and follow up with customers. So, almost all of our initial customers still write to me. In addition, I freely give out my email address on the internet. Yet, I’m able to get to near inbox zero (less than ten emails) everyday.
I do this with SaneBox, which sorts my email so that I only read the important ones. I’ve tried all kinds of email management software — most of which have not been effective — but SaneBox is hands down the best at sorting what should be in my inbox and what should be in a “skim later” folder. This cuts my email volume virtually in half.
Sometimes, I don’t know the answer to a customer inquiry upon receipt, either because the data hasn’t come in or I need information from someone else who can help. To remind myself to follow up with the customer later, I use Followup.cc.
Followup.cc allows me to archive an email away for now but then return it to my inbox at a specified time when I need to take action. It clears my inbox while providing important reminders and to-do’s at the right time.
With these three tools, we’re able to process high volumes without a huge team dedicated solely to email communication. Customer service emails work best when the flow is smart, directed, and timely. What tools do you use to handle customer support faster?
Elizabeth Yin is the CEO and co-founder of LaunchBit, an ad network for high quality email newsletters.
The Entrepreneur's Journey: Slowing Down and Why Grandma's Always Right.
Are entrepreneurs always dissatisfied?
It’s hard to stop and bask in your own achievements. It’s why we strive to build a tool that shows you how far you’ve come to motivate and inspire. Daniel DiPiazza, who works with plenty of young go-getters brimming with restless, entrepreneurial spirit, reminds us about the importance of learning to relax and appreciate your own hard work.
Grandmas have an uncanny way of presenting elegant solutions to life’s most vexing conundrums — wisdom without tripping the alarm system. Every day, mine would take me on a short walk from our suburban duplex to the small office where she practiced law at her own firm. I always thought the walks were social outings, but looking back, I know now they were opportunities for her to teach me her life philosophies.
At seven, I just wasn’t ready for the sophisticated dose of grandmotherly psychological judo I received, but her words stayed with me.
“Do not be beholden.”
We talked a lot about entrepreneurship, self-direction, motivation, and self-image on our walks. These may seem like heavy topics for a first-grader, but I am certain I would not be the person I am today had we not had these talks. One thing she said to me still rings crystal clear:
“There is no greater pleasure than working for yourself. You do not want to be beholden to anyone else. Chart your own path.”
As I got older and started working, something didn’t feel right. I never really felt like I fit in anywhere that I worked. At first I thought it was the job. Or the boss. Or the co-workers. Or the uniform. Until I ran out of “or’s”.
That’s when I realized — it was me.
While I had hated every single job that I’d ever held, all that time the entrepreneurial bug had been living inside of me, feeding off my ambition and slowly growing into a gigantic monster that couldn’t be tamed or assuaged, even with the promise of a decent salary.
So I broke out on my own the minute I could, and I haven’t looked back. Happily ever after? Not quite.
The Double-Edged Entrepreneur
The entrepreneurial spirit is an immense gift and equally colossal curse.
On the one hand, you have complete autonomy over your livelihood. You’re practically Django Unchained. Exciting things are bound happen. On the other hand, now you’re completely exposed to the disappointment that comprises the ugly flipside of that excitement. You are 100% naked and at the mercy of your own endless ambitions.
What most of us with the entrepreneurial spirit don’t realize upon embarking on this voyage is that we will never be satisfied. Our greatest efforts will usually never be enough in our eyes, and even when we do accomplish something, we will immediately be looking for the next rush of excitement in another endeavor.
There’s always another peak to summit. Whether it’s attracting more customers, creating a more perfect UX, generating more profits, or doing all of the above faster. As entrepreneurs, our satisfaction always seems to be fleeting at best.
I don’t think true satisfaction will elude us forever, but we have to change our perspectives. We have to change our definition of success if we ever want to be truly satisfied.
What to do about our dissatisfaction:
Stop caring so much about how well your business does.
Yes, I know what I just said. Hear me out.
Stop using business success as a measuring stick for life’s progress. It’s unhealthy and only leads to anxiety. Business will come and go. Our happiness and peace of mind must be a constant force in our life, no matter what is going on in the boardroom.
