Sunday, November 25, 2012

Telephone Irritations, order/scheduling and other stuff ...

In recent few years made some changes to our telephones services. First change was to replace old commander system with wireless phones and a base station. We continued with having the answering machine set to take messages and monitoring who calls, answering the phone if we know who is calling and otherwise able to answer the call.

I generally don't like the approach, as messages on answering machine represent a queue of work to be processed. It turns into a big waste of time as becomes a silly back and forth game of everyone leaving messages on each others answering machines. My preference has always been answering machine set to answer only, with no message received. Then answer phone if able, otherwise miss the call. Problem with that is cannot monitor who is calling.

Monitoring calls is important since large proportion of calls are people selling telephone services, wanting donations, selling shares or doing surveys. Basically wasting our time. Similarly daily we get a fax for either holidays, coffee machines or business cards. Whilst legitimate faxes relatively rare, as most people now moved over to email.

Due to the expense of the telephone services, we recently changed our plan for our landlines and internet, in the process we cancelled our fax line. The latter may not have been a good idea, since it now appears that cannot use the Internet at the same time as use telephone: I don't know but maybe we need a better line filter for the DSL. On the other hand the DSL now seems to hiccup on a regular basis anyhow.

Any case we got a new plan. Moved management of our domain name over and set up some emails for the business, but otherwise lost a website presence. The latter not a major loss since didn't like the simple default web page we were permitted by other supplier in any case.

It turns out we also got message bank, and caller ID. Not initially being aware that we had message bank we accumulated a fair few calls. Seems when we were talking on the phone, messages were being accumulated on message bank, also when our answering machine got full. Since now have caller ID we no longer need to monitor the calls, we now know who is calling immediately, well at least for those people we have in the phone book and who don't have multiple phones. The answering machine has been set to answer only, or turned off altogether: not sure which. Either way we are just using the message bank for messages, rather than have multiple queues.

Still personally I prefer emails, to phone calls. Last place I worked on contract there was a memo sent round to use the phone rather than email. I thought it was a silly idea. Generally type of message get from phone junky action people: the seagull managers. They are not really action people, just mouths: they get on a phone and dump their responsibilities onto others. Having done so they think they have done a worth while job. They fail to understand that their phone call was an unwanted interruption, distraction and disturbance.

In the past it has been quite apparent if ignore a message and get back later in the day, then the caller has fixed their own problem. For the most part it is not possible to describe a problem clearly over the phone, and typically graphics are required. Therefore the phone call will typically end in, a request for a fax, a drawing to be emailed, or a meeting. None of which needed the hassle of a phone call in the first instance.

If force people to write faxes, or emails, then the thought required to write such documents will typically result in the writer solving their own problem: saving the business the cost of getting a consultant to solve the problem.

So what are telephones to be used for. Everyone (except myself and maybe a few others) is running around with a mobile phone, but do people really need to be so in touch with others? The catch cry of the advertising is that mobile phones are efficient and increase productivity for business. Personally I don't see this, for I don't see any efficiency in the use of a telephone. But then again I hate telephones.

Traditionally either communicate in person or send a messenger. The emergence of industrial society is largely dependent on the increased use of the written word. A written message is likely to reach the receiver with less distortion than if rely on the memory of a messenger. A written message can be sent by carrier pigeon or other trained animal. all of this however was relatively slow, and then the telegraph arrived, and this transmitted a variation of the written word: it was much faster then anything previously. But telegraph required infrastructure, so messages were not direct from sender to receiver. With the emergence of the telephone messages could now be sent quickly directly between the individuals needing to converse: but only by the spoken word. The spoken word is not the best way to communicate, and humans tend to be highly visual: meaning they do have to look people in the eye when talking to them.or otherwise use gestures and draw in fresh air. In short a lot is lost when talking via the phone and most people are not properly trained to communicate effectively using only the spoken word. For that matter using the written word effectively is also a relatively undeveloped skill for most. Hence the development of the fax permitting the communication of a message comprising of words, pictures and any other mark that can be placed on a piece of paper.

