Today’s knowledge-intensive companies depend increasingly upon their ability to mobilize the necessary expertise for complex projects. Assembling a sufficient knowledge base typically requires cross-functional project teams. While organizations are aware that communication tools like e-mail and videoconferencing can help such teams complete projects more efficiently, they may not realize how the same tools can help teams manage client impressions. In many cases, project teams are the client’s most visible representation of the company, uniquely situated to nurture (or damage) the positive impressions critical to customer satisfaction and repeat business.
Unless team members are trained to manage client impressions, this activity may be neglected. Effective impression management is less likely to occur when team members are under pressure and totally absorbed in simply completing the project. There is a real danger that stressed teams may excel at their explicit tasks yet fail to manage the client relationship.
Customer satisfaction depends heavily on clear communication. Suggested communication guidelines for project teams include:
- Setting clear customer expectations.
- Managing customer expectations as situations change.
- Managing knowledge to ensure high performance and added value for the client.
Setting Clear Customer Expectations
Customers are rarely satisfied with the outcome of a project if expectations are not clear and realistic at the outset. A team should set expectations high enough to reveal the value added by the project, yet reasonable enough to be attainable. Setting expectations appropriately involves carefully negotiating and documenting the terms, scope, and eventual outputs of the project. It may also involve establishing the degree to which the client is involved in the process, and the level of responsibility each party takes for communicating modifications or problems to the other.
Project teams must be both realistic and clear with the client about the frequency with which project updates will be posted, the type of information and level of detail provided in those updates, the speed with which e-mails will be responded to, and the regularity with which question/answer bulletin boards will be monitored. Once these expectations have been set, it is useful to delegate someone to monitor incoming client messages and post project updates so that expectations are satisfied.
Managing Changing Expectations
Managing changing expectations as a project progresses is also critical because scope, timetables, costs, and outcomes almost invariably require modification. Such changes can cause great concern for the client and leave the impression that the company has somehow been negligent or inattentive. Project team members can help by documenting their ongoing efforts and progress, providing early warning to all stakeholders about potential difficulties, and explaining any midstream adjustments. The relationship can be further strengthened by communications that are consistently timely, courteous, honest, and bi-directional. The team must find ways to meet the client’s ongoing need for information and reassurance.
Knowledge Management Supports Effective Communication
To remain competitive and competent in knowledge-intensive industries, teams need to systematically manage their knowledge and expertise. The ability to effectively gather, codify, disseminate and leverage knowledge for the task at hand is what ultimately ensures the team will be able to add value. The ability to share and leverage knowledge irrespective of physical location is increasingly important.
Leveraging knowledge, setting expectations, and managing relationships each rely on establishing effective channels for communication and feedback. For project teams separated by time and distance, these channels of communication are likely to rely on information technology because face-to-face communication alone is impractical. Two particularly important information technologies for such teams are e-mail and conferencing technologies.
E-Mail for Communication and Relationship Management
E-mail is the simplest way to set expectations, spell out roles, and notify clients of progress or changes. For example, e-mailing a summary of project scope discussions to clients will ensure a shared understanding. Regular e-mails documenting progress help to keep everyone informed between formal updates. E-mails can similarly provide early warnings and explanations about surfacing issues that might influence the project scope. E-mail also provides a channel for clients to provide feedback and make sure the deliverable will have the features they consider most meaningful. Lastly, e-mail can provide a mechanism for remote customer service, such as an electronic question and answer session. This can strengthen the impression of a knowledgeable, helpful, and accessible project team.
But E-Mail Has Pitfalls
Despite these advantages, there are several potential dangers as well. First, the use of technology may create unrealistically high expectations. Clients know that e-mail facilitates fast, 24/7 communication. They may come to expect virtually instantaneous responses to their questions or requests for information, becoming frustrated when there is a minimal delay. There may also be a tendency to assume that once an electronic message has been sent to the project team, everyone will have read it. This may unintentionally lead to increased stress and information overload, as the team feels obligated to constantly check for messages and provide responses. Since electronic mail lacks the context and richness of an in-person conversation, there is increased potential for miscommunication. It is easy to interpret a brief or delayed e-mail reply from a busy team member as curt or unresponsive when there are no accompanying verbal or facial cues. E-mail is efficient, but it carries the risk of magnifying misunderstandings and escalating conflict.