Start looking at businesses as tools to create more freedom of choice and opportunity for our loved ones and ourselves. After all, that’s why we started this journey: freedom. From this moment forward, you shall no longer be chained by the very creation that was meant to give you freedom.
1. Take back your time.
Start by taking back your time. You actually make your own schedule. Stop letting other people’s agendas dictate how you spend your day. Stop checking your email every 10 minutes waiting for someone to tell you what to do next, you maniac.
Have some self-direction. Have some discipline. Begin your own personal renaissance. Remember that one of the biggest reasons you avoided the 9-5 is so that you would have more time to taste the fruits of life. Why aren’t you tasting them?
Stop being afraid of deep recreational pursuits. Learn a new language with purpose and focus, then take a trip and really test drive it. Take up a hobby that you’ve been putting off for years because it wasn’t the right time. I’ve been stop-starting my martial arts training for ten years. This year, I’m going to take both my own advice and a page from Nike’s book. I’m doing it. Period.
Begin a journey full of new milestones and mistakes that have nothing to do with earnings reports. Those reports will still be there when you return.
2. Turn your business brain off and engage others.
If you’re like every other entrepreneur on the planet, myself included, your brain is a 24/7 storm of creativity begging to be expressed. This is because we invest our entire lives into our endeavors, and they are usually things that we already like to do. At Rich20Something, I get to do all the things I’m most passionate about: writing, designing, coaching and computer programming. Trust me, I understand.
The people that we care about love us, but the don’t necessarily love our creations as much as we do. They just want to see us happy. So let’s have a little self-awareness. Next time you’re out at dinner with your sweetie (or your friends, or your parents), give them the pleasure of not talking about your genius implementation strategy, or the software patch you’ve developed, or the new client you’re so close to landing.
Shut off your start-up brain. Find new things to talk about. And for God’s sake, listen for once. Actually engage and respond to people instead of running business models in the background and giving them the auto-you. Be there.
3. Stop worrying and enjoy the journey.
Worry is the ‘trep’s constant companion. How will this launch go? How will people like what I’ve worked so hard to create? Will we get that VC money? Will people even notice us? Will they even care? Most importantly, how will all of this affect the way I feel about myself?
These questions race through our minds on a daily basis and oftentimes, rather than quelling them, we look for evidence to confirm our worst fears.
Success runs deeper than fear and worry. The truly successful people out there know that no matter what, they are going to come out on top. When things don’t work out, they regroup, retool, and reimagine so that the next one does, until they produce the outcome they want.
Stop worrying so much about your current project. Instead, focus more on how far you’ve come and how excited you are to have the opportunity to try your business ideas out. The results will come with time.
Learn to actually enjoy the process.
Daniel DiPiazza is a digital entrepreneurship expert and the founder of Rich20Something, the only source dedicated to helping twenty-somethings escape the 9 to 5 death trap by launching their own digital products online. Check out his free course on creating your own digital information product here. He loves chatting digital strategy and unrelated debauchery with like-minded entrepreneurs. Say “hi” on Twitter @Rich20Something.
There’s not much mystery behind how a distributed team works. We show up, in our respective locations, talk to each other, and make stuff happen. The alchemy of coming together to make it work is the same that any team experiences when they build something together. There are a lot of ingredients that go into that magic, and these days, people’s physical proximity to each other is not necessarily one of them.
Like many of the teams we serve, our own iDoneThis team is dispersed. While we experience both the challenges and benefits of the form, what stands out is how naturally that form compels teams to consider and resolve the process of daily collaboration. When we get down to it and count the ways we love distributed teams, we see the alignment of four elements — company culture, communication, productivity, and the right people — that help make the magic happen.
half of the magic-making iDoneThis team
1. The Company Culture Advantage
Despite having reached that fuzzy buzzword point of meaning whatever you desire, company culture is widely acknowledged to be, as Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM, put it, “the defining issue that will distinguish the most successful businesses from the rest of the pack.”
Company culture is not made of ping-pong tables but of a mission and vision, shared values, and a meeting of minds on how to (and how not to) work together. VC Mark Suster points to supposedly weaker company culture in claiming that distributed teams are less effective. “The best companies are built on common beliefs and culture – a common sense of purpose,” he writes, and those commonalities are built through “human connections.”
