How can we practically apply the service quality concept to our day-to-day communication? Starting with the most basic advice:

Reply fast

Responding to a senior has higher priority than normal work 99% of the time. Often it takes very little time to jot down a response. Seniors perceive the service level as very high if they get an immediate response instead of four hours later, even if the content of your response is exactly the same. Fast responses via Basecamp and email will reduce the risk that the other party interrupts you via an instant messenger (more on that in a later section).

Acknowledge messages

When you acknowledge a message you reduce the other party’s need to follow up. It saves time, allows for better planning and it saves the client and seniors from having to worry about the task being forgotten. Often it takes just a minute! For example:

I’ve added the two new requirements to our work-plan: URL. We believe we can complete these before XYZ. Here’s an inline summary with rough estimates listed in the order of priority:

Advanced search extra fields – 4h

PDF in lightbox – 4h

Whether you need to acknowledge a message depends on the client and situation. If it’s a major task, or it’s unclear who will grab it, you should at a minimum acknowledge and say “I’ve added this to my work plan/todo list.”

You don’t have to acknowledge the task to reduce inbox clutter, if the following conditions are met: it’s simple task that you will complete within say 24-48 hours, the client/senior has been with us for some time and you have a good rapport with them, they trust that you get things done, they are not very active.

Assume and suggest

Seniors’ needs are always more or less ambiguous and open to interpretation. Assume what you think the senior needs rather than asking, and suggest solutions rather than stating problems; you are the expert!

Assuming and suggesting saves seniors’ time. Seniors can just respond “Sounds good”. If your assumption is incorrect, your senior will correct you. So an assumption will function as a question when it needs to.

We have a better opportunity to steer clients toward success; to use simple solutions that reduce project risk, to use solutions that reuse existing code and to use new technology that we want to work with.

Use as clear language as possible

Pay attention to spelling and grammar. Use short sentences, sentences grouped into short paragraphs, unambiguous sentences, inline/URL screenshots, no repetitions, numbered lists and links to external references. Don’t add superfluous information; brevity is a virtue. Read through your text and simplify as much as possible. Be succinct.

Set clear expectations

Do your seniors have clear expectations about your tasks? When will you start working on tasks, how many hours will you need for each task, when will each task be completed? In which order will you prioritize your tasks – what are your next steps? When will you send the next update? Communicate this to seniors through periodical reports, work plans and todo lists.

An active senior may bombard you with various small tasks. You need to make sure that nothing is forgotten and that the tasks are prioritized in a way that makes most sense. It’s not the client’s job to “manage our todo lists” so to speak.

Try to foresee what information a senior will need. Ideally, a senior should never have to ask for information and updates. If a senior is frequently asking questions about the status of your work – such as what the status of something is, when task X will be completed, how to find certain information, how something works – then you probably need to provide clearer and more frequent updates. Be proactive.

Some long client message include many points like requests, concerns, questions, vague questions or “hidden” questions. Make sure that you have really addressed all points. If you are unsure about some points, you should still mention that you will get back to the client regarding those once you have clarified them. You may need to clarify through your own research, a discussion with colleagues, or the like.

If you don’t address all points immediately, the client may feel the need to ask you again. The client may feel that you have forgotten those points which can lead to frustration. In some situations the client may even resort to contacting your seniors, which would lead to upward delegation.

Sometimes it can be enough to CC a senior to keep them in the loop and to manage expectations. Don’t CC too much and too often though; the status of less important tasks can be saved for a periodical report to reduce inbox clutter.

Don’t be discouraged if your senior doesn’t respond to your impeccable report. Even if silent, s/he will appreciate your update. If your senior requires fewer updates, s/he will tell you. The fact that the senior does not have to respond to your report is actually a positive sign.

Work plans are primarily used by the technical department. Sometimes they can be used for non-technical projects, such as an office renovation project. Detailed work plan guidelines.

Detailed todo list guidelines.

