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Toning Up Communications

Business writing courses can help employees and managers learn to clearly express organizational messages.

HR Magazine, March 2003Two years ago, when KeyBank began developing an online reference system for its call center professionals, managers realized they needed to offer more guidance to the employees who were writing the E-manual.

“We had 10 people [writing] and they were all writing differently,” says Nicole Raumberger, E-manual development manager for the financial institution based in Brooklyn, Ohio. The multiple styles would have made the instructions difficult to decipher, slowing down call center response time. “We needed to set a standard so that [the manual] made sense to our [call center professionals] and looked to them like only one person was writing.”

Raumberger hired E-Write, a Maryland-based online writing consultant, to help develop a format and to teach employees how to write for the web. “They helped us bring our writing styles together,” she says.

The results were clear: Raumberger’s staff slashed each call center procedure by up to 10 pages and made them easier to understand. This, in turn, drastically reduced the average time needed to handle client calls.

Raumberger expects the streamlined procedures to save between $64,000 and $72,000 in 2003. “We calculated the savings by timing the [call center staff] as they answered a call with the old procedure and comparing it to the time it takes them to answer a call with the new procedure,” she says. Using the new procedures, the center shaved an average of five-and-a-half seconds off each of its 22,000 monthly calls for a total savings of more than 32 hours per month.

Like Raumberger’s staff, many of your employees may be asked to compose memos, sales letters, e-mail messages, reports or other documents that can have a profound—although not always immediately recognizable—impact on your organization’s bottom line. Yet many of those employees may also lack the business writing training or experience they need to succeed.

Writing Skills Matter

Writing skills are becoming increasingly important in the workplace. More employees are required to write effectively, even if their jobs never included writing previously.

One reason for this change is that nearly every worker is connected via e-mail—to each other and to your customers. For instance, customer service agents who used to spend 95 percent of their time on the telephone are increasingly required to answer customer inquiries via e-mail.

Also, downsizing has eliminated the administrative assistants who used to edit, correct and type business correspondence. Now, all but the upper echelon of executives write and send their own letters and e-mail messages.

“It is embarrassing when executives send out [correspondence] with misspellings and bad writing,” says Yvonne Alexander, owner of Alexander Communications, a Sebastopol, Calif., company that offers writing seminars. “As managers move up the ladder, their writing gets more complicated and the quality deteriorates. They write in this oblique, dense style. You can’t make sense of it.”

No matter whether the writer is a CEO, a sales manager or a customer service representative, poor communications can lead to loss of business.

“If you send out a sales letter that is filled with errors, you’re losing credibility. You send the image that your company is careless,” says Dawn Josephson, president of Cameo Publications, an editorial and publishing services firm based in Hilton Head, S.C.

Credibility is not the only issue. E-mail messages, sales letters and policy manuals are meant to communicate. Bad writing can muddle the message. Alexander recalls an HMO whose policy stated that customers who receive money from a third party for their injuries would reimburse the company. A woman insured by the HMO broke her leg in an auto accident, then collected $200 from the other driver. Her HMO, which had paid her medical bill, took the woman to court to collect the $200 she had received. However, the judge ruled against the HMO “based on the fact that the policy was written so badly that no one could understand it,” Alexander says.

Identifying a Need

Peggy Ann Anderholm, director of training and development for Marvin Windows and Doors in Warroad, Minn., began offering business writing courses last year after managers pointed out that employees with little business writing experience were being asked to write and that their lack of skills was evident in their correspondence.

For example, after the sales support department at the 3,000-employee manufacturer switched from telephone communications to e-mail, workers were sending messages without proofreading them for correct grammar. In one case, a manager pointed this out to an employee, but she didn’t see a problem. However, after a writing class in which she learned that e-mail is an organizational communication, she acknowledged the need for proofreading.

Anderholm realized that managers, as well as their employees, often need coaching to write more effectively, and she opted to train them together. Employees “could recognize that lots of them needed help,” she says. “It made it OK to say, ‘I’m not the best writer in the world,’ and ask someone to proofread. The instructors helped everybody feel this was a common problem across the organization,” says Anderholm.

However, you should consider your corporate culture when deciding whether to train employees and managers in the same class. Some managers may not feel comfortable sharing their inadequacies in front of subordinates.