Yet, human connections are exactly what technology has been so great at facilitating. Ravelry, whose close-knit distributed team has created a site and network that gathers a tight community of approximately 2.8 million zealous users, is just one example of the power of such connections. How does Ravelry make it work? They found the right people and “tools that work for the business to stay in touch” to advance their shared principles and priorities of utility, connection, and fun.
Without a physical space to connect, distributed teams are bound by a strong sense of common purpose. People have to get on board and ride in the same boat with that sense for it to move forward.
2. The Communication Advantage
One of the most prominent challenges of any organization is communication, which the mere fact of everyone being in the same place does not resolve. There’s always potential for miscommunication and lack of transparency leading to unequal information, politics, trust issues, and overall weaker company health. Even within an office, think about the game of telephone that can play out when distributing information, the people whose last names you hardly know, the manager who speaks solely through e-mailed memos, the meeting that spends one hour to impart five minutes of information.
Though communication tools can address those issues and lower the coordination cost involved in making sure everybody is on the same page and communicating well, the right communication tools become even more vital for distributed teams as shared technology becomes its shared space.
Toni Schneider, of Automattic, illustrates the communications trade-off that happens with a distributed team:
[A] chat conversation is simply not as rich as a real life one. But there are advantages as well. A chat conversation can be archived, searchable, and visible to the entire team, whereas in person conversations in meetings and hallways are often lost to the ether. Being distributed is a good excuse to abolish inefficient meetings, conference calls, and email silos, and get the whole team to use better online collaboration tools.
Such communication methods can also provide the benefit of adding to transparency and work culture. For example, the ability to build a visible record, as iDoneThis has for Reddit’s distributed team, helps both to keep everyone in the loop and to build a company narrative.
3. The Productivity Advantage
Jon Buckley, a developer on one of Mozilla’s software teams, sees an additional advantage to the ability to communicate across time zones and silos: “You don’t have to worry about being in the same room at the same time. That asynchronous nature of updating people is very helpful.”
Asynchronous communication allows conversation to continue at a pace that supplies breathing room for people to get actual work done. People need substantial blocks of uninterrupted time to concentrate and to get in a flow at work. It’s impossible to get in the zone, fully immersed and focused, when you’re constantly being interrupted by noise, chatter, and meetings, or disruptive questions and conversations — no matter how well-meaning or on-point they are.
Without the obligation to hover around the hive and be a good worker bee, you gain space and quiet to concentrate on work, exercise high autonomy, which further drives our motivation, and retain flexibility over your work schedule, which boosts productivity and improves health.
4. The People Advantage
You can hire the very best without having to consider location. As Jason Fried of 37signals, known for its company culture, states in Rework, “Geography just doesn’t matter anymore.”
Laura Roeder, founder of LKR Social Media, agrees, finding that a distributed team is actually a competitive advantage, because it grants her more flexibility to hire for quality and fit. Similarly, Ravelry has a competitive advantage in being able to hire from within its own community people who arrive on their first day of work with the deep-set intrinsic motivation of working on something they love.
The success of distributed teams relies on its people. Physical distance can highlight any inherent weakness in a team and how its run, and every advantage of a distributed team can just as well be a drawback. Flexibility, autonomy, and communication tools, when misused, mismanaged, and in the wrong hands, can produce an ineffective team with little spark.
It comes down to hiring disciplined, autonomous people that fit your company best, who can use tools to effectively communicate and collaborate to find individual and collective workflows that work and flow.
Distributed teams understand the unique nature and value of in-person interaction. It’s why we make efforts to meet for work retreats and social events and use video chats so that we can see each other’s lovely faces. We still acquire the camaraderie of working together and working hard to grab for the gold ring.
So when it comes to distributed teams, something so dependent on the quality of its people and nature of relationships is not lacking human connection as some missing puzzle piece. That connection is what holds it together and helps it succeed.
“You’ve got to be audacious enough to set goals that make you stretch and give you clarity of vision and purpose. But you have to have the humility to know that this work is hard, and that you might not get there. If you start off talking about all the reasons that you’re not going to get there, you’re not going to get there. And so it’s holding that balance of not being reckless, but also having a huge element of fearlessness.”—Jacqueline Novogratz, chief executive of the Acumen Fund, on the balance of audacity and humility necessary to innovate.