The very fact that e-mail automatically documents all communications can lead to unwanted effects. For example, e-mail increases the risk of having the right information conveyed to the wrong audience. It is relatively easy to mistype the name of a recipient or, worse yet, of a distribution list. There is no retrieving an e-mail message once sent, and it is much more difficult to retract a written comment made in haste or frustration than a verbal one. Moreover, the downside of having your accomplishments documented via e-mail is that your mistakes are also documented, creating a less forgiving environment. In fact, one study found that some project teams created the norm of writing only what they were willing to have those outside the team read. This cramped their communications and made the task more onerous.
Finally, there is the potential for actual failures of the communication system. Teams that have become dependent on those IT-supported channels of communication risk being at a significant loss when there is a problem with the system.
Videoconferencing for Communication and Relationship Management
Videoconferencing differs significantly from e-mail. It is a more complex technology to setup and schedule, but does provide immediate transmission of information to all parties involved and permits them to interact in real time, view the same objects, and see facial expressions. It is not text based and therefore does not automatically document discussions. It also requires participants to be involved at the same moment in time.
Advantages of Videoconferencing
Videoconferencing enables stakeholders in different locations to participate simultaneously in verbal contract negotiations and scope discussions, which can be very helpful in setting and managing expectations. Questions can be asked as they occur to participants and answered immediately. It can also be an effective and inexpensive way to tap expertise from someone outside the firm.
Videoconferencing can be used intermittently to supplement e-mail and phone communications to enable clients to see, hear, and “meet” the individuals who will be working on their project. In a videoconference, it might become apparent that a client is more, or perhaps less, enthusiastic about a new idea than was apparent from his or her e-mails. These cues can prompt the team to probe further and obtain information that might otherwise have been missed. When a problem does arise and result in extra cost, extra time, or mismatched expectations, the more personal communication of a videoconference can help people express concerns and solve problems collaboratively.
This personal touch can also facilitate remote customer service. While e-mail permits the exchange of questions and answers, it can lead to frustration because questions and answers must be written out. E-mail allows exchange of static documents, and some collaborative technologies allow participants to draw on a shared whiteboard, but actual demonstrations are difficult. A videoconference can permit a client to remotely demonstrate a difficulty with a physical product, show unexpected software responses on a computer screen, brainstorm with a group simultaneously, as well as draw on a blackboard to help explain a problem.
But Videoconferencing Also Has Pitfalls
Videoconferencing poses its own challenges for successful impression management. Videoconferences are not typically taped, which can be a disadvantage when there is a conflict between team and client about what was said or agreed upon. Moreover, while the ability to observe facial expressions and gestures and hear verbal nuances in a videoconference enriches the communication medium, videoconferencing is an imperfect simulation of face-to-face communication. Due to displaced feedback or delays and lack of eye contact cues, videoconferencing may result in vague feelings of unease, mistrust, or lack of confidence. People may appear rude during a videoconference if they are seen doing unrelated tasks or engaged in side conversations while another person is speaking. Most companies find it is necessary to have brief training on the use of videoconferencing technology and the accompanying etiquette.
Communicate Clearly Using an Appropriate IT Mix
It is a challenge for teams to communicate effectively using a mix of face-to-face discussion, telephone conversations, e-mail messages, groupware discussion forums, and conferencing technologies. After learning to use each medium effectively and appropriately, the next step is to integrate these tools into a seamless experience for the client. Different mixes of technology may be necessary for different clients and projects. Some tips are:
- If the client is not as comfortable with information technology as the project team, consider focusing on those communication channels the client does use regularly. Teams that overuse more sophisticated technologies with a relatively low-tech client can create an atmosphere that appears too technical, impersonal, and intimidating.
- Even with simpler technologies, be wary of overuse. A team using e-mail to the relative exclusion of face-to-face contact may be perceived by the client as detached or undedicated to the project. Information technologies can never replace personal phone calls or face-to-face “handshake” meetings; it is necessary to intertwine personal contact with conferencing and text-based communications.
- Take time initially to ensure that the client has as simple an interface as possible. Fortunately, web-based systems with familiar “browser” interfaces are becoming easier to use with little or no training.
- Moreover, it is vital that whatever technologies are used have adequate security and backup measures. There are few things that can cause more serious or lasting damage to a client’s impression of their project team’s professionalism than repeated system problems.
- For e-mail communications, take extra care that no interested parties are excluded from the distribution list, and conversely that unintended recipients are not included.
- Since e-mails can easily be forwarded, consider using “Do not forward,” or “Do not print,” options on particularly sensitive issues, or avoid a self-documenting approach entirely.
Project teams must not only excel at difficult tasks, but they must make proficient use of the communication technologies at their disposal. As teams learn to do this more effectively, they will generate increasing numbers of satisfied customers and become a greater source of competitive advantage in organizations.