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The Inanity of Immediate Response

Tuesday, April 5, 2011   (0 Comments)
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By Daniel Markovitz

I can't tell you how many times I've heard this inane complaint:

"I'm in the service business. I *have to* respond to my clients immediately.”

Consultants constantly moan that they’re always reactive, rather than proactive. That they're always putting out fires. That they spent 12 hours at the office and despite being too busy for lunch, that they "didn't get anything done.” That they're buried in email. And when I ask them why they didn't get to their strategic priorities, they explain patiently (as though to a child) that they're in the service business, and as a result, they have to respond.

Here’s a newsflash for you: we're all in the service business. It doesn't matter who you are, you always have to answer to someone else.

Do you need to be responsive to the people you serve? Absolutely. But providing excellent service doesn't necessarily mean that you have to respond immediately.

The truth is that most of the time your clients don't need you to respond right now. Yes, on occasion the IRS is sitting in their office and asking them to justify cat food receipts as a business expense, and they need your particular brand of accounting acumen. But those instances are pretty rare. And the odds are pretty good that your customer won't be sending you an email in those instances. They'll call you. They'll find you. I promise.

The vast majority of the time, your clients will be quite happy with a predictable response, not an immediate response. Whether that "predictable response” is 2 hours, or 4 hours, or 24 hours will depend on the nature of your business. Just because they can send you an email instantaneously, doesn't mean that they need you to respond immediately.

Now, you’ve probably trained your clients to expect an immediate response. And you've probably built your reputation (at least in part) on that service level. But if the only value you're offering is speed, you’ll shortly be losing your job to someone in Mumbai or Shenzhen.

There’s also an underlying paradox in the idea of responding immediately to your clients’ requests. By definition, that means the next thing that comes through the door is more important than what you’re working on now. And that’s patently false.

Which brings me back to all those complaints I hear about being reactive and putting out fires. Well, duh. Of course you can’t be proactive if you're always responding instantly to whatever lands on your plate.

Look: everything (and everyone) that comes into your office will demand your immediate attention. You're the only one who can push back and enforce some order on the mad rush. It’s up to you to establish your priorities and to stick with them.

The sooner you realize the baleful effects of the myth of instant response, the sooner you'll be able to get the important stuff done.

Daniel Markovitz helps companies successfully implement strategy. He teaches at the Stanford University Continuing Studies Program and the Fisher School of Business at Ohio State University.