Mission leak… how internal comms can improve your bottom line

I needed some bath taps recently, but my quest soon ground to a halt and I fear that poor internal communications might have been to blame. (You’ll have to bear with me on this one… I promise there’s an internal comms lesson in here!)

Mission leak - how internal comms can improve your bottom line - Eden LighthouseSo, I found some taps very close to what I wanted on a national plumbing supplier’s website. But I had a simple question that needed an answer before I could take the plunge and buy. So I phoned up and the sales rep called the tap manufacturer to try to get the answer, but it was Friday afternoon and he concluded the customer service team had all gone home. He advised me to email my question via their website and his team would look into it.

I duly submitted my question and waited for the answer to come. And waited. And waited. Days turned to weeks. Radio silence.

Now, as far as I know, that company probably has a fairly straightforward mission. It really only exists for one purpose, and that’s surely to sell as much stuff as possible. It got me thinking about how something has gone badly wrong with this firm’s mission.

Cogs in the chain

Let’s think about a few of the cogs in the process leading to making a sale. The product buyers went out and did a good job, sourcing a product that’s pretty much what I want. The marketing and website people have equally excelled themselves, making sure I found my way to their site when I did a Google search and was able to easily browse around and find what I wanted.

All those cogs were whirring away in the company’s machine to get us to this crucial point. But then, it all fell apart. That final cog in the process, the sales and customer relations department, lost sight of the mission. Assuming that my message reached them, there’s only one conclusion: they prioritised something else other than helping me buy these taps, which, as we’ve already established, is pretty much the whole raison d’etre of the company. What is it, I wonder, that’s been occupying them all this time? What could be so important that it overrides the entire company mission? Staff meetings, training on using the new photocopier, moving offices?

Mission impossible?

Herein lies the absolute essence of internal communications: to make sure that everyone up, down and across the organisation knows exactly what you’re all collectively there to achieve, and the part they must play to make it happen. And, crucially, giving people a way to raise any issues preventing them from playing their part, so that they can be resolved.

Let’s think of this company (or your company) as a car for a moment. The main purpose of a car is to go places, to take its inhabitants to where they want to be. Each component must play its part to the best of its ability and no single component can do it on its own.

Take the engine, for example. It knows that its role is to provide the power that will ultimately turn the wheels as effectively and efficiently as possible. We’ll say that the engine represents the product buyers at the plumbing supplier. Let’s not forget that the engine’s only able to do its job well because of components like the fuel and starter motor (the HR, finance and IT teams, for example).

So, we’ve got power. The clutch and gearbox know that their role is to harness that power and send it to the wheels. Let’s say they’re the website and marketing teams. Great. All that power has been transferred to the wheels (the sales/customer relations team). It’s the moment when the mission becomes a reality – we can go places. Imagine that instead of taking all that hard work and effort and using it to fulfil the final mission, the wheels come off. Every other component in the car has done its job but without the wheels none of it matters.

Something clearly went wrong with internal communications to and within the sales team about what the company’s mission is and their critical part in it. You may rightly point out that perhaps the problem isn’t directly about their communications – perhaps their processes are poor or they’re understaffed.

But these are signs that the mission has gone out the window. If the sales team’s managers were clear on their mission, the cogs within their team that are critical to the sales process would get prioritised. The cog that channels sales enquiries from the website would feed seamlessly to the ‘answering questions and communicating with customers’ cog. Decision-makers in the company would make sure there are enough staff and other resources to enable the sales team to complete their mission.

To conclude…

I read today on the Institute of Internal Communication (IoIC) website that “the United Kingdom would be up to £50 billion a year better off if organisations made a greater effort to communicate with their employees”. I think my experience with the plumbing supplier illustrates the point. I wanted to hit ‘buy’ and they effectively said ‘bye’.

It can be hard sometimes to explain to a non-believer at the head of a company why really good internal communications can make all the difference to their bottom line. My tap quest unexpectedly illustrated why it’s mission critical to ensure that everyone in your organisation knows exactly what your mission is and how their cog contributes to making it happen. Quite simply, it empowers them to see how they can get their cog working as well as it can.

If you do nothing else with your employee communications, then do that. It’s a huge step towards helping people focus for themselves on what’s important and cut out what isn’t.

If you find you have some mission leak in your organisation and would like a chat about how it could be plugged, I’ll be very happy to fit in a chat around my ongoing tap quest!

Predictions for staff communications in 2016 – what they mean for your business

The social media feeds at the turn of the year brought some great predictions about communications with staff. I’m going to explore four that stood out for me – two in this post and two in the next – and what they might mean for your business or organisation.

Internal communications predictions 2016 - Jaki Bell Eden Lighthouse Internal CommunicationsCEO who?

Nearly a quarter of UK employees don’t know who their CEO is. It’s a statistic that Scott McKenzie from Lansons explored in the e-book Where’s Internal Communication Headed?, released last month by the Institute of Internal Communication (IoIC).