Ever get so caught up in a task that you don’t notice something in plain sight? There’s actually a term for that — inattentional blindness — a state of unseeing created by where you’re focusing your attention.
A famous example of inattentional blindness is the invisible gorilla study. Before participants watch a video of two teams of three people passing a basketball, they are told to carefully count the number of passes made by the team dressed in white (the other is dressed in black). Halfway through the video, a woman in a gorilla suit walks through to the middle of the screen, beats her chest, and then walks offscreen.
About half the viewers fail to see the gorilla at all, but without the instruction to count the passes, a person in a gorilla suit would’ve been pretty hard to miss.
Inattentional blindness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Flip it around, and it’s focused attention, an essential skill. What’s funny and enlightening about the invisible gorilla test is how we deceive ourselves into thinking that we wouldn’t have been the ones taken in. We’re smugly sure that those other people would totally miss the gorilla but no, not us! As psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, who conducted the invisible gorilla test, note, “We think we see ourselves and the world as they really are, but we’re actually missing a whole lot.”
We have a lot of blind spots in our lives, but we can be more observant about what we’re missing once we admit that we stink at seeing things as they really are. The world’s best professional pickpocket Apollo Robbins, profiled in a fascinating New Yorker piece, relies on inattentional blindness and his ability to choreograph the spotlight of your attention so that he can perform his craft in the created darkness. He explains, “Attention is like water. It flows. It’s liquid. You create channels to divert it, and you hope that it flows the right way.”
In these days of screens and information streams, there are a lot of diverting channels. My attention certainly can have the flow of a broken, possessed water fountain. I wonder what’s going on in the dark. How can I better choreograph my attention and see what I’m missing?
The quantified self movement aims to help people more clearly see themselves through recording and tracking aspects of daily life, measuring anything that’s measurable, including fitness, eating, spending, and sleeping habits. Self-knowledge through data turns into self-improvement. The spotlight of attention can shine on details whose prosaic, mundane presence, or absence, usually melt away from our consciousness.
While I’m not the type of person who naturally takes to something like self-tracking, I remember a Q&A I did with Stacy-Marie Ishmael who, using iDoneThis, discovered a correlation between the time she woke up and her productivity level:
I started noticing that on the days when I got out of bed really early and I went for a run or went to the gym or went to spin class, I got three times as much done than as on the days when I get up slightly later. For me, there’s a direct correlation between waking up early and doing some kind of exercise and having an incredibly productive day. That’s not something I would have noticed, had it not been for keeping track of that and looking back at my calendar.
Improving my self-awareness may just require a little more quality time being more conscious and observant on a regular basis. The eye-opening power of channelling attention more mindfully makes me think about getting back into journaling about my day, or how I could be using iDoneThis more thoughtfully, for personal stuff, for work, and the overlap and connections that exist between the two.
Maybe I’ll discover that I’ve been deceiving myself about how many cookies I eat during the week, or make some cool connection about conditions that make me more productive. Maybe I’ll find some other gorilla of habit beating its chest that I have totally failed to notice.
“As a manager, you need to know who’s wilting under the pace or workload… Ask people what they need, what resources would be helpful. And be a good role model… Give people permission to slow down.”—
Dr. David Posen, author of the forthcoming book, Is Work Killing You? A Doctor’s Prescription for Treating Workplace Stress in a Q&A with the WSJ At Work blog.
Dr. Posen breaks down three main causes of workplace stress: volume, velocity, and abuse. There are longer hours and faster paces in the modern workplace.
And then there’s the abuse:
Abuse is bullying, harassment, and all the politics people play. It’s amazing how one abusive person can create stress for dozens of people. It’s become a bigger problem because people have less freedom to say ‘I don’t want this job’ and go somewhere else. So people aren’t quitting and they’re not even complaining because they don’t want to seem like troublemakers.
Are breaks and reasonable hours enough to combat this type of workplace negativity? Dear readers, tell us about your experiences with what Posen calls workplace abuse or some ways to address abuse in organizations!
