"Communication failure" is a catchall term that describes the cause of probably 90 percent of all business problems. Failures to communicate happen in many ways, for many reasons. Let's examine some of these and what can be done to correct them.

"Communication failure" is a catchall term that describes the cause of probably 90 percent of all business problems. Failures to communicate happen in many ways, for many reasons. Let's examine some of these and what can be done to correct them.

"It's Not My Responsibility."

Sometimes it's stated as "It's not my department," or "It's not my job." In the worst cases, it doesn't get stated at all. Someone who works for you hears a request or a complaint from a customer but simply shrugs and remains silent. After all, his job is to install roof systems, not deal with whiny people! Partly this can be looked at as an attitude problem, but mostly it stems from failure by the bosses to communicate to everyone who works for them that customer satisfaction is everyone's responsibility. In fact, take it beyond customer relations. Anything that impacts your company's ability to perform its work profitably should be of concern to everyone from the owner to the lowest-paid employee. Not everyone has it in his or her power to correct the problem. Some may not even understand the issue at hand, but everyone must be expected to notify someone else when a problem or request needs to be dealt with.

It may be an inspector who's annoyed about something, or a piece of equipment that's not working right, or an unexpected jobsite condition that hampers performance, or someone needing information. Whatever the case, make it a hard and fast rule in your company that everyone is responsible for either resolving such issues or notifying someone higher up in the chain of command.

Moreover, instruct all employees to avoid telling anyone that something "is not my responsibility ... my department ... my job." When something arises that's beyond their ability to resolve, the correct way for employees to respond is, "I'll be sure to tell someone who can help you."

"I Assumed ..."

It's such common knowledge, we can assume everyone knows it, right? For example, everyone in my line of work knows that's the "-30-" appearing at the end of a manuscript is journalism shorthand for "end of story."

Oh, you didn't know that? But it's common knowledge among all the people I work around. I just assumed you knew!

No doubt there are a thousand details about your business that are imbedded in the brains of everyone in the construction trades, but which I don't have a clue about. I run into this all the time when I interview tradespeople for a story as part of my job, and they start throwing around jargon and acronyms that are second nature to them but Greek to me. It becomes tedious at times asking them to clarify terms, and I'm sure some of them must think I'm dumb as a rock for not knowing that stuff. Yet, I feel compelled to ask questions until I'm confident I understand what's going on.

Unfortunately, some people won't do that. They will pretend to understand out of fear of being considered stupid. And that's how assumptions can become a costly failure to communicate. People from different walks of life all carry around a body of knowledge familiar to virtually everyone in their field, but heed that word "virtually." The more important the issue at hand, the more important it is to stop assuming knowledge and make sure key points get clarified for all. Better to give too much information than not enough.

"I Think So."

This is a close relative of assuming things. I go ballistic every time some customer service rep tells me "I think the order was shipped," or "I'm pretty sure your request was fulfilled." My knee-jerk response is to ask: "Which is it - do you think you know, or do you know? Are you pretty sure, or are you certain?"

What's behind this is nothing more complicated than laziness. People are under the impression that something was done, but won't make an effort to take whatever steps are necessary to verify that it was. Think about how many times you thought something had been taken care of but it had not. When in doubt, double-check.

If It's Not in Writing, It's Not Real.

This is probably the most common failure to communicate. You say something, maybe more than once, perhaps over and over, so you just have to "assume" - there's that word again - that everyone gets it. Not so.

I had a conversation about this recently with my condo association's president. I serve as the chairman of our association's communications committee, and the president was lamenting the fact that she has to keep repeating so much of the same information over and over at the meetings. Of course you do, I told her, because verbal information tends to go in one ear and out the other. Or it gets mixed up with other information. People have selective memories and tend to hear what they want to hear. Plus, not everyone attends every meeting. That's why I'm always bugging the board of directors to share documents with me so I can report what's going on without relying on my own memory.

Same goes for all of the information you transmit to associates in company meetings, or just in casual conversation. Don't expect any of it to register, unless you put it in writing. This is especially true for company policies and procedures. If you want it to have an impact on their actions or behavior, put it in writing.

Even that isn't enough. Once put in writing, the documentation has to be posted or disseminated in thorough and timely fashion. A policy statement buried in some obscure section of a company's employee manual won't do much good.

Lack of Follow-Through

Last May, I was invited to be a speaker at a trade group's luncheon scheduled for a date in November, according to the information faxed to me. (Yes, it was in writing.) I reserved the date on my calendar, and even had to rearrange some other business travel to accommodate it. I heard nothing from the party who invited me until early October, when I received another fax reminding me of the Oct. 11 luncheon meeting. To make matters worse, the subject line on the fax still made reference to the "November meeting."

Whoa! I got on the phone and never could reach the person who invited me. He had everything filtered through an administrative assistant, who knew nothing other than what she was instructed to type and fax to me. She couldn't tell me if the meeting was to be held on the October date or in November. To make matters worse, I had a schedule conflict on the October date.

It took several phone calls to straighten things out, mainly because the meeting organizer kept communicating through his assistant, who did not have enough information. I finally told her that I simply wouldn't show up unless I heard from her boss within 24 hours. Only then did he call me to straighten the matter out. I kept the engagement, but I let him know how unhappy I was at the lack of communication. His mistakes were: (1) failing to follow through with me in timely fashion; (2) failing to communicate not only with me, but with his assistant; (3) failing to take charge even when it was clear that confusion reigned.

The business world is filled with snafus like this that waste time and convey an image of disorganization. It's why people show up for appointments that have been rescheduled, or fail to show up for the same reason; job quotes and materials requisitions get sidetracked for months because nobody thinks to follow up on them; people forget about verbal commitments because nobody put it in writing. Make it a point to confirm deadlines and appointments as the dates draw near. Make sure everyone is on the same page with who, what, where and when. This goes double for verbal agreements as opposed to written ones.

Imprecise Communication

Here's a message that came to me the other day through a magazine Web site. "Can find any info on your Web site about copyright policies. Please explain."

Beats me what he means by that. I assume (uh-oh) he would like permission to reprint something that appeared in the magazine, but if that's the case, why didn't he just come right out and tell me what it was he wanted permission to use?

Imprecise communication stems from fuzzy thinking, and fuzzy thinking sometimes stems from inarticulateness, i.e., people just can't think of the right words to express themselves. But it's not a problem associated only with folks of limited vocabulary. My world of wordsmiths is filled with people who have degrees in journalism and English, but who nonetheless have trouble communicating exactly what they want.

Vagueness wastes time. Instead of communicating something once, it causes both the sender and recipient of the message to go back and forth trying to clarify what's going on.

Even worse, they'll be too lazy to clarify, and simply act upon what they assume is being asked for. So many ways to fail. So many times it happens.