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Getting the Best Value from your IT Professional

 

Applies to

 

This is not specifically an Access-related article.  However, it would apply to many Access developers and their clients.

 

The information below is personal and idiosyncratic.  Not all would share my views on this topic.

 

The focus is on the communication between IT professionals who work independently, maybe as micro-ISVs, self-employed or as part of a small business, and their customers.

 

When to use the Telephone

 

In general, as little as possible.

 

Two busy people actually connecting directly by phone is often greeted with surprise.  The difficulty and effort of doing so has become legendary.  It is the topic of many jokes.  Services have been developed that provide information about how to bypass automated answering systems.  And the term “voicemail tag” is now included in dictionaries.  For this reason alone, the telephone can be regarded as deprecated technology.

 

Of course, if you have a job where you get paid the same amount every week regardless of how much time you spend trying to use the telephone, that doesn’t perhaps apply to the same degree.  But if you are interested in productivity, you have to think twice.

 

Now, how about talking to your IT professional.  Chances are, it’s a technical topic, right?  If the phone is useful for anything, it’s not technical topics.  Put yourself in the shoes of the IT professional – their working environment may be very different from yours.  Using myself, an independent self-employed software developer, as an example, if you try to phone me unannounced, probably one of the following scenarios will apply:

*       I am working.  I may be working on your project, or I may be working on somebody else’s project.  Either way, if I’m smart I will have my phones switched off.  Otherwise, because of the nature of my work (yes, as is the case with many people), if I answer the phone, I will need a period of re-orientation afterwards to get back to where I was in my workflow.  As a rule of thumb, I will lose the length of the phone call, plus 15 minutes.  That is, assuming I was able to deal adequately with your enquiry on the phone, which is doubtful – if it was a technical matter I am likely to have to “look into it and get back to you later”.  So, if I value my time, and my sanity, and the client whose project I am working on, and in fact my desire to give quality service to you, I will not answer the phone.

*       I am not working.  That means I am at the swimming pool with my daughter, or in the supermarket, or driving in my car, or having dinner.  I may have access to the phone or I may not.  If I don’t have access to the phone, you’re wasting your time phoning me.  If I do have access to the phone, I am unlikely to be able to discuss a technical question without also having access to my computer, and I am unlikely to be able to give you quality attention with the distractions, so you’re wasting your time phoning me.

 

Here’s another point to bear in mind...  If you are using a database system that I have developed, you know more about using it than I do.  Strange, but true.  You’re the expert.  You’ve spent many, many more hours in front of it than I have.  Well, I do of course know more about how your software works behind the scenes, but even here I may not have worked on it for many months, and in the interim I may have been wallowing in the bowels of dozens of other projects.  To relate adequately with you about your software, it is likely that I will need to re-familiarise myself with it.  Not only that, but if you have a problem or a request, I will need time to try it out.  In other words, my ability to deal properly with the situation “cold” over the phone is minimal.

 

That is not to say, though, that the telephone never provides a good way to communicate.  As a substitute for face-to-face contact, telephone conversations can be superb, where the purpose is social connection, or relationship building, or discussion of ideas and plans.  Some of these functions are indeed important, from time to time, between independent IT professionals and their customers.  They probably don’t form the bulk of the communication needs in this environment, however.  But here’s a thought… If an IT person and their customer need to have a chat about something a bit broader than a specific technical matter, and a telephone conversation is an appropriate and effective medium, make an appointment.  It’s a meeting.  Treat it as you would a face-to-face meeting.  Set aside the time, based on mutually agreed availability.  Give notice of the topic, so that some thought and preparation can be done in advance.  And when you’ve finished, hang up.

 

How about Answerphone/Voicemail

 

An increasing number of independent professionals, such as your IT person, may switch their phone off while they are working.  Some, like me, may have developed a practice of checking for messages at intervals, say twice per day.  This is not because they do not value their relationship with you.  They do.  They value it so much that they recognise the importance of working conscientiously on your project.  And they can’t work conscientiously on your project, and talk on the phone at the same time.  Simple as that.

 

So, if you phone, and you are invited to leave a message, it will be attended to.  Don’t forget to mention whether you need a response.  Don’t forget to briefly indicate what it is about – “call me back” will obviously take a lower priority than “we would like to invite you to our staff Christmas party”.  And don’t hold your breath.  If you have some succinct non-urgent information you want to convey to somebody, the answerphone’s a good tool.

 

When to use Email

 

From the point of view of communication about technical matters, e-mail has these advantages:

*       You tend to be more precise in your language.  Often the information you need to communicate is complex and detailed, sometimes requiring specific examples, or the exact wording of an error message for example, so a written medium is often more appropriate.

*       Related to the above, if one of my clients has a problem, it often happens that they will figure it out themselves once they are forced to try and explain it in writing.

*       You retain a written record of the discussion for future reference.  There are many scenarios where this can be important, not the least of which is in the actual process of problem-solving, which often requires referring back to the detailed information provided.

*       It is efficient.  I can deal with 3 emails in the time it would take for 1 equivalent phone call.

*       You are more likely to get prompt attention.  Personally, I don’t monitor my Inbox continuously.  But the email gets checked a lot more often than the phone.  One of the reasons for this is that I can easily flick an email to see whether there is something that needs urgent attention, without breaking the stride of the work I am doing.  Also, the timing of email checks can correspond with the natural breaks in the process of my other work.  So I will almost always see your email message before I hear your voicemail message.  Of course, if I am out of the office I am not likely to get your emails until I get back, but then again if I’m out of the office I am probably not able to help you by phone either.

*       It is effective.  Before I respond, I can think, familiarise, investigate, check, test, whatever I need to do in order to provide you with a quality service.

*       It is cheaper.  If your IT professional charges you by the hour, resolution of an issue is likely to require significantly less time if communicated via email.  If you have a service contract, this should be regarded as support by email – if you start ringing up all the time, the charges may need to be increased.

 

Summary

 

When deciding on the best way to communicate with your independent IT professional, there are a number of considerations.  Usually, if it’s a technical matter, or if it’s urgent, email is superior to telephone.

 

 

Steve Schapel