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Email, IM, or Phone? Identifying Channel Preferences for Better Communication

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Effective communication can be very difficult when communication channel preferences aren't shared across a group, organization, or even a multi-company project. A software tester shares the simple techniques and habits his teammates and project partners taught him that can increase effectiveness regardless of your communication channel preference.
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I'm an email guy. As such, I didn't always appreciate the wide variety of other communication channels that are available (phone, voice mail, face to face, texting, IM/chat, conference calls, web meetings, face to face meetings, and collaborative documents/wikis, to name a few). Effective communication can be very difficult when communication channel preferences aren't shared across a group, organization, or even a multi-company project. In this article I’ll cover some things I’ve learned from others that can increase effectiveness regardless of your communication channel preference.

At the first software company I ever worked for, everyone seemed to share a preference for email as the primary means of communication. It was the most popular communication channel by a mile. And since we all worked in the same building, if an email thread got out of control between two people, one would eventually simply walk to the other person's cube or office to continue things face to face. It was so easy, so natural with everyone working essentially the same way, that I never imagined that it could be any different. I've come to recognize what an unusual situation that was.

Another company I worked for could not have been more different. There was no cultural norm around communication. All channels were not only fair game, but people were allowed to be fairly religious about their preferences. Some folks would not check voice mail or answer their phones. Others checked email very sporadically and infrequently. Some preferred to do as much as possible face to face or in meetings. Some favored instant messaging. Some would ignore their desk phone but answer their cell phone.

On top of individual preferences, there was no management policy or mandate regarding channels. Each person was essentially responsible for figuring out the preference of every other person they worked with. That's easy to do with the small number of people you work with most often, but this was a large organization, with people working different shifts, from home, from the road, and in other parts of the country.

This was a huge culture shock to me. As an email guy by nature, it was a matter of existential horror to discover that I had to sometimes physically walk over to some people's desks to get responses to emails I had sent. "Why would anyone work like that?!?" I used to wonder--out loud--to confused passers-by. After all, while I love email, I'll respond to any channel at all. Sticky note on my monitor? Sure. Message by carrier pigeon? You'll get a response, guaranteed. Why wasn't everyone... um... just like me?

Oh yeah, right. Reality. Been meaning to check into that.

Coping with the New Normal

Over time, I noticed that while some people's preferred communication channels caused me discomfort, other people using those same channels caused me no difficulty whatsoever after I got on-channel with them... which was also easy for some reason. Why was it difficult with some folks and not with others?

It turns out that there were a few simple behaviors, alone or in combination, that made all the difference. They allowed almost effortless communication with some people, regardless of their channel preference. I’ve created a short list of behaviors that you can employ to make it easier to communicate with your colleagues:

  1. Advertising Preferences
  2. Publishing Availability
  3. Response SLAs
  4. Asking Others' Preferences
  5. Knowing When to Change the Channel

... or APRAK, for those of you out there who are in love with acronyms. YKWYA. (Which is "you know who you are" for those of you who aren't.)

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

1. Advertising Preferences

Advertising preferences means making a deliberate, consistent effort to make sure others know the most effective channel to use reach you. Include this information on all outbound channels: in your outgoing voicemail message, in your email responses, in conversation, or in you IM status. Make sure it's easy for people know which one is your favorite.

This also has the effect of turning others into advertisers on your behalf. We had one person on that team who worked a kind of swing shift as a remote employee. The first time I needed to work with him, the person who pointed me in his direction said, "Just Instant Message him. It's the best way to reach him." It was. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I instant-messaged him without an immediate response. He never had to tell me his preference himself (though he did); he'd made others his billboards.

2. Publishing Availability

This one should really be a co-number 1. Letting people know when you're available goes a long way towards setting expectations around what constitutes an unreasonable delay in response time. If you're on vacation for a week and I don't know it, I'm apt to take your FAILURE TO RESPOND TO MY 10 EMAILS AND 12 VOICEMAILS as a bit of a SLIGHT. Ahem.

Like advertising your preference, you can use different channels to advertise your availability, or lack thereof. Outgoing email messages/auto-replies, outgoing voice mail, IM status, and reminders in meetings or in face to face conversations are all great ways to make sure people know what to expect.

