Virtually every successful firm spends time, energy and money on communication with their customers. Firms need an effective marketing communications plan to connect, convey how the firm solves customer needs, share information and attract business from customers and prospects. Far fewer firms give the same level of attention to internal communications with their employees, branches and divisions — the stakeholders inside their organization.
Given the rapidly evolving business environment that feed and grain businesses find themselves in is difficult to keep the entire organization on the same page — just making sure that employees know what the marketing communications team is saying to customers can be challenging enough. Most managers have negative stories about what can happen in an organization when internal communication fails.
Who, what and how?
One of the reasons internal communications can be so difficult is growth. Meetings, memos and approaches that worked when the organization was small won’t cut it in an organization that now has multiple locations, multiple divisions or is just larger. Mergers and consolidations mean that different internal communications approaches must be integrated. In this situation, the first step is to ask the questions:
■ Who do we need to communicate with inside our organization?
■ What do they need to know?
■ How do they want to be communicated with?
These are the same questions asked when developing a marketing communication plan but are just as important when communicating with employees.
A group of managers will likely need a different type and frequency of communication compared to those who work in your warehouses, mills, grain elevators or drive trucks. Take some time and be thoughtful in your answers to these simple questions:
■ How do the groups you have identified differ?
■ What kind of information do they need to receive?
■ How frequently do they need this information?
■ Does their need differ during peak season? Off-season?
■ What information needs are common across all groups?
■ What is the most effective way to get the information to specific groups?
Laying out the different employee groups that we need to reach, what each needs to know and the most effective way to reach them is the starting point for any internal communications plan.
If your company is like virtually every organization on the planet, it will have a whole suite of meetings that are already held. We challenge you to take time and inventory all the regular meetings you hold, who should attend them and the purpose of each. Then, step back and ask some questions:
■ Are these meetings effective?
■ Are they with the right people?
■ Is the frequency of the meetings right?
■ What gets accomplished in these meetings?
Be honest and take a hard look at whether the purpose of the meeting is being realized. We regularly find that meetings continue long after the original purpose of the meeting has been exhausted.
Next, map your inventory of meetings against the list of stakeholders and communications needs you identified earlier.
■ Where will meetings make sense to address the communication need you surfaced?
■ What will the purpose of the meeting be?
■ Who should be attending?
Be ruthless, if a meeting does not have a compelling purpose, dump it. Don’t add any new meetings that are not absolutely needed. While we believe strongly that the right set of meetings must be part of an internal communications plan, they can be productivity killers, and hence, discipline is needed here.
We have been pushing the idea that less is more concerning meetings, but as a smaller firm grows, it may well need to start holding meetings as part of a communications plan. There will be a tipping point where the informal communications that a small firm can live with won’t be enough to ensure the firm is informed and connected.
Once you have determined the meetings you need, then you can turn your attention to making sure they are productive. There is no shortage of research and writing (and Dilbert cartoons) on the time that is wasted in poorly planned meetings. Get the right people in the room, use an agenda, and focus on items where discussion is needed. Find a good way to share purely informational items and save meeting time for discussion. We have all been in meetings that are nothing more than information dumps, but there are more effective ways to do that.
Depending on the group, you may want minutes of the meeting posted so those who could not attend do not miss out. Expecting people to be there in person is critical if the meeting is important, but if some of your team truly can’t attend, then making some accommodation is essential.
Technology such as Skype, WebEx, GoToMeeting, might save you a lot of money and time and can be a highly effective way to pull people together for a quick touch base especially during a busy time of year. Likewise, this technology can be helpful during an urgent situation or where you need to connect with people quickly.
Try a different type of meeting, such as a 15-minute max meeting where everyone has a specific assignment/something to share. Alternatively, try a meeting where everyone stands, so the meeting is concluded as soon as possible. It can even be as simple as changing a regularly scheduled meeting to an as-needed meeting. Let the group and purpose drive the need for and types of meetings you hold.
Meetings may not be the most effective way to communicate with employees. Email can be an effective tool, or it can also be a gigantic time waste. The same rules for meetings apply to email: what’s the purpose of the email message and how can you achieve that purpose as quickly and as effectively as possible? A weekly recap email, or a Monday morning “here’s what’s coming” email may eliminate a meeting and get information in the hands of folks quickly. If done regularly, reading them becomes part of a employee’s routine.
Digital newsletters can play an important role in internal communication as well — especially for more general messages or educational purposes. These typically take a fair amount of work to do well. You must build a culture that supports newsletters so that people read them. Again, start with the need/purpose. You may want to use the newsletter to provide general updates on the business, highlight key trends, share info on new products and services and highlight employee accomplishments or awards. One manager we know has a personal message in every issue of her newsletter that shares things that are on her mind or cross her desk that she thinks folks should know. This personal approach is well received, employees look forward to her newsletter, and it is a great relationship and culture-building tool.
Most newsletter software will allow you to run some analytics to see if people are opening the letter and what they are reading. Use these analytics to continue to refine the newsletter. If sections are important, but aren’t getting read, you may need to back up and try something different. A word of caution: if you aren’t willing to do this right, perhaps it’s best not to do it.
There are times of year where text messages may be by far the best way to reach people quickly. Like any other form of communication, texting can be overused and staying focused on the need will help ensure that this tool is also supportive of your communications plan.
Depending on the size of your company, another unique form of internal communication is digital signage. Electronic screens displayed prominently in open spaces or common rooms are powerful channels to deliver messages in a combination of video, image and audio formats.
We have focused to this point on communicating to employees. Communications inside the organization ultimately should be two way. You need some way of taking their pulse, knowing what they know about your organization, about the market and what they’re hearing/saying about customers.
Face-to-face meetings facilitate such interpersonal exchanges, but there are many other ways to engage your employees in your communications plan. Consider including a feedback form or link to such a form in newsletters or asking a question via email and collecting responses. Chat groups, virtual suggestion boxes and virtual town meetings, are some of the possible tools/technologies to put to work here.
Beyond those solutions, you may want to consider an informal or formal employee advisory group to help you probe what’s going on in the market and inside your firm in a more intentional way. Such groups can be invaluable in collecting intelligence, serving as a sounding board for ideas/changes and providing the first stage of a broader communications effort.
Of course, there’s just no substitute for Management By Walking Around. MBWA is an old concept popularized by Tom Peters. However, every manager knows what you can learn by simply being out and about, talking to employees, asking questions, and listening carefully for their insights — you just have to take the time to do it!
Today’s highly competitive feed and grain market demands highly effective communications with our customers. That said, effectively addressing customer needs requires that we have highly effective and efficient communications inside the organization. Getting there takes some thought, a robust plan that we work actively, and appropriate application of communications technology and tools. As we approach the last quarter of the calendar year, give some thought to the current approaches you are using to communicate with your organization and think about how you might be able to enhance the way you connect with those who work for you. The stronger your internal communications, the more aligned your execution will be, and ultimately the better job you will do at serving your customer base. ■
Dr. Jay Akridge is Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Diversity and Professor, Department of Agricultural Economics, Purdue University.
Dr. John Foltz is Chair, Department of Animal Sciences, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH and Dean Emeritus, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho, Moscow, ID.