What You’ll Learn

Jeff Marshall, Communication Specialist with Clearwater Power, recaps his session at the NIC conference, where he discussed ways that communicators can help solve problems and refine processes across their organization.

Guest Speaker

Jeff Marshall

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability. 


Intro: A production of WordSouth — A Content Marketing Company. StoryConnect: The Podcast, helping communicators discover ideas to shape their stories and connect with their customers.

Andy Johns: How can communicators drive process improvement? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns, your host, and I’m joined on this episode by Jeff Marshall, Communication Specialist with Clearwater Power. Thanks for joining me.

Jeff Marshall: Hey, thank you for having me.

Andy Johns: This is our last episode we’re recording here at the NIC in Portland, the NWPPA conference. So like we’ve said, with all the others, any extemporaneous noise in the background, it’s not background noise, it’s ambiance.

Jeff Marshall: Yeah, there we go.

Andy Johns: We’re right here at the communicator epicenter for public power communications this week, and it’s been great to sit in on some of the sessions, network, and learn from folks, like Jeff, including his session yesterday, “Breaking Down Silos: How Communications Can Drive Process Improvement.” Jeff, tell me a little bit about the idea to do this session.

Jeff Marshall: Yeah. Well, process improvement is something that is at some utilities happening all the time, and other utilities can be very slow to happen. As I like to say, people really do like to be problem solvers, but they also dislike change. And process improvement is both. So someone needs to take the reins on that. And within a utility, most people are locked up in some kind of a silo. They’re either in the engineering group, or they’re in the member services group, or the IT group, and it can be a little politically taxing to have one person jump out of their silo and try to get someone else to do their job differently to help them. And so you kind of look around and say, “Who is well-suited to lead this?” I mean, obviously your management team, but you don’t have to wait for the management team. I think that the communicator, because communicators tend to live on a bit of an island as it is, a lot of communicators are in member services, but you know, we really operate pretty independently.

Andy Johns: Sure. And jump from one silo to the other quite a bit.

Jeff Marshall: Exactly. We are already in the habit of talking to those different departments, and we probably have a little closer feel with what the company is trying to portray itself to be and what the response is. So we’re, I think, well-suited to be the people to reach out and bring those different silos together to affect change.

Andy Johns: Those are excellent points. You’ve also given me a good name for a band. If we ever get a bunch of communicators together for a band, we’ll call them “The Silo Jumpers.”

Jeff Marshall: Oh yeah. 

Andy Johns: You can do much worse for a name for that. So, what role then — and you can talk about either your role at Clearwater, or what you see in other communicators do, but what role can a communicator play when you’re talking about solving those problems and improving those processes?

Jeff Marshall: Well, I might be generalizing here, but a lot of the time the communicators are the people people. They tend to be good listeners, good creative thinkers. And I know from my process, you know, I’ll make a thing, and then I kind of go back, and I watch it. It’s like watching something grow, watching the website, watching the analytics, watching the feedback on advertising campaigns and constantly going back in and tweaking and adjusting. And it’s really analogous to process improvement. So I’ll give you an example. Let’s say, one of the things I look for is like a pain point record. So I’ll be talking to a member or talking to an MSR and they’ll say, “Well, this person had a credit on their bill, but they called and said, ‘Hey, I never got that credit. I was supposed to see a $30 credit, and I never saw it.’ Well, it’s on there. It’s here. ‘Oh, OK. There it is.'” And then a month or two later, we have the same thing come up again, and then the same thing comes up again. And I track these things and say, “That’s weird. Five people in the last few months have said they didn’t see their credit.” So let’s take a look at that bill, and maybe there’s something about it that we can just fix rather than fielding these calls.

Andy Johns: What’s the thing? Two is a coincidence; three is a trend. So once you start getting that feedback.

Jeff Marshall: Exactly. Yep. Or people who will say, “You know, I got good information about this outage because it happened during the day on a workday. But when the outage happened at 10 p.m., I really didn’t get any information.” And so you kind of set an expectation at one time, and then you lowered it at another time. Track those. Or something as simple as we keep getting new connect requests for the state of Florida, and we serve Idaho. So, you know, how many times do we have to field these Florida web forms before we stop and say, “Is there something we can do to fix this?” Because half the time an engineer would start the service order and get halfway through it and go, “Oh my gosh, this is for Florida. I just wasted 15 minutes processing this thing.”

Andy Johns: Because of the name “Clearwater.”

Jeff Marshall: Yeah, exactly because of Clearwater. So somebody has to be the curator of those problems, and then somebody has to be the advocate to solving those problems. And like I said, because of the skill sets that communicators bring and the island that we are sort of pushed to, it oftentimes makes good sense for the communicator to take the lead on that. And I would throw in too that, it’s good for your career because you’re always looking for a way to show that you have skills that go beyond the obvious, and that’s a great way to demonstrate leadership.

