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I'm becoming overwhelmed at work and trying to choose what work I perform first. There is one customer that has a system which is already live, but it breaks frequently. This is a newer issue and it could be considered severe, and this customer is very vocal and copies my manager on emails to get faster help. However, it is difficult to work on this because my more experienced colleague that could help is out of the office much of the time.

Another customer's system isn't live yet, but he has been waiting a very long time for assistance. He almost never talks to my manager so I don't feel as pressured to work on it, but he deserves to get his system working due to the wait time alone. No one can help with this because the employee that built it left the company, although I don't know how long it will take to deploy the new system.

Is there a method I could use to determine what to work on first?

  • 99
    Does your manager know about the "Another customer"? Report all incoming issues to your manager and let him decide (it is his job actually) – Sandra K Apr 11 '18 at 13:57
  • @SandraK He did at one time, but I haven't brought it up in a long time. I've consistently worked on it, but it's delayed because I keep being pulled to the first customer. – Erik Apr 11 '18 at 13:59
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    Have you tried asking anyone at work about this? Really, why are you asking strangers for job priorities, instead of asking your boss? – HopelessN00b Apr 11 '18 at 18:07
224

Priorities need to be set by your boss. Talk to him about them. Yes that might mean the other customer waits longer, it is not your call.

Another benefit of having your boss explicitly set your priorities is that they then can't blame you when both tasks are not done. If you haven't asked for guidance on which to do first, many bosses will assume you are going to get both done.

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    "It's not your call" This, so many times over. The big issue I find is that many companies foster a very... you're trained so you must be completely autonomous-sort of environment, and employees are often afraid to ask the people who matter for legitimate direction. They then auto-pilot to a/the breaking point. Unfortunate bystander effect at most workplaces. – CKM Apr 11 '18 at 13:50
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    re "many bosses will assume you are going to get both done": i think you forgot to finish this sentence with "... on time. and when one or both are not are not done on time or customers start complaining the boss will blame you." Yes this is kind of cynical. No this doesn't always happen. – syn1kk Apr 11 '18 at 16:53
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    @CKM "employees are often afraid to ask the people who matter for legitimate direction" it could also be due to imposter syndrome, where people are afraid to ask for help for fear of being "found out" – alexgbelov Apr 11 '18 at 20:14
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    When you talk with your boss, also make sure to send an email - both to CYA and because it's helpful: "Based on our discussion, I just wanted to let you know that I'll be focusing my attention on X and putting Y on the backburner" – Wayne Werner Apr 11 '18 at 20:24
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    In situations like this, your boss is a tool that you use to complete tasks that you couldn't complete without that tool. Or a resource you draw on, if for any reason you're concerned that calling your boss a tool might affect your next review. – Steve Jessop Apr 13 '18 at 16:11
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Every time any customer contacts you, you should communicate that to your boss. And that is it. You have done what you have to do so far.

So until boss tells you to decide yourself what to work on, WHAT to do is your boss's job, HOW to do it is the employee's job.

Do you follow any issue tracking process? Implementing an Issue Tracking system allows your boss to keep an eye on what's going on and the progress. Suggest this to your boss (or maybe initial the implementation and show it to him) if you are worried about customers, but again your boss should be aware of all issues and you should just ask him(every single time) to decide.

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    +1 Perfect answer. Managers essentially expedite matters. setting priorities is a managerial concern, Raising concerns to management is part of employee duties! Well said – Retired Codger Apr 11 '18 at 14:39
  • Process monitoring isn't just for regulated industries anymore! Dashboards with live flags for bugs, deviations, approvals, due dates and completed tasks are wonderful when implemented properly. – CKM Apr 11 '18 at 16:22
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    In a more liberal environment: prioritize it yourself, but be ready to listen if your prioritization is met with critique. – rackandboneman Apr 11 '18 at 18:31
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    Every time any customer contacts you, you should communicate that to your boss. This is a bit of an overstatement. It's perfectly possible that handling the day to day customer interaction is part of OP's job description. As a software developer, 50% of my day is spent communicating with the customer's employees in regards to developing software for their business needs (because that's the point of the job). To tweak your statement, I'd say that when conflicts occur (between customers, or with a single customer), this should indeed be communicated to your boss. – Flater Apr 12 '18 at 8:01
  • @Flater true but "until boss tells you to decide yourself". So, from OP's main concern, it seems that handling this is not his job, and it is clear that he is confused about the issue. – Sandra K Apr 13 '18 at 16:12
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Along with communication with your boss, I have an alternative suggestion.