I agree with Scott that it’s a staggering figure. A leader’s main job is to create an environment where employees can work to their full potential, where they know what the organisation’s trying to achieve and understand their role in it. How can the CEO be so completely invisible and absent from the working lives of such a large chunk of the workforce? If they’re not out leading their people, what are they doing?

It’s probably also a sad indication that many employees take little interest in their organisation, not taking the trouble to find out who their ultimate boss is, let alone learn about the bigger picture in their company. In my view, employees have a responsibility to pay attention to important communications from their leadership, and the organisation has a responsibility to provide that information and engagement opportunities.

If I were to ask a random selection of your staff who your chief officer is, could they tell me? Does your organisation have a plan for how your CEO will engage with staff this year? Whether you have one member of staff or 10,000, they need opportunities to hear from the people at the top of the organisation and have their voices heard. Watch out for a blog post coming up soon that will help you with this, but for now here are a few things your CEO should be talking to staff about:

  • What the organisation’s trying to achieve
  • How it’s doing and what it needs to do better
  • The challenges the organisation is facing
  • How staff can contribute to overcoming those challenges

Go horizontal

Communication with staff has traditionally been top down, driven by messages from the senior team. But there’s a new trend towards the horizontal, says internal comms practitioner Rachel Miller, from All Things IC.

Rachel, also writing in the IoIC’s new year e-book, notes that staff want to talk directly to and hear from their peers, as well as their leaders. The challenge for organisations is how to allow those sideways conversations to happen.

I saw this in action at Christmas during a chat with a friend who’s a front-line manager in a café that’s part of a major retail chain. She pulled out her phone and opened up the Yammer app, which her company uses to connect employees with each other. She has joined various groups on Yammer: one keeps her up to date with company news, one for her region where staff talk about issues affecting them locally, and a group for café employees to share knowledge across the UK.

She gave me an example of using Yammer to troubleshoot a problem with the coding on a new product introduced into the cafes, which wouldn’t ring up on their electronic tills. A colleague posted about it on Yammer and someone who’d figured it out posted the answer for everyone to use.

When you begin to establish horizontal communication like internal social media rather than just top-down communication, it doesn’t mean that ‘the top’ is no longer part of the conversation. Quite the opposite. In my friend’s case, ‘the top’ were actively taking part in the discussions, essentially providing customer service for staff. Central teams monitor the various feeds and post answers to operational queries raised by staff – if staff haven’t figured out the answer among themselves first.

The productivity gains are obvious. Instead of the old way of having to ring round in the case of the till code question, the answer was there in minutes, saving staff lots of time and frustration. Meanwhile, ‘the top’ have a clear picture of what’s taxing their employees, can support them quickly, and spend less of their time finding out all the answers as staff can help each other.

How about trialling a system like Yammer in your organisation? Owned by Microsoft, it’s free for the basic version. You can access it via your web browser or via a mobile app and there’s also Yammer Notifier for your desktop. Don’t forget to set a policy for how it’ll be used before you get started.

Setting up an internal social media system is only half the battle, though. Showing staff how to use it well and convincing them of how powerful it can be is the biggest challenge. I’d previously seen Yammer ignored by front-line staff in another huge organisation, dismissing it as: “just used by a bunch of central specialists to talk to each other”. Ironically, these front-line staff really needed a way to support each other, frustrated and beaten down by a raft of new HR and IT systems brought in (not terribly well) over the past few years.

If you’re not quite ready for Yammer, you could consider other ways to help staff share knowledge using the channels you already have – from forums on your intranet, face-to-face networks for staff doing similar roles or a new column in your staff newsletter for your staff’s top tips and questions.

Conclusion

So, there are a few suggestions for things your organisation could focus on in 2016 to improve communications with and among employees. The next post coming along shortly looks at two other big topics in the world of staff communications: bringing in changes and the use of video for internal communications.

5 signs of poor communication inside an organisation

Last weekend, I was chatting to a friend about his work. The conversation came around to internal communications (OK, I admit I’m always fascinated to hear employees’ experiences in different organisations), and unfortunately it sounded like his company had quite a few of the signs that communications aren’t quite what they should be.

So, I decided to share 5 symptoms of poor internal communication in an organisation – see if you recognise any of these in your workplace.

5 signs of poor internal commsBut first, back to my friend Ady…

“So do you get a newsletter or something at work then, Ady, or how do you find out what’s going on in your company?” I asked him.

“We get nothing,” he said, somewhat glumly. “My company never tells you what’s going on.”

He told me about arriving into work one morning to find a new employee on the factory floor. Despite Ady being a relatively senior member of his team, no one had told him a new apprentice was starting.

“It’s the same when people leave,” he went on. “One day you come in and they’re not there. You ask around and you finally find out they left but nobody thinks to let other people know.”

It doesn’t exactly make Ady feel like a trusted member of the company – someone in the know, clued up and abreast of all the facts he needs to do the best job he possibly can. He is, in fact, doing his very best while the company keeps him on crutches.