Don’t request unnecessary input

Don’t send frequent requests for input. A common mistake is to add phrases like these to every message: “please give your feedback”, “please check” or “what do you think?”. Ask for a response only when you really need it, to save seniors’ time. Seniors should feel that it’s really easy to work with you.

For example, to a passive client where you have just uploaded a batch of finished requirements you could write: “If you’re curious about progress, you can review it here: XYZ. However please keep in mind that the work is in progress and that there will be issues. Once we’re done with this phase and have tested it well – probably around DATE – we will ask you for feedback.”

If a senior feels there’s a need to steer you in the right way, such as if you’ve made a major incorrect assumption, the senior will give you input even if you haven’t explicitly asked for it.

Extreme clarity: overviews and highlighting

Try to make all your communication as clear as possible. Provide clear overviews where the other party can dig deeper if they wish.

Highlight changes or use a tool with revision history such as Google docs. A specific example of how I apply this is when sending a revision of an agreement to clients. We have a standard two page template but a client may ask for minor changes in it. If I would send the revised agreement as an attachment then the client would have to 1) download the attachment and open it 2) most importantly read through it again and try to find the revisions. Instead just highlight the changes and paste it inline making it very easy for the client to browse through the changes in a couple of seconds. It should be easy to do business with you!

Explain what you will do differently in the future

Let’s say there’s been an incident related to your work. Perhaps you’ve been criticized. Obviously you need to explain what you have done about the problem, but more importantly explain why it won’t happen again. What will you do differently in the future to prevent similar incidents? The senior does not want to feel like s/he has fallen victim to upward delegation and that s/he will have to be involved with micro-management in the future.

A technical example could be that a client found out that an export to PDF feature stopped working. A bad response would be “I’ve fixed the issue, please check.”. A better response would be:

I’m sorry that we were not able to catch this bug ourselves. The issue appeared because of a deprecated function (an outdated built-in function that the server software no longer supports). The server’s software was automatically upgraded last Monday, and the error occurred at the same time. I have now fixed the code that uses this old function which includes these pages: URL1, URL2 … How will we prevent it from happening again? We’ve disabled automatic server software upgrades. I’ve added it to my calendar to check for new software oncer per quarter starting 1 November. After manually upgrading the server, we’ll carefully test functionality. Secondly, I have written a small unit test that will email the admin developer here at LiteBreeze if the export to PDF feature for any reason would not return the expected PDF file in the future.

When handle a problem/request well and explain what you will do differently next time, the senior might even experience what is called a service recovery paradox.

Explain mistakes but stress that it’s not an excuse

Applicable for example when a client seems upset and is criticizing you. You can explain what has happened, but be very careful to make sure that it does not sound like an excuse.

A bad example would be “We didn’t find this bug because we had so much else to work on in the project.” A much better example would be “I’m not trying to make excuses but this important bug slipped through as I was in a bit of a hurry trying to finish too much at the same, leaving me not enough time to test. Next time I will surely test more carefully, especially these essential features, before reporting it as completed. Sorry about the trouble caused.”.

If a senior feels that you are making excuses s/he will also feel that you don’t take him/her seriously, and this leads to a  loss of rapport that will take much time to rebuild. Accepting responsibility for your work on the other hand will build rapport and make the senior feel like s/he can trust you, even if this means saying “this major problem was my fault”.

Even if your excuse and explanation is valid, there’s a risk that a vicious circle of blame-throwing will initiate unless the explanation is well-formulated. If there is something that your senior needs to do differently, I suggest presenting that feedback to the senior in a separate meeting once the “storm has blown over”. There’s a much greater probability that your senior will welcome the feedback constructively at that time.

Inform about holidays and leaves

Inform about leaves as early as possible; if you have to attend a wedding next month then inform seniors now. You can remind clients about holidays and leaves say one week in advance too in case they forget. Attach the current list of LiteBreeze holidays so that they can plan for future holidays too. Many of our clients will be used to vacations being planned half a year in advance, so sudden leave requests may be seen as unprofessional.