If you took a poll at your public utility and asked every employee to rate the level of communication between management and staff and among the different departments, would they make your day and give your company high marks? I doubt it.
Poor communication is one of the biggest challenges a utility faces.
When I train at a utility, I use an activity to demonstrate communication skill. Try this with your management team. Give each person a sheet of paper, then pair people up and have them sit with their backs to each other so they can’t see what their partner or other people are doing. Tell them to fold their sheet of paper and tear off a corner, then fold the sheet again and tear off a corner. If they ask which way to fold or which corner to tear, tell them it’s their choice. Now have each person open his or her sheet of paper. They will discover that their piece of paper looks different from the person sitting next to them. This activity demonstrates that we all hear and perceive situations differently.
Miscommunication at the company level not only impacts internal customers (managers, supervisors, departments and employees), it also impacts customers’ experiences with the utility. So if communication is so important to improving how a utility functions and creating a positive experience for customers, why is it such a major obstacle? Because we are all individuals with different levels of experience and varying levels of communication skills we all see things differently. Those differences are important to the growth and vitality of any company. If everyone looked at everything the same way, nothing would change.
The challenge is getting all the people at your utility to communicate clearly and listen to everyone else. Consider the following ideas.
Listen to understand. Heavy workloads, short staffing and multi-tasking turn people into poor listeners. They pretend they’re listening, but in reality, they miss a lot of what is said. Your employees can build strong relationships by being better listeners. Follow these four steps to overcome listening barriers:
1. Focus on the person talking. Close your door, place your phone on do not disturb, remove the project you’re working on and focus on the person talking
2. Use confirming statements. Clarify your understanding of what they’re saying with such statements as “Let me confirm what you said…” or “My understanding is…”
3. Summarize key facts. Words mean different things to different people. Confirm that you and the person sharing information have clarity. Use phrases such as “Did I understand that correctly?” “Did I get that right?” or “Is that correct?”
4. Clarify misunderstandings (if necessary).
Watch your body language. Body language sends non-verbal cues that speak volumes and communicate powerful messages. We are often unaware of our negative body language because it’s comprised of subtle habits we have developed over the years – eye rolling, sighing, rapid-fire foot taping, leg bouncing or sewing machine knee, glancing away from the person speaking and interrupting the person speaking.
Watch your verbal language. The quality of everyday language used in business is on the decline. When employees use language that is negative or abrupt, they create communication barriers. Negative language can quickly destroy relationships with coworkers.
Avoid giving orders.
Rather than: “ You have to…” “You must…”
Use: If you will… then I can,” “In order to….” “We need….”
Be careful not to criticize.
Rather than: “You should have..”
Use: “Here’s how we can resolve this…”
Facilitate a monthly brainstorming session. Oftentimes, the best source for new ideas comes from within. Your employees see things every day that could be improved, changed or done differently. Let their experiences and observations become your funnel of knowledge.
In one year, Toyota employees submitted 86,000 suggestions for improvement. In Japan, 61 percent of employees regularly generate ideas while only 8 percent do in America. Why such a huge difference? The average Japanese manager uses four out of five suggestions. Employees are far more perceptive than most employers realize.
Create an event where everyone looks forward to sharing his or her ideas. Focus each brainstorming session on one area where you are looking for improvement. Ask each employee to come with at least one idea to improve that part of the utility. Hand out dollar bills, movie tickets or inexpensive rewards to say “thank you” for their ideas. Demonstrate to your people that their ideas and suggestions are valuable to the growth of your company.
Here are two important ground rules:
Before the brainstorming session, acknowledge that there are no bad ideas (negativity will destroy enthusiasm for unique and different suggestions).
Respond to all the ideas in three to four days maximum (it’s easy to grow weary of providing ideas and suggestions without some form of feedback).
Measure your staff’s level of satisfaction. A simple employee survey can provide you with invaluable information. Structure the survey to be as objective as possible.
Some areas to solicit their feedback might include:
1. Training programs. Do they feel their training is adequate and gives them the proper skills for their job functions and additional opportunities?
2. Company mission and vision. Do they know where the utility is headed?
3. Professional standards. Do they understand the levels of service you expect and the behaviors/actions that will achieve them?
4. Internal changes. Are ALL employees aware of changes taking place at the company?
This could include new policies or procedures, new software, new employees and new construction projects.
5. Likes and dislikes. Give them the opportunity to tell you what they like and dislike about your company.
Most employees will give you honest feedback if they believe there will be no backlash or a negative consequence. Allow them to give you information freely and anonymously. Share the results company wide. Let employees know which items will be implemented as a result of their feedback.
Involve your employees every chance you get! A recent study showed that more than 57 percent of hourly employees do not know their company’s annual sales. More than 26 percent do not know if their company’s financial position has changed in the last three years. Don’t be afraid to share sales and expense numbers. Teach everyone how to read a P&L statement.
Get them involved in examining expenses in their departments. Invite them to come up with strategies on ways to increase sales and decrease costs. Ask for their feedback on how to improve your level of customer service. Front-line people see many things as they do their jobs that, if done differently, could improve performance, save time and money, and bolster your bottom line.
Communication is a learned skill that requires training and practice. What is your utility doing to improve internal communication?
David Saxby is president of Measure-X, a Phoenix, Ariz.-based measurement, training and recognition company that specializes in customer service and sales skill training for utility companies.