If I got chatting to someone in your organisation one evening over a glass of wine, what would they say about the way you communicate with them? If you want to get a sense of how your organisation measures up, here are five signs that things aren’t what they should be in the employee comms department.

1. Your staff find out more about what’s happening in your organisation from the local paper than they do from you

So, you’ve launched a new product or service, picked up a big contract or won an award. Great! You waste no time in getting that press release out there… what a great opportunity to raise your profile. Then, one of your employees is down the pub on Saturday night and a mate says:

“I see your place got a big contract the other day, Harry. You’ll be keeping busy!”

Harry has no idea what his friend’s talking about. That’s because you forgot to tell your most important group of people first: your staff. It might be fantastic news, but for Harry some of the shine has gone off it by hearing about it second hand. Maybe he feels a bit stupid that his mates knew before he did. Maybe he starts to worry because he doesn’t know what impact it’ll have on him. Whatever the case, it’s unlikely to have him bouncing into work raring to go on Monday morning.

2. Your staff aren’t too positive about you in the pub

Like Ady, who didn’t paint a very positive picture of his company when we were chatting over a glass of wine, if your staff don’t feel informed about what’s happening in your organisation, they’re unable to be good ambassadors for you. Your employees have the potential to be one of your best sources of good publicity – people who help shape opinion about your company in their community. Word of mouth, and all that.

Imagine you’ve had a bad headline after a complaint against your organisation. If you inform your staff and give them the facts, they’ll be able to sit on the bar stool and tell the real story.

“Yes, it’s true that the company was in court, but here’s what really happened…”

Gold dust. Don’t miss out on it.

3. Your staff don’t know what your organisation’s trying to achieve

If you asked 10 members of staff how well the organisation did last year against its goals, what would they say? If they tell you they don’t know what the organisation’s goals are let alone how you collectively did in delivering on them, you have a huge disconnect between the top of your organisation and the people on the front line.

Why does it matter whether your staff know? Let’s pretend you’re selling the same products as a lot of other people, at roughly the same price. You’ve concluded that giving amazing service is your main strategy to win customers over to you. If you help your staff understand that your mission is to offer widgets with service that knocks customers’ socks off, then they’ll know how critical it is to make sure every customer has a great experience. You won’t find them stacking shelves when there’s a long queue at the tills.

4. Staff have been doing things the same way for years – yet there must be more efficient ways

If you tell people to do a very specific job and don’t share the bigger picture, it’s very difficult for them to bring any innovation to the table. You might have a very clear vision for where you want the company to get to, but do the staff know? Your vision might be to be the best pie restaurant in your town by the middle of next year, and you might feel your staff are constantly pulling against you by increasing the range of sausage rolls instead.

No manager has all the answers and if you don’t ask your staff, you’ll never harness their experience, knowledge and skills. You go to all the trouble of recruiting the best people, the thoroughbreds, and you pay top dollar. But then you stop them from running to their full potential because they’re starved – of information.

Let’s pretend you want to get a certain task done, like moving from one corner of a room to the one diagonally opposite. You think you know the best route, and you shuffle your staff round the walls, step by step, micromanaging and issuing specific instructions. Finally, you reach your destination. It’s taken several days, but you’re happy. You celebrate and congratulate your staff. They look at each other puzzled.

“But if that’s what you wanted, why didn’t you just say? I’ve done this before and I know a quicker way, straight through the centre of the room.”

Your staff are frustrated because they’re kept in the dark and their skills aren’t used to their fullest. They’re not being as productive as they could be because you’re not sharing the bigger picture.

5. Your staff turnover is very high

OK, there can be lots of reasons for people leaving and some industries are more prone to it than others. But check that poor communication isn’t playing a role. One of the reasons why the world’s most successful companies invest in internal communication is they understand the role it plays in retaining their best people. And they want to do that because recruiting and training people costs money and decreases productivity. You want to get people to the point of working at their full potential and then keep them there.

Who wouldn’t want to work in an organisation where you really understand what the firm’s trying to achieve, you know your part in it, you know how the firm’s doing and what you can do to keep things going in the right direction. When there are changes coming, you know about them and how they’ll affect you, and you have the chance to talk to managers and leaders in the organisation about the things that matter. A place where people don’t work in silos but ferociously share experience and best practice around the organisation, rather than duplicating effort. Wow! Who’d leave a place like that? Is that your workplace?

In conclusion, these are just a few of the symptoms of poor internal communication, and many of the things that go wrong in organisations can be traced back to it. Of course, there are lots of factors at play in the workplace and they can all affect the golden ideal of ‘engaged’ workforce – things like reward, recognition, development opportunities and management style. Internal communication may be just one of those factors, but it’s a hugely important one.

If you’ve got some sore spots in your organisation that might be symptoms of poor communication and would like an informal chat, feel free to contact me or browse my services that could help.