Educating your quiet customer how to effectively communicate his needs can help simplify the situation. I support 150+ applications and get about 3 business critical issues a week. When a customer contacts me, I "read and repeat back" their issue, and then verbally declare the priority and estimated schedule.

This gives them room to correct my understanding of the issue and priority. If they make demands, I defer them to the appropriate leadership.

Finally—the important bit—I explain all the options they have in the event of failure with either party. I tell them who to contact to escalate their issue, what to do if I miss the follow-up, the optimal time to remind me about the issue, who I report to (to complain about me), etc. This is somewhat manipulative. By educating them, I've made them responsible or accountable in the event of a failure. "Put the ball in their court" so to speak.

Because of this, the majority of the time, if I make a mistake, my customers will blame themselves for my mishaps. I didn't show up to the meeting because I got busy? They will admit it was their fault for not reminding me. The issue didn't get prioritized? They claim it was their fault for not communicating their needs with my manager—or blame my manager for not prioritizing their issue.

A few people recognize the manipulation, or simply don't want to cooperate. My answer is always the the same: I'm responsible for fixing their problem, they are responsible for their problem.

5

Everyone who points out that priorities are your managers duty is right.

That said, if for whatever reason you end up having to make the decisions, a very good general principle that is attributed to Eisenhower, and now commonly referred to as the Eisenhower Method or Eisenhower Matrix:

  1. First, do what is both important and urgent
  2. Second, do what is less important, but urgent
  3. Third, do what is not urgent, but important
  4. Fourth, do what is not important and not urgent, or don't.

One thing that should not have an influence is how vocal the customer is about things. While that might increase rising customer dissatisfaction, usually it is merely rooted in the personality of the customer. In fact, my experience is the opposite - those who say nothing and one day just go away are who should have been given more attention. Those who shout all the time rarely follow through.

  • Just to let you know, the idea that you refer to is known as "Eisenhower matrix" (also called "Eisenhower box" and "Eisenhower principle"). – Mirosław Zalewski Apr 12 '18 at 12:38
3

You are a worker, your boss is a manager. You're supposed to do the work, your boss is supposed to manage the work that you do.

Picking priorities when there's too much work is a manager's job. Talk to your manager and have him decide which job is the most pressing.


This is a newer issue and it could be considered severe, and this customer is very vocal and copies my manager on emails to get faster help.

Does your manager actually involve himself with the emails? Or does he not engage the customer about the emails?

  • If he does engage (or he asked the customer to put him in CC), then he's implicitly telling you that this is the task you should be focusing on. If you feel worried about leaving the other task open because of that, all you should do is alert your manager of that, e.g. a simple mail:

I'll have a look at [customer's problem] first. I'll put [other task] on hold until then.

This forces your manager to either agree (implicitly or explicitly) or disagree (explicitly, at which point he becomes responsible for choosing which task you should do).

  • If the manager does not involve himself with the customer's email; then the customer is simply adding him as a passive-aggressive way of getting you to give their problem priority. It's a veiled threat: "If you don't handle this adequately, I will take this up with your superior."
    • Note that it could also be much more innocent. Some people have a habit of putting everyone and their mother in CC. But in either case, you shouldn't really decide if the work is urgent or not based on who has been CC'ed.

However, it is difficult to work on this because my more experienced colleague that could help is out of the office much of the time.

The availability of employees is a management decision. If you're faced with a problem that you either can't solve, or it would take too long because of inexperience; mention to your manager that you'd like to involve [experienced collague] with the issue.

If the manager agrees (or even acquiesces), that means that the delay on the task is not your responsibility (since management has signed off on it).

If the manager in any way opposes waiting until the experienced colleague is available, explain to him why you feel unable to handle the task (e.g. needing training or a sitdown with the experienced colleague to ask questions).


Another customer's system isn't live yet, but he has been waiting a very long time for assistance. He almost never talks to my manager so I don't feel as pressured to work on it.

Slight shift: it's possible that the customer himself isn't as pressed for time (compared to the other customer).

but he deserves to get his system working due to the wait time alone.