With the emergence of the Internet we get email, a kind of back track to the telegraph. But then email is developed further and can now convey words, graphics, audio and video: a full multimedia experience. People now have access to advanced telecommunications in the palm of their hand from just about anywhere.

So it is that I don't believe that a telephone is the most productive way to communicate in business, not via the spoken word in any case  The spoken word may be considered more sociable to some than other ways, but certainly not more appropriate. Sociable is a matter of perspective, phone calls interrupt, and there is little sociable about interrupting someone.

Some businesses have receptionists or possibly sales people who deal with incoming phone calls, for small business such resources are not always financially viable. There are also some practical problems, as often new clients/customers want to speak to the people in the know, and discuss their needs. Receptionists are good for filtering calls, and booking appointments, but typically limited in ability to discuss the services available relevant to the needs of the enquirer. Whilst sales people tend to sell stuff, not necessarily that within capability to supply.

Something far better than a spoken phone call is required to cater for new business, and for many business activities for that matter. Buyers need to be able to investigate and compare suppliers whilst suppliers need to be able to filter out potential buyers and not accept all comers.

One problem in particular for service providers, is that those services typically cannot be stock piled with customers supplied from existing stock. With services it is the customers who tend to get stock piled as they are placed and queued in a waiting line. These queues can be managed in different ways, first in first out (FIFO), last in first out (LIFO stack), or seemingly at random on the basis of ever changing priority.

Consider following problem. Explain that cannot start anything for 4 weeks, enquirer goes away and tries again 4 weeks later: result no different. This is because an additional 4 weeks of work accumulated during the enquirers wait, the enquirer needed to be in the waiting line.

If a person goes to a shop or the bank, they can see the service queue and decide whether to join it or not. With many other services the customer cannot see the queue, and the vast majority wish to push to the front of the queue: everyone has an emergency. Meanwhile the service providers need a supply of work. Negotiation may take place over the phone, but at the end of the day many customers not interested in the agreements. They wanted the job yesterday and phone everyday, causing pressure to bring their job to the front of the queue: basically to remove the daily distraction. Phone calls are noisy and distract the whole office, and so do the phone conversations. Quieter, faster and less distracting systems are required, which get direct to the point, and answer the enquirers questions.

Phone calls seldom get direct to the answer because a lot of fishing goes on trying to find out real intent and meaning, and otherwise removing ambiguities and trying to get some clarity. Other situations simply want to just ping some system and get an immediate response, with out disturbing anyone.

A phone is more for relaxed personal conversations not for efficient business transactions. Hence online banking, online stores and online order processing systems. Let computers channel and manage the queues.

How would it be if could make an appointment to see the doctor, dentist and optician online, and otherwise make the appointment permanent? To organise getting car serviced and a multitude of other regular activities all planned and set in motion. No need to remember, no need to arrange time for the appointment, no need to organise to book the appointment. Its done once, and only once, then its set in your schedule. How much more efficient is that than business keep sending out written reminders? It is a permanent on going provision until choose otherwise and cancel.

For trades, it is not safe answering mobile phone or having it on their person whilst actually doing the job. Also customers not too pleased if paying for time worked and supplier spends most of the time on phone. For consultants its difficult to get any work done during the day due to answering phone calls or just the distraction of the noise (no volume mute). Also many with mobiles seem to spend first half of meeting talking to person at last meeting, then last half talking to person at next meeting. Thus two calls to the one party, and no real attention at any meeting: may as well stay in the office and conduct business by one phone call and skip the meeting.

Mobile phones basically encourage disorder and inefficiency. With out telecommunications would have to be considerably more orderly and efficient in conducting affairs before wasting resources attending a meeting or sending a messenger.

So don't want to be wasting time with long phone calls, nor face to face meetings, nor writing long letters, emails or faxes. Time spent on communication, should result in communication, not generate confusion demanding further interaction.

Often the use of a phone, especially a mobile phone, is preceded by a failure to put brain in gear. The task of the service providers is to predict the paths of these free rolling brains and provide appropriate direction control and brakes.

