Build a Better Message System

April 15, 2008
Renew your business by short-circuiting poor communication.

Nature provides us with wondrous examples of renewal. Consider the snake that sheds its skin in favor of a new one. With the onset of spring, perhaps it’s time to renew some business procedures, as well.

I see successful shops looking to a future of change: Technicians are trained to repair new variations of plastics, fiberglass and aluminum. New computers speed the transfer of data between shops and insurance companies. Amazingly, I visit shop after shop that still has an antiquated system of internal communication.

One shop owner tells me he is trying to create a “paperless” system, so all messages are sent via computer. The problem is, most estimators and other key people don’t check email promptly enough to respond to urgent messages. So what happens? The front desk people write those time-sensitive messages on sticky notes—and stick them to the intended recipient’s computer screen. This is the most primitive message system of all.


The ideal communication system flows like an electrical circuit. Every battery has a positive and a negative pole. Electrical current flows from one to the other. The circuit isn’t complete until the current has returned to its starting point. A break in the circle creates a short, and the circuit fails.

“Give an employee an additional task—without changing the structure to facilitate it—and you’ll seldom see that task carried out consistently.”

For a message to be successfully communicated, there must be a point—say, an in-basket—that receives the message, and a point that receives the feedback. Without both, the result is undelivered, delayed, unacknowledged communication—and the confusion that follows.

The simplest system might rely on a duplicate phone message pad. One copy goes to the recipient and the other is kept by the sender until the recipient returns the message marked “completed,” “rescheduled” or “abandoned.” Then, the duplicate can be trashed. Every desk should have an in-box and an in-progress box so messages can be passed effectively. Messages should be marked something like “urgent ASAP,” “one-day priority” or “standard” to indicate the importance of the message. The communication principles are the same, regardless of the technology. If text messaging replaces the paper system, there should still be a returned acknowledgement to close the circuit.


The toughest part of creating a better messaging system? Getting people to adapt to new procedures. Without enforcement, people go back to their old ways. The shop owner or manager may agree that the message system is a good idea, but the task of using the new system is left to the staff. In the rush to get a message delivered, the duplicate system is often neglected. Before you know it, it’s gone.

A book I read recently, The Path of Least Resistance: Learning to Become the Creative Force in Your Own Life by Robert Fritz, provides a clear explanation of why new tasks are not put into practice by employees. Fritz says, “Structure determines behavior.” If behavior isn’t changing, the problem is with the structure. He describes someone driving a car that’s out of alignment. If the car is pulling to the left, the driver steers slightly right to stay straight. Telling the driver to steer straight ahead will not improve the situation.

Similarly, if you give an employee an additional task—without changing the structure to facilitate that task—you’ll seldom see that task carried out consistently. The task is “out of alignment” with the work flow structure that is in place.


We’re all familiar with the structure of a vehicle, but what are the structural elements of an employee’s job? Time is an obvious one. If an employee’s day is fully scheduled and you add more work without reducing something already being done, the task will be rejected, or something else will be abandoned. Once personnel begin to see the time advantage in eliminating delayed or lost messages, chances are they will embrace the system.

When we think of renewal, it’s natural to think of adding equipment, facilities and procedures, but first it may be necessary to engage in some subtraction. Even the snake in new skin must first get rid of the old. Old communication methods—or employees—may have to make way for the new. To paraphrase an old proverb, sometimes it’s necessary to clear the lot before constructing a new building. Hopefully, a new communication system won’t require such measures.

Tom Franklin, author of Strategies for Greater Body Shop Growth, has been a sales and marketing consultant for more than 40 years.

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