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Carl Lewis: Welcome to the Connected Enterprise Podcast. I’m Carl Lewis, your host from Vision 33, and my guest is Denise Bailey. Denise is with Elliott Davis. Denise, welcome to the podcast. Please tell us about yourself and Elliott Davis.

Denise Bailey: Thank you so much for having me, Carl. I'm Denise Bailey. I work in technology consulting at the Elliott Davis tax audit and consulting firm, providing clients with a roadmap of their technology and applications. I tell our clients to think of us as general contractors when they’re choosing a technology stack – we’ll help them become intelligent buyers and get the value they need.

And when I say systems, I mean your people, process, and technology. They need to work together to be the best, most efficient setup for your company.

Carl Lewis: I like the concept of being a general contractor. I think it’s one of the best definitions of people in your industry I've heard. Denise, what are people asking you about regarding technology? Especially with the pandemic. What's top of mind right now?

Denise Bailey: There's been a lot of uncertainty in the year. Our clients are seeking stability, and even if they don’t have much capital to spend on improvements, they know they need to be ready. The supply chain has gone awry. They're asking, "How do I know if my IT infrastructure is outdated? Do I need to upgrade?" The stuff they put on the back burner a year ago must be done now. I’ve researched what companies will spend in 2021 related to IT. A year ago, it was cybersecurity. Now, it’s applications. That’s what will help companies function more efficiently. Maybe an ERP upgrade or utilizing modules better.

Also, improving technology processes and making sure external processes mirror what’s happening inside technology systems.

Carl Lewis: That tracks with a survey we saw after our last big conference. About 400 customers said cybersecurity was at the top of the list. That’s definitely changed. People are hustling to put in ecommerce systems and other applications to serve them on a mobility basis.

But businesses still have challenges, like getting things done at a new pace. It's like the vaccines. Everything's going faster than we're used to. What challenges do companies face, and what are they doing about them? Or what can they do about them?

Denise Bailey: I like this Bobby Darnell quote: "Think of the challenges in your business like driving down a road with a deep ditch running parallel. You can seek advice on how to avoid the ditch, or you can seek advice on how to get out of the ditch." We want our clients to let us help them avoid the ditch. You were right about speed. You used to have three or four tiers of speed when implementing something: weekly, monthly, quarterly, and sometimes annually. And you would map those out. But that’s gone down. We're talking weekly and monthly to implement things and pivot to do what they need to do.

Another challenge is getting buy-in from team members – sometimes even from top management. More than ever, people are anxious about job stability, so when they hear their company's streamlining processes and getting new technology, they're immediately concerned about their jobs.

Also, capital investment. Companies see the need to move forward with technology and improve their systems, but they need money. Finally, identifying and removing change barriers. I tell our clients to ask their people about barriers – they’ll be surprised what they find out. And sometimes, the barriers aren’t hard to overcome. The important thing is identifying and addressing them.

Carl Lewis: Absolutely. Do you find executives and C-level folks struggling with the pace of this? Are they doing things to help themselves operate more effectively with these new challenges?

Denise Bailey: They have so much thrown at them. Everything from technology to remote employees to broken supply chains. We mapped out new systems and processes for a client. And he said, "What’s my ROI?" More people are asking about their ROI, but also what resources they need. We're all busy. It’s critical to help the C-suite understand the ROI, the resources they’ll need, and the value they’ll get. They're used to having more time to make decisions, but that luxury is gone.

Carl Lewis: I know an executive whose team now meets weekly instead of monthly – and still has some additional special meetings.

Denise Bailey: Exactly.

Carl Lewis: If they initiate projects and try to make fast changes, and if they use outside resources, suddenly they’ve got a lot happening and a lot of new people. How do folks manage those new relationships? Usually, companies do one thing at a time, but now it’s two, three, four things simultaneously. It must be frustrating. I can’t remember people's names as well as I used to, but if I’m introduced to one new group, I’m fine. If there's four, I won’t remember who's on what project.

Denise Bailey: Yes.

Carl Lewis: How can companies manage those relationships better?

Denise Bailey: Don’t be afraid to bring in an outside project manager. Or identify an employee with strong project management skills. They don’t have to be strong in technology or the project area – just good at managing projects. Strong project management skills can bring any project together. Then, only communicate with the C-suite when necessary. They have multiple projects going, so use their time wisely.

Also, have a timeline. You might have to deviate from it, but have it. Have regularly scheduled calls with a set agenda. Keep the call to a minimum; I like 30 minutes. You can accomplish a lot in 30 minutes if you have a well-articulated agenda.

Carl Lewis: A lot of project management is just coordinating information, getting everybody together, and making the meetings happen. Some clients use interns in that capacity.

Denise Bailey: Yes.

Carl Lewis: Because a lot of it is what people consider grunt work. But without it, not everyone is on the same page. So yes, find a project manager. The worst mistake is taking someone who's good at what they're doing and whose plate is full – and adding a project on top.

Denise Bailey: Yes. You mentioned an intern; that’s good for you and a great experience for them. Can they contact multiple people? Can they communicate effectively? Can they schedule things on calendars? Can they bring the right people to the table?

Carl Lewis: Yep.

Denise Bailey: And keep people on task.

Carl Lewis: Exactly. One thing that’s been forced on us over the last eight months is a massive communications change. How has your communication changed, personally and at Elliott Davis?