Women face tough challenges in accessing leadership opportunities. Just look at the numbers. While women make up 51.4% of middle managers, they account for a mere 4.2% of Fortune 500 CEOs.
During law school, I participated in a clinical program where students work in the field while receiving practical training and guidance. While discussing a self-evaluation written after a client interview exercise, I noted that I’d been pretty hard on myself, commenting lightly, “Well, who thinks they do everything great?”
“Plenty of people do,” my supervising professor replied. “And they’ll say so, even when they’re not.”
While the extremes of egotism can be awfully distasteful, there is something to tooting your own horn. Among the complex reasons for the promotion paradox that women face, including harmful gender stereotypes and perceptions, is a lack of confidence in communicating achievements, in saying so even when they actually are awesome at what they do.
In fact, a 2011 Catalyst study found that the most powerful tactic for women in advancing their career was to make their achievements known. Calling attention to accomplishments led to more career satisfaction and was actually the only reliable factor associated with bigger raises. As much as we believe, or want to believe, that our achievements speak for themselves, that alone isn’t enough. We have to speak about them too.
This is an important practice for everyone. Doing your work is only half the job. Productive people get stuff done on their own, but moving that work forward and outward rides on communicating about the stuff that got done. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, an employee, or looking for work, when you do things, tell people, doors open because people know where to knock and why. Those people will include powerful leaders who can act as sponsors and mentors and amplify your “tell people” message.
The tricky part, though, can be how to tell people, so that you feel authentic to who you are and the message is accepted by others. For women, that’s not as easy as it might sound. As Whitney Johnson and Tara Mohr explain in their call to find effective forms of self-promotion: women have to navigate a double-bind, stuck between being perceived as too passive or too aggressive, but never just right, or stuck facing higher standards of work but shamed or gaslighted when bringing up their great performance.
Effective forms of self-promotion will differ, depending on who you are and where you work. Here are a couple tips to get you started:
Keep track of your accomplishments. To effectively self-promote, you yourself have to acknowledge and keep track of your achievements.
Use social tech tools like Asana and iDoneThis to build a visible, everyday record of progress and achievements. If your employer is against implementing such tools, use them yourself to document your work.
Ask for promotions and raises. You’ll be able to support your request with concrete evidence.
Look for more frequent and alternative opportunities for get feedback. Don’t wait for your formal annual review to bring attention to your accomplishments and grow the quality of your work.
Get out of the office. Promoting yourself doesn’t have to be on someone else’s terms. Write a book, start a blog, make a side-project, collaborate with new people outside of work, speak at panels and conferences. Tell people about what you’ve done, what you’re doing, why it’s important, and how you did it.
See what doors you can open, gaps you can close, and barriers you can break!
We’d love to hear about your thoughts and experiences regarding self-promotion and advancing in your career.
How Ravelry Stitches its Creative Community Together
Ravelry is a website for knitters, crocheters, spinners, and other people into fibers, with close to 2.7 million users, or “Ravellers”, around the world. The site houses a rich database of patterns and reference information, ways to keep track of projects and stock of your yarns, and a forum for its Ravellers to interact.
In fact, Ravelry has been called “the best social network you’ve (probably) never heard of”. In talking with Mary-Heather Cogar, VP of Operations/Do-Gooder, that sense of close-knit community shines through, distinguishing Ravelry as an example of what can be so great about the internet.
“There’s something really amazing about connecting with people that are into the same things that you are. A lot of Ravellers have struck up friendships, sometimes in totally different countries, or met people in their own communities that they didn’t know were out there. They were used to knitting in front of Netflix or whatever — we all love to do that but sometimes you feel like you’re the only one passionate about this in your neighborhood. It turns out that there’s a group of people that are super into crocheting also, or new spinners and they’re all learning together.”
Throughout Ravelry’s growth, the company wants to ensure that the site maintains its welcoming community spirit, keeping it intuitive and fun. The small, dispersed staff of Ravelry operates along similar principles of utility, connection, and fun. As an all-remote team, Mary-Heather notes, “We’ve had to find the tools that work for the business to stay in touch. iDoneThis has been great. There’s just something nice about recapping things that we’ve done at the end of the day. We realize how much everybody’s doing. It’s motivating to get those digests in the morning and be like, ‘ooh!’, and it’s fun to go in and ‘like’ what your co-workers have done.”