Andy Johns: And that’s a great point because we talked to Libby and Scott in previous episodes we recorded yesterday about moving up the ladder towards general manager spot based on their sessions yesterday. So that’s an excellent point. Is this something that communicators can just appoint themselves to do, or how do you go about getting buy-in? And you know, I mean, everybody’s office politics are a little bit different, but how has it worked for you? Or how would you suggest that folks go about becoming this advocate that you’re talking about?

Jeff Marshall: Yeah, it’s a good question. Obviously, there’s no exact science. I would say the first thing you do is try to make yourself instrumental in some process changes, like the ones I brought up before. Like, maybe I can help change what that bill looks like to solve that problem. Maybe I can help change this web form to solve that problem. And once you’ve earned a little bit of credibility as a problem solver, then you can step up and say, “I know there’s this other issue going on. Do you mind if I take a shot at making that work?” And really you’re kind of working upstream and downstream. You’re trying to get management to agree that, “Yes, this is a process that we do need to visit.” But then you’re trying to get the people on the ground to buy into that change. And the way I look at that is that no one wants to, like I said earlier, people want to be problem solvers, and they don’t really want someone to come in and say, “Hey, we have this problem, and here’s what I want you to do about it.” A much better approach is to say, “Hey, we have this problem. Would you like to sit down and talk about some solutions?” And that person goes from the defensive like, “Oh, great, they’re shifting the ground underneath me. I’ve been doing my job this way for this long and now they want to change it. That’s hard for me. It’s confusing.” Plus, it can kind of feel half-cooked like they just sort of fly in here one day, and they want to change something that’s been that way for 10 years. But if you bring them in on the ground level and say, “I want to hear your thoughts on how we can fix this.” You know, it doesn’t mean it’s a democracy. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get your way, but it gets them in the ground floor, and that’s a great way to get buy-in from someone. So they don’t accidentally sabotage the process. 

Andy Johns: For them to be part of the solution rather than just told what it is. So you mentioned the billing example. You mentioned the the idea of things coming in for different companies. What are some other things that you, either you or other folks that you’ve networked with here, have examples of things that communicators have stepped in and improved because of the skillset and mindset we were talking about earlier?

Jeff Marshall: Yeah. Well, for example, let’s say there’s an outage, and we have a software suite that has a lot of capability that wasn’t always leveraged.

Andy Johns: Sure. I think everybody’s got one or two of those.

Jeff Marshall: Exactly. So for someone to just sit and pour over it and say, “Hey, there’s this module, and I notice when I put data here, it shows up here. And when I click into that, there are check boxes that show, where do we want that data to appear and we can control it.” So we could put in some comments that are for internal use only, like if wildlife is involved. So we can say a bird caused an outage at this location, and that will be for internal knowledge. But then you can set up a second set of comments that says power disruption at this location, and leave the wildlife part out of it, and then send that out to the MSRs, to the smart hub or to your website to your integrated voice response over the telephone so that your customers don’t necessarily hear all the dirty details that we don’t really want to make public. And so that’s one way. It takes someone to kind of just finagle it and pour into it and look at it and understand it, and communicators tend to be pretty good with technology. And so it’s another good way to flex those skills beyond the things that we’re normally asked to do.

Andy Johns: Got it. Well, let’s close with this, and we’ve gone over some of this already. But what advice do you have for somebody who’s listen to this and said, “OK, I can be this catalyst in my organization. I can be somebody who can advocate and make some of these improvements. What advice do you have for somebody who’s in that spot and and wanting to step up?”

Jeff Marshall: One thing I believe is that what people look for from leadership over all other traits is communication. That’s what people want from their boss. They don’t always want answers. They want to know what’s going on and so they can help provide the answers. And I would advise any communicator to be open, be honest, be accountable and be willing to revisit things. Audit your own process and try to find a small way that you can demonstrate that analytic ability. Maybe even lead a pilot program, say, “Hey, we have this ongoing problem. No one really knows how to fix it, including me. But I have an idea. I’d like to try it for a few people, and we’ll just go back and visit it.” And those little things; it’s like building a wall. You know, that’s a brick in your wall right there. So you can kind of go back to that. And when you hear about some other process going on, you can say, “Hey, don’t forget that I helped fix this problem. Maybe you could use me.” 

Andy Johns: Perfect. I think that’s sound advice. I think that’s good insight throughout the episode there. So Jeff, I appreciate you for joining me.

Jeff Marshall: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you.

Andy Johns: He is Jeff Marshall, Communication Specialist at Clearwater Power Co. Not the one in Florida. I’m Andy Johns, your host. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.

Outro: You’ve been listening to StoryConnect: The Podcast, a production of WordSouth — A Content Marketing Company.