Obviously not all enquirers have free rolling brains, often its the person answering the call. The latter often being a consequence of the persons mind being else where and distracted by the call.

Other times callers don't want to get into social conversation they just want to get on with business, though they may have no real idea of the business they want to get on with.

There are different audiences to cater to. Those that only want to use a voice phone and that is the only technology they have, and those that want something more efficient and direct to their needs and otherwise have access to alternative technologies.

But whilst customers want to sort chaff from the wheat, suppliers also want and need to sort and classify customers and enquirers.

From that it would appear that at least two separate phone lines are required. One for enquirers who may or may not become customers. Another line for regular clients. Possibly a 3rd line for irregular customers to discuss issues with their job. But don't really want 2 or more lines to service, any more than want voice message banks. Rather want a single line properly filtered.

Could decide only interested in work from persons with access to the Internet  Such approach would be best suited for business to business transactions, but depending on the business may be limiting relative to private individuals. On the other hand the provision of an alternative channel via the Internet may well provide the necessary filter to the telephone calls.

If people can investigate what they need to know over the Internet and place an order, and know where they are in the queue, and keep track of their position, then maybe such system will cut down: enquiries and time spent directing people to more appropriate services. Also if the queue is reliable then may be people won't mind joining the end of the queue, even though it is months away. They can do this because they are planning, rather than turn up and find it will be weeks before can get any service, they can book the service months before they actually need it.

The one thing that makes the queue unreliable is all the work not placed in the queue and often not otherwise billed. All the conversations about up and coming projects, all the additional work to existing projects, and working on the business itself to provide the service in the first place. Properly accounted for the allocable blocks of time in the queue are much reduced. If time not consumed by these miscellaneous random activities, then scheduled work from the queue maybe completed ahead of time. If not controlled then excess time is consumed by these random activities and the queue becomes unreliable again.

Getting a reliable queue is my main concern. The queue is currently not reliable, it is not managed, it simply operates by ever changing priority. Its one reason I hate telephones. People want to know where their job is, and I have no control over, and its all in the hands of my father or stuck in his head. Others are seeking services and I don't have any reliable knowledge of when anything can be supplied or completed by. All attempts to get some order fail.

Hence my reason for considering an Internet based computer managed ordering and scheduling system. People provide their details, and answer check lists and are set on the path to providing the appropriate information to get the job done. For that is another time waster, and cause of changing priorities. Projects for which all the necessary information is available, and which are quick to do, get priority, as such jobs also tend to be quick to be paid, and thus provide the basic bread and butter income. Other jobs, are slow, and difficult to extract all the necessary information so that progress can be made on the job, and then they are slow to be paid as well. Whilst better paying, they are not really the kind of jobs we want. For such longer jobs interfere with the smaller more frequent jobs. So really need to decide between small or large jobs and then stick to such decision. Smaller jobs however don't really generate adequate income. However I believe that is largely due to a lot of messing around trying to get adequate information, if had adequate information then could complete faster and therefore could complete more such jobs in a year.

Therefore an online order/scheduling system needs to place people into different servicing queues. Something of a pre-processing, basic training and induction queue. Those in the induction queue are doing the preliminary ground work necessary to get their project off the ground. Such ground work may involve being sent elsewhere or otherwise waiting for supplies from others. For example could be sent off to a drafter or builder. Or may need to order soil bore logs and site survey. As a consequence of such things there may be several stages where a customer has to wait before moving to the next stage. For example if getting residential footing construction report, then have to wait for development approval. Once approval granted, then there are trenches to dig, reo to install, and concrete to cast: for which inspections may be required or desired. Progress through these various stages can be tracked and inspections and additional services ordered as required.

Another problem is getting the business operators to work to the schedule. However such scheduling system likely to change the nature of the business, with more and more of the actual work being done in a standardised manner through an online system. So that with time more and more effort invested in building the system to provide the service rather than providing the service manually. Those who specialise in various engineering services such as residential footing construction reports haven't really put much effort into the technologies used, and enhanced the quality of service provided: no added value, no increased quality, no faster service and no lower costs. The net effect has been no real improvement in any part of the supply chain.