It’s remarkable, though not surprising, that team members who came on board after Jessica and Casey Forbes founded the site in 2007 were former Ravellers themselves. Mary-Heather, who chose her alternate “fun title” of “Do-Gooder” because of the term’s positive, proactive implications, was thrilled to work on a website that she was already passionate about and found meaningful. “We all just love the usefulness of the website, so that in itself is probably the most motivating thing — when you love your job and you think that you’re doing something that’s fun and useful.”
Through team chat in Campfire, the Ravelry team gets a general impression of what people are working on. “We all know we work really hard,” Mary-Heather explains, but seeing a daily recap turned out to be quite revealing, uncovering different workflows and improving knowledge about themselves, the team and business.
Those revelations and communication gains have been surprising: “We’re a small, close team, and I know that we’ve always felt like we’ve communicated and kept in touch with what we were all doing. But with iDoneThis, it’s pretty striking how it’s such a simple thing but improved communication a lot, even if your team is already close.”
We love that we’re helping companies like Ravelry with such passionate staff and users make, create, and connect!
5 Ways to Transmit Awesome Customer Service From the Inside Out
No customer service is an island. You just can’t deliver great customer care alone.
These days, customers are tech-savvy, creative, and communicative. Some customers may want to build extensions and plugins to your service. In fact, we owe many of our iDoneThis “goodies" to ingenious users who built them to better suit their workflow. Others request features or find ways to adapt your tool to their company culture that you never initially considered. Still other customers ask highly technical questions. They all use multiple channels to communicate a volley of varied issues.
The worst customer experience is to wait forever for an answer, only to receive a meaningless response. That’s bound to happen when you isolate your customer service team. Ill-equipped to substantively deal with issues, they leave customers hanging while running around asking developers for assistance.
The best customer experience is prompt, personal resolution of a problem, and this starts with a foundation of strong internal team connections and communication. The better your team is at communicating and supporting each other, the better the customer service results. Customer requests will have a faster turnaround, your responses will be more substantive and helpful, and your customers will simply be happier.
Here’s some key ways and tools to connect your team internally for excellent customer service:
1. Everybody pitches in.
Customers need more than one designated “customer service” person, or one department. Your customer happiness team needs to keep up with the product’s marketing and development, and your product developers need to stay in touch with issues rolling in.
Everyone on your team, from your developers to your CEO, should handle some customer service communications. At iDoneThis, the CEO, the CTO, and the developers all pitch in to help with customer support. It’s a valuable way for everyone to have afinger on the pulse of customer experiences.
2. Know your team’s strengths.
Know which team member is best equipped to respond to a request and most knowledgeable about a particular question or a particular customer. Not all questions require an expert answer, but all questions should get a speedy response, so assign accordingly.
At iDoneThis, we use programs like Help Scout to assign and track customer service emails. Not only do I take into account the team member’s area of expertise when assigning a customer issue, I also use Help Scout to see who has connected with that client before.
3. Provide support for your own team.
Be cognizant of each team member’s task load. If team members are overwhelmed with work and a customer service issue has been languishing, step in to assist and move things along. Can you check on something in the system for them? Does their answer need confirmation from another party? If they possess unique knowledge necessary for the issue, get a short answer and communicate with the customer on their behalf. If necessary, assign the customer support issue to someone else.
We use iDoneThis to stay connected with each other and see who is busy doing what. By filling out and sharing our iDoneThis entries each day, the whole team can see whether someone has gotten around to a customer issue or has been otherwise occupied. This makes it easy to effectively distribute and reassign issues and for others to step in and help, giving the customer a faster response time.
4. Maintain constant, real-time communication.
You’ll invariably run into customer service issues that require quick answers from different people on your team. Sometimes, a “yes” or “no”, or a short confirmatory response, will do. Sending an email and waiting for a response can be inefficient and unpredictable. If your team can communicate in real-time, however, the response time is most likely to be just a few minutes.
Internal communication programs like Campfire are group chat rooms for your team, enabling instant communication, all day long. Questions are resolved quickly, and no time is wasted replying to the customer.
