Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Answering Reader Mail: 7 Tips on Following up, Updates, Next Steps

“Would you mind please giving some examples of frequent updates, next steps, follow up. I am always afraid sending too many unnecessary emails or updates. Thank you.”

In one of my previous posts, I talked about frequent updates, next steps, and following up as written below.

Getting a task done is not the last step. The last step is making sure the other person got the information, has no questions, and letting your boss know it was handled. This is where most assistants fail and what sets apart the absolute best. They ask what else can be done, give frequent updates even if there is no update, clue people in on what’s coming next, explain why things have to be in a certain order or have to happen, double check if everything made sense and was clear, and provide that extra oomph of customer service, attention to detail, and say it was a pleasure to help out, and actually mean it. This is what makes people feel special, cared for, and trains them not to worry because you have everything under control. This is how people know you are serious about your role and know they can count on you.

To expound on that, it comes down to letting people know you haven’t forgotten about them, their request, and to give them a bigger picture of an approvals process, or why something is so time sensitive. It’s about not leaving them wondering and passing the buck. Here are a few examples.

1. Whenever I receive an email, text, vm, or hard copy, I let people know I got it as soon as I get it. I write, “Got it! Thank you! Keep you posted.” Or something equally concise. This way, if they ever send me something and I don’t respond in a few or 24 hours, they can probably figure out something’s wrong. It could be a tech glitch, I’m out sick, or I’m on vacation. I’ve noticed some out of office and failed delivery confirmations take 24 hours to be sent/rcvd. It doesn’t mean I have to answer their request and deliver results at that moment. It means they are notified that they are now on my to do list. What you want to prevent is them emailing you and asking if you got their request. For hard copies or anything left on your desk, you want them to know you got it safely and it didn’t accidentally get stolen or moved from wherever they placed it. It also lets them know their request is in your queue.

2. At that same time or within a day or so, I give people a time frame when I will have an answer - an hour, three hours, end of day, end of the week. If that time comes, and I have no answer, I give them a new update and ETA. I tell them I didn’t forget and explain the delay - he was out sick today, his meeting ran long, he has been offsite all day, my boss hasn’t called in or checked in with me or explain the hold up whatever it may be.

3. I also give them the freedom to ping me in case they get nervous. When they have the option to ping you, they most often don’t. When you don’t offer it, they feel denied and want to reach out even more. So tell them, “I’ll keep you posted, but always feel free to reach out in a week.” Or “Let’s touch base in a few days.” And, “I’ll circle back with you, but always feel free to ping me if you’d like.”

4. Approvals in the biz world take forever. There are usually multiple steps with a lot of people involved. Tell any external people you are working with, the bigger picture. For example: “Once you sign and approve, I need legal and finance to review it as well. Finance only cuts checks twice a week. However, before finance cuts the check, it goes thru the system and 5 other people need to approve it, including my boss. So if people are behind on email or on vacation, it can take up to 4 weeks to get a check cut.”

5. Give a status update, progress report or recap to whomever assigned you the task. You should also find out at that time how urgent the task is and the deadline. Or if you give a deadline, be smart and tack on extra time, but then deliver early if you can. If you think it will take you 5 biz days, say 7 biz days, etc. As long as you deliver on time, that’s all that matters. Building in extra time is just in case you need it. At certain intervals, let them know what’s going on. This step does not have to be done at every step once they know you started working on the project. You can express delays, ask questions, or tell them the task is finished so they know you are actively following through with the project. What you are avoiding is them assigning you a project and then asking what happened because they never heard from you again.

6. If you’re worried about sending too many reminders, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Just be reasonable. Maybe one at the half way point of when something will be due, the morning it’s due, and 1 hour before it’s due. Sometimes I will also leave voicemails or text messages if I think they will see those first/immediately along with my very first email about the project/deadline. When you are going to remind people by more than one method, in all the messages state: I just left you a vm and will also leave you an email. Or, I’m going to text you as soon as I send this email to make sure you see it in time, etc. Another thing you can do is ask others to help you remind people with different methods so it’s not always coming from you. If I send out an email reminder, as the deadline gets closer, I ask other assists or colleagues to verbally follow up, but only pick ONE person. You must pick someone that normally works with whoever you need the info from. If I am expecting something from an executive that reports to my boss, I might ask the assistant or intern to follow up or that executive’s director or manager if they know about the project. If I need something from an outside client, I might ask others who are also cc’d on emails or if they know what’s causing the delay. If I need something from my boss related to something at home or outside of business stuff I may ask the one of the following - significant other, personal assistant, nanny, or etc to help me remind them if appropriate.

7. Be mindful if people respond to a certain type of communication better or who’s on top of stuff or not. Some people will tell you up front, email is best for them. Others love the phone. Try to fit what works best for them, but always leave a paper trail or something in writing. If you IM or text, save those by emailing them to yourself etc. You should also remember who is dependable, organized, and reliable. The ones who are a little forgetful, keep a watchful eye on them. Some of the less organized folks will ask you to remind them again in a short amount of time because they will actually forget. Whenever I need to remind myself or someone else, as soon as I am assigned the project or task, the first thing I do is write in all the important dates on my calendar - first reminder at midway point, 2nd reminder for morning of due date, last reminder one hour before due, deadline due date, and for myself - deadlines to review the collected information if necessary, the final draft , and the final submission deadline, etc. This way it’s already on your calendar as something to do. It also helps you keep track of all the different projects you have going so you can allot enough time for each.

***New “rule” - when you ask me a question and I answer it, could you write an anonymous comment so I know you read the post? You can just write “Thx!” or something! :)

As always, I usually tweet any new posts I have. And anyone can email me questions and I respond only via this blog, not to your personal address. It usually takes me 3-4 days to answer.

I also write over at Jobstr.com under Hollywood Executive Assistant.


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  1. Thank you very much for all your preciouses suggestions. Really appreciate this blog.

    Vi from Italy.

    1. The Muser at Musings of a High Level Executive AssistantJanuary 20, 2013 at 3:05 PM

      Hi Vi and hellllooooo Italy! So glad you liked my post! And thank you for the comment!

  2. Appreciate this post very much. I enjoy reading about how other Assistant's handle their work/personelle, and your blog is the first place I check. Thanks again!

    1. The Muser at Musings of a High Level Executive AssistantJanuary 21, 2013 at 12:01 PM

      Anonymous, Glad this post was very helpful and so flattered to hear I am your first source for tips!

  3. Thank you. Totally agree and like the points you've made here

    1. The Muser at Musings of a High Level Executive AssistantJuly 5, 2016 at 5:05 PM

      Anonymous - Thank you so much for being a reader and for your comment! I think other EAs like to know if other EAs also agree with me (or not).