One of our business partners with another company was a whiz at this. She would update her outgoing voicemail message frequently to indicate that she would be out of the office for a few hours here, in meetings all afternoon there, gone for the day, or on vacation next week. I knew to call her phone to learn this kind of thing since she advertised her preference for phone calls. When we spoke, she would always provide this same kind of information if she thought there was a chance we'd need to follow up on our topic later when she’d be unavailable.

Keeping any public-facing or shared calendars updated is also a great technique, though typically limited to people internal to your company. Even if you keep appointments private, others can still tell when you’re occupied and can adjust their expectations accordingly.

3. Response Service Level Agreement (SLA)

Establishing your own response SLAs is a great way to guide people to effective communication. You can advertise it just like you do your channel preference and availability. While strict SLAs are easiest to interpret ("I respond to all voice mails within one business day"), even much less formal ones can go a long way to setting expectations around responses. By including information in outgoing emails or voice mails saying things like "I try to respond to all messages within a business day," or "I've got limited access to email and voice mail, but I'll get back to you when I can" go a long way to giving people an idea of what to expect. And if they know that they need a faster response than your SLA on a channel allows, then they also know to try to contact you in a different way or get help elsewhere.

I had one VP once who had a great way of handling his Response SLA. I used to, um, “favor” him with long, rambly emails about one thing or another. (Seriously, what busy VP doesn't love a long, rambly email?) He'd usually respond pretty quickly within an hour or two, but just to say "Super-busy right now, but I'll try to take a look at this by Tuesday or Wednesday next week." He demonstrated that he really had two SLAs: he usually acknowledged emails as quickly as possible, and then told you when you might expect an actual response. I can see how that level of diligence isn’t always possible, but it was fantastic always knowing what to expect of him.

4. Ask Others' Preferences and Availability

This one may be obvious, but after I became aware of the principle in general I was surprised to see how often I didn't follow it. Now I make a special effort to learn the preferences of non-co-located people whether we’re separated by distance or schedule (time). I try to make it a point to ask the best way to contact them and what their standard working hours are. If I feel like I'm getting a vague or offhand answer ("shoot me an email, whatever") I'll try to dig a little deeper and express my desire to truly understand their preference to make things as smooth as possible. It doesn't always work--sometimes people truly don't know which channel they really prefer. Sometimes it's so situational from day to day that they can't say. But I've never had anyone not try to answer as best they could.

5. Know When to Change the Channel

Knowing when to change the channel from the preferred channel (yours or theirs) can also be very important to keeping communication flowing smoothly. This can be a little tricky, in that there's no 100% right time to change the channel midstream.

In some situations, you discover it. Have you ever had a simple emailed or instant-messaged question turn into a long and complicated thread? It might be time to pick up the phone. Have you seen an email thread between two people start pulling in other people, all of whom must read down-thread for days to get context? It might be time to set a meeting or conference call to get everyone on the same page.

In other situations, you might feel that the other person’s preferred channel isn't suitable for a given task before you even start the communication. You can still use the preferred channel to bring up the topic, though. The instant-messaging coworker I mentioned earlier was always willing to troubleshoot over IM, but sometimes I had complex scenarios that I wanted to explain in more detail than I felt IM supported comfortably. I found he was always better with phone calls if I instant-messaged first to see if he had time for a call. He'd either say yes, or indicate the next good opening in his schedule (publishing his availability). I got the lightning-fast response of his preferred channel to schedule a call without having to try to struggle through a topic ill-suited to instant messaging.

Finally, respecting someone's channel preference is great, but it will sometimes need to be violated in the name of urgency. That's understood. But when you find yourself in a gray area, think twice and try to be sure. Make your violations count, so the other person knows it's meaningful when it happens.

You can't force others to observe any of these conventions, but by observing them yourself you might set an example that others want to follow. I can thank my coworkers for setting that example for me.

Rick Grey is an Associate Partner for software testing and test consulting at DeveloperTown (http://www.developertown.com), a venture development firm. He’s a seven year software testing veteran with eleven years of experience overall in software. He's a subscriber to the principles of the context-driven school of testing. You can reach him at rgrey@developertown.com (because email is still his preferred channel).

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