Training Your StaffAnd YourselfTo Communicate Effectively
Communication. Its a buzzword thats on all the lists: top 10 traits of successful business people; one of the most important skills employees can have; what managers spend 80% of their time doing; what can make or break a business or personal relationship.
Is it on your list, too? Effective communication can help your practice run more efficiently, improve customer service and promote employee retention. Communication skills are the foundation of a successful sales professional. But how much thought have you given to how well you communicate within your office?
Picture this: You breeze into your office after meeting with Mr. Prominent Business Owner, a fat premium check and two new referrals burning a hole in your briefcase. Business is great. Your assistant, a smart young professional, is alert to your every nuance and mood. She looks up, smiles and says, “Good afternoon. How did your meeting go?”
“It was great,” you tell her. “Now all we need is for you to be sure Im ready for my meeting with Mr. and Mrs. Prospect.” You drop some files on her desk, grab your phone messages and head for your desk, wondering if Bill could join you for golf later this week.
Have you communicated your expectations to your assistant? You told her plain as day to get you ready for your appointment. You put a sticky note on her computer last night after she left to tell her to run the illustrations you want for the Prospect appointment, and you dropped those other files on her desk–a clear message that she is to put them back where they go. Right?
Not exactly. Your assistant heard you say, “Get me ready for my appointment,” which she may interpret to mean wait for more specific instructions to be provided. As for the illustrations, the sticky note fell off the computer and was thrown away by the office cleaning crew; your assistant never saw it. The next day, you expect illustrations; shes still waiting for you to tell her what to prepare.
How can you be sure you are communicating everything your staff needs to know? How can your staff be sure they are getting all the necessary client information from you?
If youre one of the lucky agents, your assistant has been with you long enough to read your mind and has probably already set up procedures; you may not even be aware you are following them. However, if youve just recently hired a staff member, or if you spend too much time clarifying and repeating messages to your veteran assistants, you need to do some staff training.
Youre going to have to do some self-training, too. Effective communication is not something that just happens. It can be created by following consistent procedures and providing complete information. Heres how.
Step One: Choose a system. Your office should have one designated method to communicate back and forth with each other. Some agents like to dictate; others prefer to talk face to face. Choose a method that works with your available technology, your preferred style, and your staffs skill level. (If your available technology tops out at legal pads, consider a computer network or voice mail feature for your phone system.)
Electronic systems are suggested for their superior documentation, storage and searching capabilities. Documented instructions, as opposed to verbal delegation, can be double-checked for accuracy. In addition, electronic communication eliminates the inefficient practice of interrupting staff members as they work on one task to delegate another. Be sure to provide deadlines for each delegated task.
Step Two: Develop a procedure. Dont overwork this step; keep it simple. The procedure could be, “All messages will be sent via company e-mail.” Any employee looking for a message from you will know to check his or her e-mail. If youre waiting for some information on a client, for example, youll know to check your e-mail.
The procedure should include a reminder checklist to help you provide your assistants with complete information in a consistent manner, and to allow the assistants to see where any gaps may be so they can be proactive about getting the missing information from you or the client.
The procedure also should include regularly scheduled staff meetings–even if its just you and one assistant. Set a time each day or each week to meet to review caseloads, update each other on pending issues, and discuss any other general FYI topics.
Agents tend to be so busy that they frequently cant make their own staff meetings, not realizing theyre working to their own detriment. Meet regularly, even for five minutes, and your office communications will improve.
Step Three: Follow the procedure. This cannot be overemphasized. Consistent practice is the only way to realize the full benefits from any procedure. Streamlined communication depends on both you and your staff following the designated procedure. Self-help experts say it takes three weeks to develop a habit. If necessary, make an entry in your calendar or daily To-Do list for the next 21 days: Follow the new communications procedure.
By the time you develop the habit, you should already be enjoying the payoff. Once you see the benefits of streamlined communication–primarily more time to spend prospecting and selling rather than repeating instructions–you wont need daily reminders.
Step Four: Communicate the new procedure. Your staff cannot follow your carefully crafted path to greater office efficiency if they dont know where to find it. In other words, once you have chosen the best way to pass messages back and forth between you and your staff, inform your staff that this is the new procedure and that all of you–yes, even you–will now be expected to follow it. This can be done during a staff meeting or by revising and reissuing your office policy manual.
Step Five: Review and revise. Plan to tweak your system once its strengths and weaknesses become apparent. Dont expect to get it perfect the first time. What may seem like a simple process on paper may not work in reality. Effective communication is an ongoing effort. Make changes where necessary; but if its not broken, dont fix it. Changing procedures just for the sake of change is more likely to result in a negative impact on the efficiency of your office rather than a positive one. Once revisions have been made to the procedure, repeat step four.
Secret Ingredient: Employee input. Ask your staff for their ideas and suggestions throughout the process. Since they spend a large part of their day communicating with you and for you, they know what works and what doesnt. This feedback is valuable both during the initial stages of choosing a method and establishing a procedure, and when revising the system based on trial and error.
Also empower your employees to encourage you to follow the procedures. Consistency is vital. Allowing them to keep you on track will in turn keep your business on track–to efficient and effective communication.
Darla L. Bean is staff writer for The Nautilus Group, Addison, Texas. Bean writes materials for Model Office, a practice management program that assists Nautilus agents in working effectively with their staff. She can be reached via e-mail at Darla_Bean@
Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, March 18, 2002. Copyright 2002 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.