In the mid-1990s, I was working at a financial services company. One of my internal customers was a department responsible for producing fund pricing reports. The company’s system would receive information from the stock exchange mainframe computer at the end of the trading day. Using the stock prices, the company could calculate the values of all the managed funds.
Each day, the pricing reports were printed on desktop laserjet printers, and shipped overnight to customers. (Note: This was before there were industry-accepted guidelines for electronic reporting.)
We made a decision to replace all the small printers in the company with centralized machines that print, copy, scan and fax. These machines, called multifunction devices, or MFDs, were less expensive to operate than desktop printers. Fewer machines also made servicing the equipment easier.
A month after the change, I received a complaint from the fund pricing department. The fund managers couldn’t get printouts of their reports quick enough to make the last pickup for overnight shipping. I immediately had the machines replaced with faster models. Then, I patted myself on the back for delivering a timely and effective response.
A week after the new machines arrived, I received another call from the fund department. They still couldn’t get their reports printed as quickly as needed. My first thought was that the fund managers weren’t trained properly on the equipment. I arranged for the vendor to conduct operator training the next day. I’d attend the training myself to show support.
While the vendor was explaining how to use the printers, I noticed looks of frustration on several of the fund managers. After the vendor finished, I thanked her for the class and asked for some time alone with the users. After she left the room, I asked, “So, what’s wrong with the new machines?”
For a moment, there was complete silence. Just stares. Frustrated stares. Angry stares.
Time for a different approach, I asked. “What’s different about printing reports today than a month ago?” One hand goes up. “Long lines.”
Two words. Two words that caused an eruption of comments and complaints. Six weeks of pent-up frustration let loose. Manager after manager expressed their dissatisfaction with the new equipment. It was a very uncomfortable moment for me. Hadn’t I reacted quickly with the first complaint? Didn’t I get the vendor in immediately after the second complaint? How did I become the bad guy?
I decided to let their emotions come out before trying to get to the facts. After tempers cooled, we began to address the real problem. It wasn’t a machine speed problem, but a workflow problem.
The stock market closes each day at 4pm Eastern Time. The managers must run the pricing programs, print reports and create overnight packages for their customers by 6pm for the courier pickup. Some reports were over 100 pages, and there were 15 managers responsible for 10 or more funds. All of the managers were competing for the same printer at the same time.
The managers couldn’t change the timing. The programs had to wait for the stock market to close, and the reports had to make the overnight pickup. We walked through several different scenarios. Now that they were being listened to, the fund managers participated in developing a solution. The compromise was more dedicated printers for reports, and a small multi-function device for documents and presentations.
Within days, we had the new printers installed. While adding more printers meant a slight increase in costs, it was much less expensive than having highly-paid managers waiting in line – or worse – losing customers who didn’t get their reports on time.
Why didn’t I implement this solution the first time the customer called? Because I wasn’t actively listening. When the managers said they couldn’t get the reports fast enough, I didn’t ask for more information. I heard “not fast enough”, and immediately translated that to “need faster machines”. And I didn’t do much better when I received the second call.
With just a few simple steps, I could’ve been more effective.
- Take a moment to confirm the problem. I heard, “the machines aren’t fast”, but that wasn’t the problem. Repeat back what you think you heard.
- Ask follow-up questions for clarification. For example: “What’s different about printing reports today than a month ago?”
- Discuss the solution before implementing it. Allowing the users to provide feedback and input increases the probability of success.
Before solving the next problem, make sure you’re listening.