5. Educate each other on customer issues after resolution.
Learn collectively from customer experiences and resolution of problems in order to deliver better service and a better product in the long run. This way, the development team can correct systemic issues, make key improvements to the product, and preempt the occurrence of certain problems. The customer service team learns to handle a broader range of issues and expands substantive knowledge about the product.
At iDoneThis, we use GitHub to share problems we encounter in customer service. By creating tickets, we alert and educate each other about any long-term improvements and changes needed to enhance the product. We also use Github’s wiki feature to write step-by-step guides to resolving common customer service requests, equipping everyone on the team — newbies and experts alike — to address frequently asked questions.
Excellent customer service relies on strong internal connections within your team.
Your customer service agents cannot deliver quick, constructive, personal resolutions if they are isolated from the rest of the team. The rest of your team cannot deliver the best possible product if they are isolated from customer service.
Internal social collaboration tools are an easy solution. With a few online tools, you can ensure that the whole team develops personal rapport with customers, leverages individual strengths in supporting customers, and supports each other. This, in turn, will inspire and enable each of them to deliver rapid, responsive and happy customer service experiences.
Ginni Chen is Chief Happiness Officer at iDoneThis. When not striving for the happiness of iDoneThis members, she’s a rock climbing instructor, skier and collector of first edition books. You should follow her on Twitter at @GinniChen.
Why Logic is an Unproductive Way to Address Illogical Behavior
As Chief Happiness Officer, Ginni ensures that iDoneThis is helping teams and companies stay connected, enhance productivity, and improve their inner work life. Every so often, a team leader will reach out to ask why some team members just aren’t getting on board. It hasn’t been a straightforward question to resolve, so Ginni reached out to friend, time coach and productivity expert Elizabeth Grace Saunders, for some help. (This is the 1st of a 3-part “Manager’s Series”.)
Does this sound familiar?: You’ve been trying to implement a change on your team that will lead to increased productivity. Although you’ve explained why the new behavior is important and saves time, certain people won’t budge. And no amount of explaining—or even coercing—seems to bridge the disconnect between what people should do and what they actually do.
The answer to the puzzle of why people don’t do what is logical and beneficial for the individual and the team, lies deeper than you might think. In such cases, you most likely have a logic-resistant emotional issue to address.
As a time coach and trainer, and author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment, I’m acutely aware that addressing underlying emotional issues plays a foundational role in shifting people’s habits. That’s why in Chapter 2 of my book, I go through six crippling emotions—and how to overcome them. To get you started empowering your team in 2013, I’ll cover one of them here.
When You Can’t Keep Up: Overwhelm
Overwhelm happens when you feel disproportionately matched to what’s happening in your environment. This feeling may result from requests that you do more work than you have time to complete, or from an inability to prioritize what must get done now and what can wait. In the modern workplace, knowledge workers can easily fall into overwhelm because they rarely repeat identical work in the same way. This means that it can be hard to estimate how long something will take.
While people may have incredible autonomy over how and when they complete assignments, sometimes they lack the skills to effectively plan and execute concurrent projects. Depending on your workplace, this may fall into speed or quantity overwhelm—or both. For the purpose of examining blocks to using reporting tools designed to increase productivity, like iDoneThis, we’ll focus on quantity overwhelm, meaning the sheer volume of requests feels insurmountable.
What Happens When You Suffer from Quantity Overwhelm?
If your team members suffer from quantity overwhelm, they will typically lapse into one of two sets of behavior. The first possible response is to flip into panic mode where they frantically try to get as much done as possible without much thought or planning. In this state, they will actually carry out many activities but will resist updating reporting tools like iDoneThis, because doing so seems like a “waste of time” when there are more “important” tasks to do.
The second kind of response is to shut down. In this state, people think constantly about all that they must do but take very little action. This leaves them embarrassed about their output for the day and therefore unwilling to publicize it.
How to Combat Overwhelm
As a manager, the best way to alleviate and prevent overwhelm is to have one-on-one communication with your staff members on at least a weekly basis where you not only discuss what they’ve done but also how they feel about their level of work. The people who struggle most with overwhelm have the perspective that no matter what, they must keep up with what happens around them. Your goal is to create a safe environment to address issues, to overcome challenges together, and even to adjust workloads, if necessary, and help them understand how to ensure their tasks match their ability.
