Avoiding a communication breakdown

Lucas Deal

June 10, 2013

KWSCO2Ever have a conversation with a customer where they mention something you have no knowledge of, but say it in a tone that makes you think you’re supposed to know — or even worse, that they think you already know?

Maybe it’s a passing mention of a parts order they canceled last minute, or advice your business provided on something they recently purchased. You hear what they’re saying, but you have no recollection of it ever being discussed before.

If it’s happened to you, you’re well aware of how perplexing it can be. Whether intentional or not, someone has kept you out of the loop.

Internal communication breakdowns like these can be crippling to a business. Once information starts slipping through the cracks, it’s only a matter of time before something major eventually falls.

Your company will never reach maximum efficiency unless all of its employees are on the same page.

To stabilize your internal communication, you must encourage employees to be vocal and create sustainable communication platforms in your business. Building a strong communication structure in your operation isn’t a weekend chore — it is a 365-day a year task.

“Communication is one of the most misunderstood aspects of business,” says Kyle Treadway, president at Kenworth Sales Company. “I think we all grossly underestimate how important it is.”

Build relationships

Communication works best when people are comfortable. Assembling a staff that’s at ease working together can help strengthen communication channels throughout your business.

“Staff members that are comfortable working together will get more work done,” says Dick Witcher, CEO at Minuteman Trucks.

Most individuals are shy or reserved when interacting with new people — and this is just as true in your business as it is anywhere. New employees who aren’t introduced to your entire staff may not feel confident when interacting with associates in other departments, and that nervousness can stifle and reduce their willingness to communicate, says John Bzeta, president at Fleet Brake.

“When people don’t feel like they are part of a team they don’t work as well,” he says. And once an employee starts internalizing questions and information, everyone suffers.

“If people don’t talk it can get bad fast,” Bzeta says. “[Silence] can cause misunderstandings, angst, mismanagement — it creates a huge disconnect in your staff.”

And this isn’t just a risk associated with new employees.

Your sales and counter staff communicate with your customers more than anyone else in your business. But unless both sides interact freely with each other, information about your customers and their needs can be missed.

Bobby Naples says he stresses extreme communication to keep everyone informed at his locations. The Long Island Truck Parts president would rather all of his employees discuss the same issue twice than miss discussing one thing once.

“We try to communicate about everything,” he says. “It’s almost to the point where people get annoyed because we’re talking about something again, but at least then they remember it.”

Team-building events, staff outings and out-of-office activities are also good ways to improve rapport. The more time your employees have to interact with each other in stress-free situations, the more at ease they will be to communicate when it counts.

Address mistakes

When something important does slip through the cracks, Naples says it’s addressed once the customer has been helped. This allows both parties to spot the communication breakdown and learn from what went wrong.

Naples says miscommunication on a recent part run forced one of his drivers to go to the same warehouse twice in one day. Long Island’s locations aren’t too far apart — all three are located on the island — but fighting New York traffic twice in one day is a hassle.

Those minor breakdowns show how communication failures can affect any facet of a business, Naples says.

“It’s an ongoing process,” he says. “You have to put procedures in place to make sure things work, and every day you have to try to make them better.”

Treadway does the same thing at Kenworth Sales Company.

“If we can understand a mistake we can learn from it,” he says.

During these post-mortem discussions, Treadway says employees investigate what went wrong, how it can be fixed and what they can learn from it. He says sometimes those meetings can get heated, but that’s part of why they are held — to vent frustration and avoid carrying any hostility that could cause future communication issues.

“You want to make sure the employee knows the right thing to do moving forward,” Treadway says.

Provide discussion opportunities

Active and regularly scheduled department meetings are another excellent way to improve in-house communication.

Bringing members of a specific area of your business together for a meeting can eliminate some of the reticence commonly seen at a full-staff meeting. People are more willing to interact in a smaller, conversational setting, especially when discussing their responsibilities with associates.

Witcher says Minuteman Trucks schedules off-site lunch meetings for managers a couple times a month. This informal setting stimulates conversation and positive discussion, he says.

“[Our employees] like the ability to have time and space to raise ideas they want to discuss,” Witcher says.

During any meeting, it’s a good idea for your management team to have a list of topics to address with each specific team. Approach those topics first, and follow by opening up the discussion to employee requests, concerns or questions. Employees will speak up if they feel management values what they have to say, Treadway says.

Don’t be shy about discussing communication, either, adds Bzeta. It’s a topic worthy of constant debate.

“We struggle with communication every day. We’re not experts on [it] because we’re not experts with people,” he says. “We’re always looking at ways to do it better.”

Utilize technology

Another great way to “do it better” is to take advantage of technology that addresses these specific problems.

The online world provides a lot of options.

Witcher says Minuteman Trucks uses an online portal to push out company information to employees. This technology allows efficient and immediate contact with Minuteman’s entire staff, and allows back and forth communication between employees and management.

Employees can check the site in minutes to get answers to questions that previously took much longer, keeping them at their workstation and functioning efficiently.

“It provides them access to all types of information and gives them what they are looking for,” he says.

Bzeta says Fleet Brake has had success using a similar system, which allows employees to discuss clients, products, training and sales opportunities in a simple and private online environment.

“That’s an area we are trying to focus on,” he says. “It seems like people are more willing to learn and let information come into their system when it comes from coworkers.”

Believe it or not, blogging is another way for you to improve your communication structure.

If that sounds unrealistic, consider this example: You and your management team make a fundamental change to the daily operations of your business. You want to get that information out as fast as possible; and calling a company-wide meeting isn’t going to happen. Not on that day.

By writing a blog post, you can give employees a quick overview of changes you’ve made. Employees want to know how they fit into the big picture. This is a way to show them.

Email is another important resource because it allows you to contact multiple associates at once and record all responses. Programs like Microsoft Outlook also allow you to organize meetings and sync employee schedules.

Treadway says email is his personal preference because “nothing gets lost in the cracks and crevices.”

Social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook are other ways to push out information, as is Yammer, a social networking site designed specifically for businesses.

There are non-Internet options, too.

Naples says Long Island Truck Parts use a four-digit phone forwarding system that allows employees to link multiple locations under one phone network, eliminating long-distance calls and general landing numbers.

“It’s been a blessing. It’s really helped us,” he says. “I think it’s been one of the best things we’ve done to improve [communication].”

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