Friday, March 23, 2012

SOP Friday: How Much Interruption is Okay? (Phone Procedures, part 2)

In the last SOP Friday installment, we talked about Telephone Procedures. In that post, and in the comments that followed, there was some discussion about the Good Habit of not being totally controlled by your telephone.
It's okay to call people back. Just make sure you do it in a timely manner!

Now, what do you do to deal with the interruption? It is a fact that at one time or another you will find yourself on the phone with a client who needs attention but you cannot give it to them for one reason or another. The acceptable phrases to memorize and use are:

- "I’m going to help you get a Service Request put into the system so that the service manager can get it prioritized and get someone on it as soon as possible."

- "Even though you have reached me directly I am currently on another task (or working with another client) and can’t change my focus. I’m going to help you . . . [see text above] . . ."

You can limit interruptions by having a well thought-out phone tree. That means:

1) DO NOT give out personal cell phone numbers. Period.

2) Clients should always call the main phone number. Press "1" for tech support. That might go to your cell phone, but the client needs to call the main number!

3) After hours, the phone tree automatically rolls to an after-hours message. If the client has an urgent matter, they can leave a message. You'll be a page/text and you can call them back.

You never need to answer the phone after hours. If your clients consistently call you during evenings and weekends, it's because you have trained them to do so. Stop it. You'll be amazed at how easily they comply. Why? Because you are one of only two vendors that DON'T have a policy about this.

If you're reading this article without the context of the entire SOP Friday Series, then you should know that I assume you have a process for handling service calls, getting service requests into your system, etc.

Interruptions Kill Business

I harp on this because we live in a society that believes you can do multiple things at once. You can't. Period. I know people will post links to articles debating this philosophically. But empirically, human beings cannot multi-task. Human beings can switch between tasks. Sometimes they can do it very fast. But you can't do two things at once.

So . . . you're working and you get interrupted. What effect does that have on your performance?

I've addressed this before (see The research is pretty amazing, but not very widely publicized. I guess we don't want to hear that our constant interruptions are bad. We enjoy them!

In many cases, we are happy to be interrupted. That's fine. But accept to yourself that that's what you're doing. If you DON'T want to be interrupted, then you need to put in systems to reduce interruptions.

Here's an interesting bit of research:

"We found about 82 percent of all interrupted work is resumed on the same day. But here's the bad news -- it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task." See Worker, Interrupted: The Cost of Task Switching (

Other research found the interruption to be more like 15 minutes. But still, that's huge.

One estimate is that the average knowledge worker loses more than $10,000/year in productive labor due to interruptions. See

Try this and see for yourself how often you are affected by interruptions: Keep a Log. Just like a food log for dieters. Log the date, time, and a quick note about the interruption. Then, at the end of the day, evaluate whether the interruption was Hi, Medium, or Low priority. Then estimate how long the interruption affected your work.

Keep a total every day for one week. I'll bet you have more than ten interruptions per day. At six minutes (interruption + time to get back on task), that's one hour per day. When I did this, many years ago, the total was more than 20/day. Now I'm pretty brutal about not being interrupt-driven.

You should always work from highest to lowest priority. Working on something just because you are interrupted means that you totally ignore the priority system! That's being interrupt-driven.

- Implementation -

To implement this policy, start by writing up a general policy (1-2 paragraphs). Then begin building systems (like using your PSA properly and creating a working phone tree).

This kind of policy requires that everyone on the team

1) Be aware of the policy

2) Practice the policy

3) Correct one another's errors

4) Support one another with reminders

Your Comments Welcome.

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About this Series

SOP Friday - or Standard Operating System Friday - is a series dedicated to helping small computer consulting firms develop the right processes and procedures to create a successful and profitable consulting business.

Find out more about the series, and view the complete "table of contents" for SOP Friday at

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Next week's topic: Phone Procedures 2 - How Much Interruption is Okay?


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