Closing Comment: Effective Communication

Nov. 25, 2005
is more than just talk

I recently participated in a conference call with a pollution control equipment distributor. The inspiration for the phone call, and the call itself, was not a pleasant experience.

We had ordered and received dust control equipment to use in an upgrade project for our foundry sand plant, but had not received pollutant-removal efficiency data to complete the requisite permitting. The new dust-control equipment was necessary to replace several small, obsolete units and ensure that we meet the terms and emission limits of our air permit. We were ready to send the equipment back after a week of fruitless communication with both the manufacturer and their local distributor.

During the conference call, the manufacturer acknowledged there was a “problem with communication.” Both the manufacturer and distributor insisted they had sent part of the data to their primary contact at our company — the maintenance manager. Unfortunately, the data never made it to me — the end user responsible for preparing the permit application.

Attempts by our maintenance staff to extract the remaining data from the local distributor were futile, so the responsibility fell on me. I was already displeased by the apparent lack of follow-up from both parties, so my tone with the distributor and manufacturer was terse and direct. This set the stage for the conference call.

We indicated that we would return the equipment as a last resort if we could not get the data we needed. The manufacturer indicated that they had to go through one of their suppliers for some of the data, but declined to disclose to us the name of the supplier. We secured a commitment from the manufacturer that they would have the required data to us the same day.

The manufacturer did follow through. The subsequent e-mail communication contained a portion of the requested data, and also some enlightening insight into the communication style and attitude shared by the manufacturer and the distributor. It confirmed my suspicions about where and how communication failed, and reinforced my commitment not to allow such a thing to happen to me.

The forwarded e-mail contained several messages with the dates and chain of communication between the manufacturer and the distributor. Initially, the distributor appeared to follow up on our request during the previous month in a timely fashion, with a prompt, corresponding reply from the manufacturer. After that, the communication broke down.

The manufacturer insisted during our conference call that the data they forwarded via e-mail was transmitted by the distributor to our maintenance manager within a week of the initial request. However, in the e-mail chain I received, the messages did not show our maintenance manager being copied at any point .

During my previous conversations with the manufacturer and the distributor, neither communicated to me that part of the data had already been sent to someone at our company. There was no indication that the distributor, or the manufacturer, attempted to follow up to ensure our maintenance manager received the e-mail.

Despite my communication to both parties that I was the end user of this data, and even though they were provided my contact information, neither party made an offer or attempt to resend the e-mail with the data directly to me. (As it turned out, our maintenance manager did receive an e-mail with part of the data, but was out town unexpectedly, and wasn’t able to forward the message to me.)

While there isn’t a good excuse for the failure of our maintenance manager to communicate the data he received, the unspoken prevailing attitude of the distributor and the manufacturer appeared to be, “I did my part and sent the data; poor internal communication by the client is not my problem.” The subsequent finger-pointing and buck-passing would be laughable if it hadn’t caused a real, adverse impact on our progress. Without the performance data for the new dust control equipment, I could not submit an administratively or technically complete air permit application to state officials. Since the equipment could not be installed until we received authorization from the state, the delay in application submission became a critical issue for staying on schedule to complete the sand plant upgrade project by the end of the year. Installation of the new dust-control equipment was a critical first stage, so the scheduling and timing of the rest of the project depended on getting this portion completed first.

This failure to act responsibly also reinforced the good lesson I had learned as a consultant on what does not constitute effective communication or customer service. Whether or not a client’s internal communication is your responsibility, it may still be your problem.

Except for situations handled under attorney-client privilege, effective communication and customer service extends to everyone involved in a project, not just the primary point of contact. In our case, the manufacturer and distributor had at least two opportunities to avoid a confrontation by simply resending the e-mail containing part of the needed data to me. By taking a moment and thinking through the effectiveness of the communication chain, the distributor and manufacturer could have avoided the bad impression that I have now. I will probably not list either of them as my first choice for future equipment purchases.

After a 15-year hiatus as a consultant, I am working in manufacturing again. We have a tangible product to sell. I am keenly aware of the importance of effective communication, especially for scientific and engineering professionals entering into management and sales responsibilities. This is the difference between having a good client-vendor working relationship and having a long-term customer-provider partnership.

I hope that the manufacturer and distributor in this experience gained something constructive from our exchange. For my part, I have decided I am not going to think of myself first as an employee of my new company. I will continue to think of myself as a consultant. The difference is that now, my only client is my employer. This will cause me to keep a little of that uncertain anxiousness that comes with being a consultant, as a hedge against complacency.

I wonder how things would be if others in our industry adopted this attitude?