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I work at a small company with a very loose structure -- roles are not very clearly defined. It's an engineering company and I'm soon going to take over managing the handful of engineers. Though I'll be a new manager, I'm not too worried about it because for the most part these guys manage themselves pretty well.

One problem we have, however, is inefficient use of time. I'm not talking about getting on Facebook or doing personal stuff. I'm talking more about taking on tasks that they think are helpful but actually are a distraction.

For example, an engineer might be answering some technical questions for a customer when the customer asks for a quote or for some more information that requires a lot of time to collect. Some engineers feel the need to answer these requests personally, but quoting should be done by our customer service person and nobody should be spending hours collecting information for a tiny customer.

So what's a good way to communicate this? The engineers think they're doing good by striving to help our customers. That's a great attitude, but the fact is sometimes tasks are more efficiently delegated and sometimes they aren't worth doing, especially when an engineer has so much else on his plate.

What's been suggested so far is to set a "30-minute rule" where the engineer should handle anything less than 30m however he wants, but that for anything longer he should ask me what to do. I'm afraid of micro-managing and this policy rings my alarm bells.

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    If technical questions should be dealt with by the customer service department, then technical questions should be dealt with by the customer service department, and you should tell you engineers to enforce that policy. – Zibbobz May 29 '15 at 19:31
  • Establish some rules and make sure everybody understands them in the same way. It seems like a time to establish (or clarify) job descriptions. – PM 77-1 May 29 '15 at 22:16
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    If they're getting their work done then why do you care? If you think the team is not getting enough work done, then tell them they need to get their work done and stop doing tasks that are someone else's job. More generally, it's kind of annoying to have the boss tell someone how to use their time. The company dictates what and by when, but people have different ways of working effectively. – Bowen May 29 '15 at 23:13
  • "when the customer asks for a quote or for some more information that requires a lot of time to collect" What information, exactly? Technical-support-related, sales-related, or other? You simply need to define the employees roles well enough so they're clear what is in their scope and what isn't, and formalize how they refer out-of-scope questions. – smci Aug 28 '17 at 16:46
  • As I read it, the question is only half about lack of clarity about what is in each employees' job scope; the other missing half is lack of a process for tech-suppt employees to refer out-of-scope requests to the relevant dept, e.g. sales, mktg. You don't have a ticket-tracking system, do you? You need one. Bugzilla and SugarCRM are good free/OSS choices. – smci Aug 28 '17 at 16:49
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How to encourage more efficient use of time?

Your answer lies in here - "I work at a small company with a very loose structure -- roles are not very clearly defined."

Set more clearly defined roles. Perhaps Engineers don't participate in discussions about quotes. Or perhaps you have a pre-meeting before any customer meeting, and hand out the assignments.

If the roles are so loose that everyone thinks they should do everything, then nobody can be efficient. Tighten up the roles.

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    Setting roles is legitimate managent never micromanagement. – HLGEM May 29 '15 at 20:19
  • I think this makes the most sense. When I came to this company, one of the things I struggled with most was knowing who to talk to about all manner of things that would pop up. Who can help me order a computer? Who knows where I can find this information? I think we'll be able to more clearly define our roles without it becoming micromanagement and without reducing the flexibility each employee currently has to take care of their own work. – Dave Jun 1 '15 at 18:47
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The question is about two missing things, not just one:

  1. lack of clarity about what is in each employees' job scope

    • Write job definitions
    • Don't just do this once-off like a fire-and-forget missile, you have to monitor it, step in to resolve ambiguities, debug problems etc. Have some regular meeting where you do this. Basically, you own the company's lack of process, at least the eng dept.
    • If you need to review random or specific support calls/emails, then hire(/promote) a supervisor, or do it yourself
  2. lack of a (formal) process for tech-suppt employees to refer out-of-scope requests to the relevant dept, e.g. sales, mktg, account manager, other

    • You don't have a ticket-tracking system, do you? A crossdepartment one that let's you create multiple issues attached to one inquiry/ purchase order/ account. SalesForce is a superb paid choice; Bugzilla and SugarCRM are good free/OSS choices (will require some configuration).
    • These are typical growing pains in a small company becoming a medium-sized company. You might consider temporarily hiring a consultant for process-reengineering, workflow, recommending and configuring the necessary software.
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Teach them to value their skill-set more by elaborating how valuable their time is versus the customer service rep's time. Use a sense of pride to motivate them to be above spending too much time on tasks which other people are paid a lot less to handle for them so that their time is free for the important stuff. The thirty minute rule sounds like a sincere attempt to resolve the issue; however, they, as engineers, should be smart enough to know how to refer the customer to the customer service rep rather than ask you what to do. If they feel uncomfortable about referring the customer away from them as if they are weaseling out of something important, then help them out by being the authority that tells them in front of the customer that they are badly needed to finish a project that a paying customer expects to be finished. Then you refer the customer to the customer service representative, enabling the CSR as the authority that can help the prospective customer move forward to being a full fledged customer.

It's like this: if you are in a grocery store, a prospective customer might ask the stock boy where an item is located, and that prospective customer might speak to a manager about ordering an item that they would like to purchase in the future, but they are not a customer until they get to the cashier and the cashier takes their money. Thirty minutes seems like a reasonable window of time for an engineer to answer some questions then refer them to the CSR but it would certainly be excessive for a stock boy to be talking with a prospective customer.

The use of pride is a tricky technique. Always keep it positive. It is a pitfall to try to shame them.

Phrase the goal as a question: How can we get these prospective customers to the CSR in thirty minutes or less?

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