Plan less and get more done? The case for fewer appointments in a CRM

Long post/rant ahead, but an interesting problem to solve.

I am working with the further development of a custom CRM for a B2B organisation. I was involved in the initial user research and strategic service design when the service was planned 9 months ago. The service, somewhat feature complete to my initial specifications, has now been in use for 3 months and I have been asked to perform user observations/testing to determine pain points and suggest changes to the service.

During these observations I have identified some low hanging fruits; simple changes to dialogs and interactions, tweaking the weight of different pieces of information in different scenarios, adding more useful context to planned activities.
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However, the more interesting finding is the patterns of user behavior which implies the need for more task organisation, task planning and task overview, but I my thesis is that they need the opposite.

Background

The company markets and sells ‘ready meals’ to the bigger grocery store chains in Sweden. The products are ‘listed’ meaning they’re part of the great big catalog of products from which store managers can place orders, but each store decides which products (which are listed in the store chains’ central ordering systems), which volume of the product to put in their shelves, how the products are exposed, and how it is priced.

The account managers call each store regularly to check in, sell new products, advice on product exposure, follow up on campaigns, offer special rebates etc. all with the main goal to increase the revenue of the company of the products by making sure that as many stores has as many of the products offered as possible, with the best possible exposure in the stores.

Current state

The sales executive plans and communicates drives/pushes; instructions on what is important for the week. Such a drive could be “Focus on raising distribution of product X in stores matching profile Y of geographical region Z” or “Focus on pushing for and advising on better product exposures of product X in stores where the order volumes of said product is below Y”.

The account managers then, in accordance with the drive, create activates(phone calls) for these stores and contacts with activity instructions, and the activity is added to the todo-list. Activities can be created in batches on a subset of filtered stores and contact roles. Since many of the contacts they want to reach are busy or not available, a lot of activities are rescheduled at a later time. A set goal is that no store should be without a planned activity at any time, they always plan and schedule a follow-up on completed activity.

The activity view for single activity shows store details and the activity instructions, but also the details of the other planned activities of that store.

Observations

Needless to say, the activities pile up quickly. Over time the account managers have the planned activities for the week, the activities of past week(s) not yet completed or rescheduled, and the follow-up activities on completed tasks. most stores now have 2-4 activities planned, giving each account manager a pile of a around 500 of must-do activities, and activities are never removed unless they are completed, in which case they spawn a follow-up activity.

When asked to think out loud, the users imply that they would want a more detailed plan of what they have to do for the day, for tomorrow, for the week, preferably in a calendar or trello-like view. When asked why such an oversight would be beneficial to their goals, they can’t give me a clear answer other than “I just want to know” or “I want control”. This is understandable as they certainly do not have control; the pile of tasks will never shrink, they will never be done, and there will always be tasks which are overdue.

I would suggest otherwise; I say what they need is focus and not having to think about what they will do later.

Thesis

My general experience, without digging into literature, suggests that planning, timestamping, color coding, and tagging activities is not only time consuming, it also does little to increase the chance of activities being completed in any greater rate. It gives the user the false feeling of control, but does not relieve them of the inevitable stress of not getting enough shit done, and does not allow them to work more efficiently.

Rather than trying to give the feeling of control, I would like to lessen the need for such control.

In a perfect system users should not have to know what they will do tomorrow, or any other day apart from today. Hell, users shouldn’t need to know what they will to the same afternoon, or the next hour, information about the future should is simply not relevant to the task of completing an activity.

The only reason to care for the workload of another day would be to avoid adding more workload to that already day trough scheduling of activities which must be scheduled.

So instead of having calendars, and timestamps, and red timestamps, and reminders, and reminders of reminders, and alarms because you miss reminders, imagine a pile of cards on your desk.

Each card has an activity. All the information you need to perform an activity is supplied on the card. The number of cards in the pile is unknown.

Your job is to pick up the first card in the pile and perform the activity . If it cannot be completed you place it at the bottom of the pile and pick up the next one. Occasionally a card will be placed on top of the pile and must be handled before moving on down the pile.

This is what I would like to strive for. There will often be more than one pile, based on different drives, provided by the sales executive, and some cleanup of stale and lingering activates should be purged without involving the user, we’ll reach those stores through another pile at another time.

There will also always be some activities which must be planned for a specific day and time, but the goal would be not to set a time to retry an activity or perform a follow-up. The system could keep track of attempted calls and suggest another time of day or other days of the week, so that the card only comes up when there is a greater chance of reaching the right person. Follow-ups can be planned over a period of time, rather than a specific time and date, and the follow-ups would be in the pile with the same focus that the original activity was.

While I am writing this I realize that this reminds me of the time i worked in callcenter and making hundreds of calls an hour, and trying to set an outcome (yes/no) of 6-7 customer an hour. We knew nothing of the volume of the lists we were working on, we simply pushed a button and the next prospect come up, and we were dissuaded to plan new attempts with a time and a date unless we had gotten really close to a outcome. Maybe this approach will be received as degrading, these are skilled and experienced account managers, and not the teenagers I worked with in the callcenter, “surely they can manage their own workload.” Yeah, but why do they need to?

If I suggest this to the stakeholders, it would probably end up with a compromise, and yes there will still be user stories where the user needs to find a specific activity, store or contact, but I really do feel that the users could benefit from less planning and more trust in the service.

What do you think?

Appendix

  • Each store is considered a customer, there are roughly 3000 stores in the CRM, spread over 4 big store chains.

  • Each store has one or more contacts based on roll and responsibility in the store; meat, bread, vegetarian, frozen food, taco section etc. one contact can have more than one role. Most stores have 2-5 contacts.

  • Each store has a profile in regards to size and turnover. There are 20 predefined profiles.

  • Each store has an assigned account manager who spends their day trying to get a hold of contacts and reach their individual goals of product distribution and contact interaction.

  • The account managers have insight into which products in which volumes each store has through reports from the central order systems.

Ideally, you want the system to be able to do much of the organizing and ordering as possible. As you have said, you don’t want the user to have to do that.
Maybe if you could do some more discovery research and interview sales, account managers, and contacts and see what in an ideal world would work for them… Maybe some kind of automatic scheduling so they don’t have to call and have no one answer?