The Paper Trail — Trophy or Torture?

Given a tough exam question as to the most important aspect of client relations, many if not most would answer, “communications.” I agree. We have phones, faxes, PDAs, text messages, e-mail, snail mail, a short piece of 2x4 with a list on it (we Hoosiers call that a Kentucky memo pad), and there’s always the carefully written notes in the palm of one’s hand, never the back of the hand — that would be a security risk. Sometimes we even mess it up talking. My favorite question:

“Do you see what I’m saying?”; Answer: “Gee, no I guess I wasn’t looking where you were talking.”

“Write it down,” we are told from the start but the where, who, when, which one, how and how many can sometimes be tough to figure out or even find. This is what I like to call “default difficulty” or DD. The three most important items to get in order to rid oneself of DD are: 1) the date, when was the information produced or gathered for use — so that if there are two such reports, which one is the most current; 2) the who, who furnished or took the information down for our use, a name, if you have more than one Dave in your organization, which Dave, and; 3) the which one, which job, person, or thing does the information concern, “Use red paint” is definitive but not very helpful unless you want all your jobs one color.

Make sure your company employs form consistency; put the date in the same general place on all forms. Do the same thing with the who or prepared by and likewise with the which one, generally the project or job name. Those of you who have suffered through any of my seminars have heard me say that if I get a report and these big three are not included, I hand it back to the preparer (if I know who it was).

The digital age has done wonders for making data available quickly and in great detail. That data will be furnished in the supplier’s format, and the format is often set up for the supplier rather than the user. If you download a PDF file showing important information to pass on, before you print it, highlight the date, company and the model number of the subject; then your user will have less chance of being “eaten” by the dreaded DD. The more consistently we format information, the greater accuracy with which we can use it. Those of us smaller companies in which everyone wears multiple hats need to make communications simple, accurate, complete and consistent to increase and maintain our productivity.

Our daily job log is a good example — it is short (one page, both sides for a full seven-day week). It has all the information needed to make it a court admissible document (date, weather, activities, persons present and events), and it can be kept accurately with less than two minutes per day. If you would like a copy, send me an e-mail, I’ll send you a copy; it’s on MS Office Word 2003, as a template.

We will be dealing with more important pieces of our paper trail over the next few issues to suggest ways to improve yours. I am a big fan of as little paperwork as possible provided I have enough good information in my paper trail to let me sleep well, while you’re here . . .