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Randolph Johnston
Randolph Johnston
 

Office Communication Jungle

Do you know which is best for you?

December 7, 2009
by Randolph Johnston, MCS/MCP

There are many ways to communicate to those in our department, office, our clients and vendors but it has become increasingly difficult to manage the most effective ways to communicate. Here are some of the most common problems and best practices to have more efficient communication.

Let’s take a look at the many elements to this communication jungle such as mail/letters, e-mail, phones, document sharing, instant messaging, texting, note taking and software programs.

Mail/Fax

Even though this form of communication seems a thing of the past, it is still a very viable option, but there are some obvious problems with it. Delivery is almost always slow. You can rarely depend on the delivery date as it can have a one-to-two day error margin; incredibly frustrating when you need documents signed. There is always little interaction involved, you send and wait for a response. Tracking is even worse as you can’t track when they received it and what the next step in the process is. The same can be said for faxing documents to and from clients; you lose the ability to track both sides of the communication.

But there are reasons to still use this snail pace. It should most definitely be an option for official business communications such as legal documents. While it’s incredibly useful for business communications, you should always have it integrated with a document management system so you can track revisions, have a singular master copy, know who sent the original communication and what the response was. Having a document management system will help track correspondence by importing delivery receipts.

E-mail

We all remember when e-mail was such a novelty and was hardly useful but now we seem to depend on it for almost every communication need. When e-mail is used for every style of communication, you’ll find inboxes filled with both short e-mails between staff members, as well as staff members who use e-mail as a form of document transfer with each other. Both of these issues cause large storage problems, a management disaster and a missed opportunity to track due dates.

This new, faster form of snail mail should continue to be a mainstay in the office; it can help every office incredibly. You should always use e-mail for client/vendor communications and non-confidential file transfer. Internal projects always need to be discussed with multiple people who aren’t always in the same room, which is why e-mail helps project development thrive. When you cannot say it in person or over the phone, then it is necessary to use e-mail. It is important to be able to discern which form of communication is more useful for the appropriate communication type. E-mail is incredibly useful when dealing with client/vendor relationships that are in different time zones; enabling you to keep the project moving forward without waiting for them to get into the office for a phone call. Establish e-mail policies for office communications, because at the end of the day we have enough spam and ham.

Documents

Remember how exhilarating it is to have five different revisions on your desktop; three separate versions in your e-mail and now you don’t remember which one was the right one to send out. Revising has become a large problem in the office, especially if documents are transferred through e-mail to multiple staff members. Many offices struggle with managing documents whether digitally created or physically delivered to the office. There is usually no procedure in place to deal with the amount of documents received and delivered to clients. You also have the problem of how to deal with clients’ confidential data, which needs to comply with certain laws.

Documents should always reside in one place for the office, never on multiple computers or e-mail boxes. It’s important to choose a non-proprietary file format when considering a document management system. Establish procedures for receiving external documents from clients to ensure uniform management. When dealing with client confidential data it is imperative to use a secure service to transfer that data outside of your firm. This helps you stay compliant. Always maintain offsite copies of your documents and data. You never know when the worst can happen. Enable easy access to all of your documents while maintaining appropriate rights for users inside and outside of your firm. Through policy and software you should be able to sign or review documents without using e-mail to transfer them.

Instant Messaging

Most commonly thought as an activity reserved for teenagers rather than an incredibly powerful tool for the office, instant messaging (IM) can provide real value to your business. However, there are many owners who would rather not deal with it and for good reason. Most IM programs are insecure, opening your network to much vulnerability. Almost all programs lack a unified source of historical data, which makes tracking staff communications difficult. Staff members often attempt to transfer documents back and forth to each other, office and home, putting your clients’ data out in the Internet unsecured. Many staff members choose to use IM instead of e-mail, which creates more problems in tracking projects. As with e-mail, IM is incredibly difficult to decipher tone, inflection and sarcasm making an innocent comment into a lost staff member or client.

When you use a unified IM system you create historical data, which is great for tracking projects and managing staff activities. When a staff member needs to ask quick questions or deliver short messages you’ll find IM to be the right choice instead of e-mail or picking up the phone. It also allows you to discuss private matters without speaking on the phone. IM should be reserved for inter-office communication, not client information.

Software

After toiling away on their own, many owners decide to move to multiple software programs to help them manage their practice. They often end up becoming the computer technician of the office having to fix every issue. Owners then find that having all these programs do help accomplish certain tasks but lack tracking and historical data between these programs. Retrieving data from multiple programs becomes increasingly laborious and tedious, while delegation and accountability is incredibly difficult to manage. Sharing data between programs is almost nonexistent as well as running reports in the same format.

It’s time to have software help you rather than work against you. Every owner should consider reducing the amount of programs they use to the fewest possible excluding their industry-specific applications. This not only helps with management and technical issues, but can save money on license fees. If possible, use one program to dramatically improve tracking items from daily tasks, delegation, accountability, sharing data and reporting. Using fewer programs will decrease the amount of time it takes to retrieve data, which will save both money and frustration. And all of this means increased billings.

Conclusion

While there is a jungle of communication options from which to choose, it is important to remember that when making a selection, to consider the management aspect of your choices. Owners will often choose individual options that increase management involvement or commitments rather than saving time. These software options almost always end up costing more money than saving time. Look at the big picture while solving each inherent problem before implementing a solution.

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Randolph P. Johnston, MCS/MCP, is executive vice president at K2 Enterprises. He is a nationally recognized educator, consultant and writer with over 30 years experience in strategic technology planning, systems and network integration, accounting software selection, business development and management, disaster recovery and contingency planning and process engineering. Please note the views expressed in this article are solely the author’s and in no way reflect the views of the AICPA or CPA Insider™.