Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Communications Lessons from Aviation: When "Rogering" People is Good Business Practice

Just a few days ago I ordered some printing work by email. My message was sent but there was never any acknowledgment of the order or notification that the work was done. In the end I had to ask if they had received the file. But suppose it had been urgent and my mail had not been delivered? Acknowledging messages is such an obvious good idea that I used to wonder why some people don’t do it. In some cases it is probably a mix or carelessness and too much work; in other cases there is a cultural element (more about that later). Whatever the reason my advice is that you should confirm receipt of most but not all messages, and that in some cases you need to confirm your understanding by “reading back” the key messages in your own words.

These are lessons that I have borrowed from the world of aviation where the consequences of misunderstandings can be fatal, so over the years the authorities have developed some very effective practices. Communications, in particular, are regulated by very strict guidelines that are laid down in the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Manual of Radiotelephony, which you can read online at http://www.caa.co.uk/docs/33/CAP413.pdf There are a few messages, it explains, where you do not need to respond, but in most cases you are required to at least acknowledge receipt, usually done by saying “Roger” because when the rules were first made roger was the phonetic alphabet word for “R”, the accepted abbreviation for “received”. This just means that you have heard the message. For more critical communications like air traffic control clearances it is obligatory for pilots to read back the clearance. This both proves that they heard and that they understood correctly.

Transferring these concepts to business email, the kind of message that does not need any reply is a thank you message, a newsletter or other non critical communications. Messages that need at least an acknowledgment of receipt include things like orders, or cancellations of meetings. And situations where a full readback is advisable are in situations like critical meetings where it is important that you have read and understood. So, for example, when you are invited to a meeting next Tuesday it is good practice to reply that you will attend but also to restate the date and time in another way – perhaps the day of the month instead of “next Tuesday” so that if there is any misunderstanding the other person will spot the mistake and correct it.

Everyone should be confirming messages that need it, but many do not and in some cases there is a cultural reason. People from cultures where people prioritize schedules rather than relationships – cultures described as sequential or monochronic – people tend to assume that since everything will happen as planned they do not need to confirm it. So, for example, the Swiss Railways would never announce that the 10:15 to Zurich will leave on time because it is taken for granted. But this thinking works only when communications are perfect; add a risk of messages being lost and even the Swiss Railways need to check that the message was received. Today there are many reasons why an email or sms could be missed so a response can avoid some potentially serious mistakes.


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For more information about a lecture on this topic "Communication Lessons from Aviation" and other communication services visit http://andrewhennigan.com, email me at conseil@adrewhennigan.com or call 0033 6 79 61 42 81.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Social Media Trend: How Twitter Menaces Call Centers

If you were planning a career in the exciting world of call centers think again. Yesterday's experience rebooking a volcano-delayed flight convinced me that in the future Twitter is going to take a large slice of this business.

With rolling cancellations of flights over a period of several days airlines have been faced with thousands of callers trying to rebook their flights. Call centers and website collapsed under the strain. I know because I was trying to rebook a KLM flight.

Checking the Twitter account for information I also noticed that they regularly tweeted a message inviting people who had this difficulty to rebook through Twitter. That's right, not just information but also services.

The way it worked was very simple. You just tweet to @KLM that you want to rebook and first they follow you, then they invite you to send your details by direct message. A few minutes later you receive another direct message confirming the re-booking.

If you think about it this is good news for everyone. It is faster and cheaper for the airlines and it is faster, more convenient for the users. Still not convinced? Here's the clincher: I noticed yesterday that many people were obviously signing up for a Twitter account just to rebook a flight. There were many users with just one tweet and one follower (@KLM). This is a killer app that brings new users into the Twitter world with a practical and probably essential service that helps them get home.

Call centers will still be needed for extra tricky problems and for people without access to Twitter, but it is easy to imagine when this will be the default support line for most businesses, and if you are not yet using your Twitter account effectively it is time to start.

Monday, April 12, 2010

E-mail Across Borders: Three and a Half Secrets of International Email

Anyone who has worked with other people in other cultures is aware that emails across borders sometimes have unexpected results or even no result. To address this issue people sometimes focus on visible details, like how to begin and end messages, but the real problems are deeper. This means they are less evident but let you predict how people will react in many different situations. The good news is that most problems are all caused by just three basic differences. Understand these concepts and you can make your international email communications more effective.

1. DIFFERENT ATTITUDES TO HIERARCHY: in some cultures hierarchy is very strong, so there tends to be a greater distance between managers and employees. In these cultures you must remember to keep bosses in the loop by copying them on mails and you should not address mails to people in other departments without going through the hierarchy. Breaking these rules can cause offense and maybe low level people will be afraid to answer you. This type of hierarchical organization is common in Asia and the Middle East. In other cultures the hierarchy is much flatter, so direct mails are acceptable and the boss does not expect to be copied. This is the style favored in north European countries and the USA. When sending mails upwards in a hierarchical society you also need to be careful with the tone; even a suggestion to do something can be offensive coming from someone low in the organization. For this reason sometimes it is better to hint indirectly at something.

2. DIRECTNESS IN COMMUNICATION: In a few cultures -- mainly the US and some European countries -- people are very direct in all communications, saying almost what they mean explicitly in words. In the rest of the world people are all less direct and typically hint at meanings or leave things unsaid that they believe will be understood from the context. The problem in international email is that a direct message can be perceived as rude by an indirect person, while an indirect message might not be understood. In practice this means that if you are direct you need to be alert for "hidden" messages in mails from indirect people; if you are indirect be aware that the apparent rudeness of mails from direct people is not intended. Sometimes, though, the problem is not with the way you ask for something but the thing itself.

3. ATTITUDES TO RULES & SCHEDULES: Some cultures prioritize written rules and schedules, while others prioritize relationships with other people. In practice this means that if you are asking a rule/schedule person to do something it makes sense to send a list of deadlines and ask them to follow it. If you are working with someone who prioritizes relationships it is more effective to get to know the other person then ask them -- preferably by phone -- to do it for you. This personal request will resonate more than an appeal to a written schedule. North America and northern Europe tends to be more on the side of written rules and schedules, while the rest of the world is mostly the other way.

3.5 READING WITH CULTURE GOGGLES: the one concept to rule the others is the idea that you should read incoming emails very calmly, taking the time to understand what is meant. Look at everything through the eyes of someone from the other culture and interpret it in that light. If you see something that looks wrong or offensive ask for a clarification instead of getting angry, because maybe no offense was meant.

With just these three and a half concepts your email can become much more effective and much less stressful, but to master the art even more fully consider training or coaching in intercultural communications. For people working in multicultural businesses one day spent mastering the basics of intercultural communication is an investment that pays in productivity and efficiency.




Related posts about intercultural issues:
Why the Office Weasel Can Play a Useful Role in Hierarchical Organizations
Managing Across Cultures Three Non-obvious Issues to Watch For
Three Non-Obvious Ways Culture Affects Email 
Three Non-Obvious Issues in Multicultural Meetings  
Culture, Innovation and the Curious Case of Pandora Radio.  


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All of these articles are based on lectures, workshops and webinars on intercultural communication and management created by the author. For more information about these visit andrewhennigan.com contact me by mail at conseil@andrewhennigan.com or call 0033 6 79 61 42 81.