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The Problems With Passive-Aggressive Automation

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We heard about an email productivity technique that appeared to save time, but might also make people angry. When is increased efficiency actually offensive?

The story came from a public services agency that coordinates on-site visits to constituents. The overall process has many steps, but here are a few key aspects of this process:

  • Receive a request for the on-site visit
  • Within 48 hours, respond and schedule the on-site visit
  • Conduct the on-site visit
  • After the visit, produce a site visit report
  • Within five days of the visit, deliver this report to the constituent by email

All of these steps might sound rather clear and specific. In fact, they have enough precision that someone at the agency decided to add some technology. That’s where the trouble began. Let’s see what kind of steps the computer system takes behind the scenes:

  • Receive a request for the on-site visit
    Send an automated email to the constituent confirming their request
  • Within 48 hours, respond and schedule the on-site visit
    Send an automated email to confirm the visit date and time
  • Conduct the on-site visit
    Record the date and time as it happens in the employee record
  • After the visit, produce a site visit report
    Send an automated email to the constituent saying a report is coming soon
  • Within five days of the visit, deliver this report to the constituent by email
    Send an automated email to the constituent saying they should have received the report.

Without much analysis, it’s easy to see what kinds of problems could crop up. The system is sending quite a bit of automated email. If there is even a slight mix-up or unusual circumstances, messages aren’t going to make much sense.

productivity consultants sharing automated email system

© Flickr user plantronicsgermany

That’s how we discovered this story. An on-site visit was scheduled for the Thursday before a three-day weekend consisting of a Federal Holiday. On Tuesday, the following automated email went out:

To: Joe Public
Cc: Jill Agent
Subject: Your Public Services Report

Dear Constituent:

By now, you should have received your report from your agent. If you have not received this report, please contact the service provider.

Regards,
Public Services Agency

This is a classic example of email productivity gone awry. Counting the weekend and the holiday, five business days have not yet passed. The agent feels frustrated that they’ve been “called out” even though the report is really not even due. The constituent might call up a supervisor to complain. Although this is an efficient system, it’s not one that is all that effective!

The language used in the email makes the problem especially obvious. It’s a little passive-aggressive and could be written in a friendlier tone. But even if the report was delivered before the message was sent it doesn’t provide any value. This email is at the very least redundant and at the most insulting. All it proves is that the automated system doesn’t know the status of the report. Why would any company want to broadcast their system’s ignorance to customers?

Just because you can put a system in place, doesn’t mean you should. If an automated system doesn’t add to the efficiency and productivity of your process, then it’s probably time to look for a different solution. Systems for the sake of systems aren’t going to help anyone, you or your customers.

Here at AccelaWork, we love smart workflow. A good email management system is possible. When in doubt, ratchet down the technology and spend more time studying the human side of workflow. You’ll often find that there are smarter ways to work. Reach out to our organizational productivity experts to learn more.

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