That's not really your call to make. You're not in charge of the contract between the customer and your company.

If there is an issue whereby this customer is being neglected, you can raise the issue to management. At that point, the issue (and responsibility) is out of your hands. If management fails to address the issue, that is their failure.

No one can help with this because the employee that built it left the company, although I don't know how long it will take to deploy the new system.

As I said before, the availability of employees is a management decision. If they failed to have the ex-employee do a proper documentation handover to a colleague, then that is a management failure.

Based on the current situation, there are many options here:

  • You do the work. Management concedes that you're not adequately trained for this and therefore gives you leeway (extra time) to finish the task.
  • You do the work, after receiving the needed training (which management should schedule for you).
  • Management hires a temporary external resource (consultant) with experience in the field, in order to finish the project on time.

What is not acceptable is that you are assigned the task, without the proper experience or documentation, and are expected to deliver it on time in full.

That's is simply not realistic, and I would (personally) seriously reconsider working for a company that pushes work on their employees this way.


Is there a method I could use to determine what to work on first?

Somewhat facetiously; it's a one step process:

  1. Ask your manager, who is responsible for your work scheduling and priorities.
3

I'm going against the grain a little bit on this one.

First, if you're boss was having a problem with what you're getting done, not getting done as of when, he would let you know. Otherwise, you're doing it correctly in his mind or he's just a bad manager.

Second, most people seem to think managers should prioritize all your tasks (I really hope I've taken that the wrong way.). I would never want to be managed or manage others to such a micro level. What I would do, is make sure everyone is provided some type of framework to make these priority decisions. Of course there will be times you won't be sure, so that's a great time to ask.

Maybe you just need to look at this problem from a broader prospective and ask your boss which client is more important. For some companies, it is more important to get new clients up and running even at the expense of existing clients. There is a risk of losing a new client, but when looking for funding, they want new clients now to show faster growth. This is why it helps to understand the industry your company is in and how it plans to become successful.

  • The OP said (s)he is overwhelmed. I read this as (s)he won't be able to finish all tasks in time and budget. This has to be communicated to her/his manager immediately! – Josef Apr 13 '18 at 9:04
  • @Josef - I get that, but the main question is what to do first. Once you know you're working on what your boss thinks is most important, it takes off some of the pressure off. – user8365 Apr 14 '18 at 18:45
  • Yes. But if your boss comes to you and asks why a project failed, you want to tell him "I told you, some projects would fail. You told me to first do the other one. I still have the mail you sent me.". The option "I asked you which client is more importand and you said A brings in more money. I thought that means it's OK if the project for B fails." brings your job in grave danger... – Josef Apr 14 '18 at 21:40
  • @Josef - prioritization and workload volume are two different things. If your boss expects both of them to be completed in a certain time, finishing the most important one first is just a way of minimizing the damage. – user8365 Apr 16 '18 at 12:50
  • If your boss expects both of them to be completed in a certain time and this is not possible, the only reasonable option is to Tell your boss as soon as possible. – Josef Apr 16 '18 at 14:03
0

The person in charge of prioritizing/scheduling work needs to be made aware that your workload temporarily exceeds your capacity, and you therefore need assistance and/or clear priorities.

If you are the person in charge of prioritizing/scheduling your own work, you need to contact the business/sales side in order to make an informed call about which task to temporarily drop. After you made the decision, inform the relevant people, which allows them to prepare for potential consequences.

If no person is in charge of prioritizing/scheduling, the person in charge of resolving impediments must be made aware of an impediment. Sometimes both of these persons are the one referred to as "boss". Sometimes one or both of them are different people.

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Since you need help in both scenarios, just focus on what you are confident you can do to create momentum and build your reputation:

We think this is especially critical for IT leaders, because many of them are in positions where they will be working on projects with a long payback, and it's important for them to establish credibility with business leaders as quickly as possible. That quick win can buy them the luxury of time for the more difficult challenges.

In general, keep the lines of communication open, and talk with your manager about the big picture:

Almost universally, we saw the one mistake that seems most pernicious is having an excessive focus on details. It's important for managers to know the ins and outs of the projects they may be managing, but if it becomes excessive, they lose sight of the bigger picture of what's going on in the organization, and they lose the ability to prioritize.

References

protected by David K Apr 13 '18 at 15:42

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