For this process to work, you must be genuine in your concern and action. Respond calmly, forgive for past missteps, and then work on a strategy to move forward. If individuals say they feel overwhelmed and stuck, work with them to address the issue.
Perception is reality. Even if you think something should be very manageable, your team may not. Respect the difficulty of their situation and work with them to surmount it.
Overcoming Quantity Overwhelm to Get On Board with iDoneThis
If you’re an advocate for iDoneThis in your organization who has struggled with this issue and gotten no results from appeals to reason, such as explaining how it only takes a few minutes and cuts down on boring meeting time or expressing how full participation is necessary to make the digest meaningful and useful, it’s time to address the underlying issue of overwhelm. If you don’t, every reminder to do something like use iDoneThis jabs at an already sore spot.
Reducing overwhelm will result in a big step forward to consistent use of iDoneThis. But if you still notice resistance, you can try out these two approaches:
For the frantic: Emphasize how updating iDoneThis can actually lead to work reduction, by giving perspective on how much they have accomplished, clarifying what’s important, and allowing other team members to offer support.
For the paralyzed: To reduce fear, reward the simple action of replying to the iDoneThis e-mail before focusing on the content of the e-mail. Support them using feedback, encouragement, and “likes”. This way, you reduce the probability of guilt, embarrassment, shame, or perfectionism blocking participation.
If you’re in the business of dealing with web and social media metrics or are familiar with entrepreneur and The Lean Startup author Eric Ries, you probably know about vanity metrics. Basically, these are numbers that sound impressive but don’t necessarily mean anything of significance because they’re not actionable by themselves. In other words, vanity metrics are “good for feeling awesome, bad for action.”
Many of us fall into an analogous vanity work trap. We do things that sound impressive or important, making us feel productive but essentially don’t propel us to any new heights. Maybe it’s that umpteenth networking event or coffee meeting, or obsessing over social media followers or responding to emails during vacation, or even dutifully doing all the things we think we’re supposed to do. The vanity trap sucks us in using other people’s ideas of success.
Avoiding the trap is all about uncovering what really matters. The same “so what?” test used to escape the lure of vanity metrics is useful for your own work. That question of what matters, of separating vanity from substance, is one of slowing down, of inquiry and honesty. As PandoDaily’s Francisco Dao, who has written about his own version of the “so what” test (asking yourself, “Why the f*** would I do that?”), notes:
If you’re not honest, you’ll come up with bullshit answers which puts you right back at square one. But if you are honest and really make an effort to come up with legitimate answers, I think you’ll find that asking the question clears away a significant amount of clutter and noise.
Without honest examination of what matters, our paths can’t really lead us forward.
Sometimes, we’re caught in a vanity trap of others’ design. We may be assigned busywork or get swept into spending too much of our energy and attention into tasks that are never really explained or go anywhere. Yet, we appear in a flurry of activity, giving ourselves and our supervisors the appearance of contribution.
While it’s much harder and scarier to ask why a meeting or some company song and dance matters when it’s a manager’s directive, it’s worth trying not just for the sake of your individual sense of purpose and progress, but the organization’s. Leaders and managers can avoid setting such organizational vanity work traps by confronting reality and facilitating your team’s progress.
The very act of pausing to ask questions like so what?, now what?, why?, why the f***? impacts the ultimate direction you head and ensures that, as Alain de Botton says, “we are truly the authors of our own ambitions.”
Hello! I’m Janet, and I’m delighted to be joining the iDoneThis team full-time!
It’s been thrilling to see iDoneThis evolve while I’ve been freelance writing and editing for the company for about a year. I’m excited to contribute to its growth as Marketing Director, doing content and product marketing and continuing to helm the blog.
In the past, I was an editor at Opera News and, as the third attorney to join the ranks of iDoneThis, have worked in community and economic development, food policy, and public interest law. I have a B.A. from Duke University and a J.D. from American University.
I’m at my happiest when I have access to a well-stocked library and kitchen. And naps.
Follow me on Twitter @lethargarian, and say hi at email@example.com.
“So what I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we are truly the authors of our own ambitions.”—