Whether you plan to train managers and subordinates together or separately, consider grouping them by business division. For instance, engineers will have different writing needs and challenges than salespeople. Categorizing employees this way can help the teacher focus the training and use examples relevant to their business needs.

Nuts and Bolts

Once you’ve identified employees who need training, you must determine what the training will cover. Business writing courses vary from those that focus on the mechanics of grammar and punctuation to those that emphasize tone and persuasiveness. It’s important, then, not to offer a generic business writing class. Instead, determine your employees’ needs based on their current skills, as well as the type of writing they do.

Leslie O’Flahavan, a partner at E-Write, recommends having the trainer analyze sample documents in advance to assess training needs. Another option: Ask employees to take a writing assessment test to help you and the trainer focus the course.

You should also keep in mind what each employee’s job requires, and target topics to the audience, says Doyle Young, vice-president of ACT Inc., a nonprofit testing and training company in Iowa City, Iowa. For example, group employees who need help writing memos, and hold a separate class for direct mail writers.

“We did a specialized course for one client on writing status reports,” says Marilynne Rudick, another E-Write partner. “The managers were wasting a lot of time trying to understand these status reports, which were not well written, nor written in a particular format. We helped develop a format. It saved work. The staff could write [reports] more quickly, and the manager could review them more quickly.”

Once you’ve decided which areas to cover, make sure the training is hands-on.

“Some subjects you can learn about simply by listening, but writing is not one of them,” says O’Flahavan. Participants should do a lot of writing during the training.

That was key to success in the Marvin Windows and Doors classes, Anderholm says. “They were encouraged to bring work they had to do to the class. They practiced on real materials.”

It also helps to allow students to immediately put into action what they learned in class. Instead of offering a half-day or one-day course, set up several shorter visits, such as once a week for two hours, O’Flahavan says. Although that is more expensive, it allows the participants to try out their new skills right away, and then return to class with any additional questions.

Vendor Selection

The next factor to consider is whether you should outsource the training or develop it in house.

“The vast majority of organizations I’ve worked with over the years use an outside agency to deliver their training,” says Young. “Whomever they select, they’ve got to understand and be able to customize the content to the requirements of the individual or groups.”

Trainers should also have some practical experience.

“Look at their background, what kind of personal published writing that person has done in the past,” Josephson says. “Ask to see samples of sales letters they have written. Look for someone who understands your industry. Health care people need to write differently than engineers.”

Another option is to partner with a college or university. For example, the Dixie Group Inc., a carpet manufacturer in Calhoun, Ga., offers its courses as part of a management mini-certificate program at the local college. Alan Artress, education director for corporate human resources, says the college was easy to work with and responsive to his company’s needs.

Anderholm went the same route, hiring instructors from the Carlson School of Business at the University of Minnesota. “I was a little nervous; I thought they were going to be stuffy professors from the university,” she says. But they had taught non-traditional students in the past and they interjected humor into the lessons, she says.

Measuring Success

Business writing courses can represent a substantial investment, so HR must make sure that the investment pays off, as it did for KeyBank’s Raumberger. While online courses can cost as little as $30, most instructors charge $100 to $300 per person, per day.

To assess the effectiveness of the training, ask each employee to write a note immediately afterward and then again three weeks later about whether the training was helpful, Josephson recommends. If their writing is still atrocious, you’ll know the training isn’t working.

“Evaluate the product,” E-Write’s Rudick advises. “If the course was about writing status reports, look at the outcome: Have the status reports improved? Are we having fewer problems with clients not understanding what we’re saying?”

There may also be benefits that are more tangible to your employees than to you and your managers. For example, Wendy Sizemore, a sales tax analyst for the Dixie Group, says she feels more confident in her ability to communicate with others after taking the company-sponsored training.

Effective communication has always been key to business success, but the tools are evolving.

“Communication is different than it used to be when Grandpa Marvin would send a memo written on a piece of scrap wood,” says Anderholm with a chuckle.

It’s up to HR professionals to help their employees at all levels learn to write well, no matter whether they are communicating on paper or online.

Kathryn Tyler is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich., who taught business writing for two years.

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