Denise Bailey: A year ago, we were converting to Microsoft Teams for internal instant messaging and other communication. It was a good idea then – and a great idea in March.

Carl Lewis: Yes.

Denise Bailey: Because, like many companies, we went to remote work with a 24-hour notice. We've been using Microsoft Teams and Zoom to have virtual meetings, internally and with clients. We still email frequently. And we use tools within email, such as Verisign when we send a document to someone. That way, we see if they opened it and can track it and follow up.

For me, the thing is ‘remove the barriers to communication,’ whatever they are. If this company communicates better with email or some other form, I do whatever I can to make that happen. I research efficiency, including efficiency in communication in emails, instant messaging, etc. “Pick up a piece of paper one time” is a thing; I like to pick up an email one time. If someone emails you to request a meeting, don’t email back asking if they could talk “sometime next week.” Throw out a date and time. Send an invite – anything to cut down on the number of emails but still communicate effectively.

Carl Lewis: Those are good shifts. Companies used to invest a lot of money in telephone systems, and our company was about to do it again – the third time in 12 years. Then we decided to switch to Microsoft Teams telephone instead. We're using it already, and it's easier and better than a physical phone taking up space on your desk. And it saves a lot of money.

This is one area in my life I’ve seen the most constant change. Every couple of years, there’s a new paradigm for how we communicate. And not just at work! It's fascinating.

Denise Bailey: Yes.

Carl Lewis: You serve as a general contractor, and customers initiate projects with you. Inevitably, they work with outside consulting firms – third parties – to implement the technology, make it work, and get value out of it quickly. What’s your advice for people working with third-party consultants? What are the challenges?

Denise Bailey: One is communication style. When I start a project with a company, I ask them, “What's your preferred communication style? How often would you like to communicate? Who needs to be in the meetings?” Those are important questions that set expectations right away. Maybe it’s about timeliness – you’ll respond to a request in 48 hours.

And communicating effectively, too. For example, we were communicating with a vendor for a client, and it felt like it took 10 emails to get to one action item. So, we had a conversation with the vendor about how they were flooding the COO’s inbox, which wasn’t efficient. We asked what we could do to help.

Then, knowing the timeline. We map out timelines for our projects, and we tell our clients to do the same when they're working with other vendors and share them with us. What will happen when and who’s responsible for which task.

Knowing the right person to speak with is also essential. It frustrates companies we work with to be contacted by the outside vendors; they rarely contact the right person to make the decision. You need to know who the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ person is when you need decisions.

Carl Lewis: And it may be someone completely different than who you’re executing the project with.

Denise Bailey: Exactly.

Carl Lewis: Here’s an example from my life about why people should consider communication style. I had an employee one time who emailed me every evening. Every email was a scorching, irritated, angry experience. I wanted to strangle him. But in the office, he was a different person – it was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde! That was my earliest lesson of ‘some people shouldn’t email.’ They should wait until the next day at the office.

Denise Bailey: Exactly.

Carl Lewis: When you’re working with people, watch out for that. If you’re frustrated by their communication style and aren’t getting what you need because of it, figure out why. It could be the company’s communication style, or it could just be person to person.

Denise Bailey: Yes.

Carl Lewis: Have you experienced that? That for some people, all these virtual meetings just aren’t working? That they miss and would gain a lot from in-person experiences?

Denise Bailey: Yes. For example, a client’s president requested I go over some communication etiquette with his staff. He said people were sending emails marked high priority with asterisks or all caps in the subject line. His employees found those emails stressful – especially figuring out which ones are genuinely high priority. He wanted to lay the groundwork on proper email and instant messaging etiquette before starting any projects.

We went virtual in March with our clients – the proposal process, the interviews, everything is virtual. There are gaps. Sometimes, virtual just can’t replace that in-person feeling. Like your late-night emailer. He wasn’t good at communicating via email. Sometimes things are lost. You don't see body language or other things that would help you understand their needs and urgency.

We tell our team to use video when they can. If they can't be there in person, use video. It helps so much. But yes, sometimes we see a need to be on-site with clients. Often, it’s with clients who aren’t as comfortable with technology, so it's hard for them to effectively communicate that way. They just feel more comfortable in person.

Carl Lewis: That's something I think about. There are still people who aren’t comfortable with technology. And this shift we're going through has been hard for them.

Denise Bailey: Exactly.

Carl Lewis: Well, Denise, any last thoughts you want to share? Things your company's seen? Lessons learned?

Denise Bailey: Leadership transparency is so important. We hear that from the bottom up. And know your leadership style, so you know what your team can expect. When I studied leadership styles – and I encourage everyone to look those up – I learned how important it is. Also, educating your company on the what and the why of your actions.

Don't be afraid you're exposing them to too much when you tell them what and why. That knowledge will make them more at ease with changes and get their buy-in faster. Which deals with change management as well. Be proactive.

I also always tell my team that being kind is free. Saying thank you, telling your customers how important they are, writing thank-you notes, etc. go a long way. They help us connect better with our vendors and clients.

Carl Lewis: That’s great advice. One of our VPs said it didn't feel like work anymore because everyone he talked to in a video chat was more casual than they were in the office. So, he started wearing a sports coat in the meetings.

Denise Bailey: Oh, yes.

Carl Lewis: I try to lead by example.

Denise Bailey: Exactly.

Carl Lewis: Well, thank you, Denise. I appreciate your insights. And for everyone else out there, stay connected.