The current so called shortage of engineers, would be much reduced with improved logistics. The task is to know who is working on what and who is available to do what? To balance work schedules at least regionally if not nationally.

Thus far my general view has been to get certain businesses to employ either engineers or engineering associates on staff. But failing being able to do that, then need to improve access to resources required to do the job at hand. Clearly the content of most academic study programmes contain far more than required to do any specific job, the task therefore is for graduates of such programmes to inform and educate operators about the knowledge relevant to their actual work. A free telephone help line is not currently viable, but Internet based guidelines are viable. Whilst much time and effort would be required to build, it is a once only type activity. Telephone wise keep getting same questions but from different people, so not progressing. Internet wise, the question is asked and answered, and there for others to view in the future.

People buy DIY manuals and self study guides in print, but most service providers are unlikely to publish their reference materials and place on the market, and few people likely to buy such things. But businesses may publish and give away free reference materials. Not all businesses however can afford the publication, and distribution may also pose to be a problem. With the Internet and e-books, publication and distribution much less of a problem. Of course there are some who keep knowledge to themselves and see business advantage in doing so. I prefer sharing knowledge as far as is practicable.

In short I'm aiming to get rid of the land line phone altogether, along with voice messages. Then focus attention on Internet based order/scheduling system and Internet based services. To use Internet based phone services where voice is necessary, and otherwise get a mobile phone and restrict who gets the number.

Telephone companies may have this desire to publish phone numbers and charge for silent numbers, since doing so generates business on their networks: but not necessarily beneficial to the recipients. On the other hand I don't believe we get many calls as a consequence of people looking our number up in a printed directory. Most seem to be a consequence of having presence and then referral. Therefore improving presence is the more important task for growing the right kind of enquiries.

One important factor regarding getting work is that we are generally the only local supplier, and that represents convenience of access compared to going into the city. Via the Internet the big city suppliers could provide a convenience of access, not the least of which they have the resources for significant websites in the first place. Though probably easier for other consultants to find the websites than any actual customer. But then big city consultants do tend to be business to business operators rather than suppliers to private individuals.

The problem is that phones calls and people turning up all represent interruptions and distractions to train of thought. Its not a 1 second or a few minutes of interruption, the disturbance extends beyond the actual event. A few hours may have been spent getting a clear train of thought, the method of attacking a problem, then an interruption, the order disturbed and more time is required to recollect the thoughts. Normally would isolate such interruptions. No telephones in a hospital operating theatre, no phones down a coal mine, no phones on a factory floor, and no general access phones in a big office. All these areas are typically isolated from outside calls. Such isolation is something difficult for small business to do.

Calls are required to get future work, but too many calls become an obstruction to doing any work. Some may say that is good, it provides for growth. No it doesn't. Growth can only occur in whole quanta of resources, not fractional units. Service industries are typically dependent on people with the right skills. Manufacturers can typically  mechanise and automate and simplify jobs so that can take anyone on and train them on the job. Service industries typically require long periods of prior education and training before can be inducted into a job. In either case people have to be available. If people not available, then means of supplying with out need for additional people have to be investigated and developed. Growth is therefore not automatic, nor altogether desirable. It is therefore a fine balancing act of servicing that sector of the market are able to with out otherwise loosing market due to incapacity to supply larger sector of available market.

So essentially seeking better service capability without the interruptions. At the moment I can only see a solution with computers and the Internet  Not the least of which is that the Internet provides an informative and linked presence.

For example may not be permitted to advertise or place a sign outside the office, the office may be in an out off the way location, where few drive pass. So that in the physical world a business may be near invisible and unknown, but in cyberspace a business can have presence in a manner not considered as advertising to professional bodies, and a manner that does not affect any street scape  and yet also becomes something people regularly interact with, when otherwise they wouldn't have anything to do with such business except in rare circumstances. The Internet provides for small business that which TV advertising provides for large business: a popular presence.