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November 5, 2012 / alipeles

1. Acknowledge important email right away

  • Senders don’t know that you’re “working on it”, unless you tell them.
  • People react to lack of information, sometimes in ways you don’t want.
  • Poor communication undermines perceptions of your competence in other areas.

Let’s say a trader comes into the office at 7:30 am, opens up the risk management system, and sees fishy numbers on one bond. She taps out a quick email to her IT manager:

Sent: 07:30
From: Sonia
To: Aaron
Subject: Bad risk in ABC?
Aaron – Is anything wrong with the risk system this morning? I see no 3-month risk on ticket #123456 in book ABC. – Sonia

I’ll give her grief later for emailing me directly. She should have gone to the support channel. (What if I had been on the subway with no mobile service when she wrote?) Meanwhile, I forward her email to support, myself:

Sent: 07:31
From: Aaron
To: Risk-Support-Channel
Subject: Fw: Bad risk in ABC?
Can someone please jump on this?

We have coverage during all trading hours. So, I can assume this has been picked up, right? But, 30 minutes later, I haven’t heard anything, which probably means that Sonia hasn’t heard anything, either. I shoot out:

Sent: 08:02
From: Aaron
To: Risk-Support-Channel
Subject: Fw: Bad risk in ABC?
Is anyone on this?

And then my boss calls me about something else and I’m sidelined on budgets or whatever for another 30 min. Now an hour’s passed and I pick up the phone:

A: Garth, is anyone looking into this? It’s been an hour!

G: Yes. It was a booking issue. Someone fat-fingered a modification. I forwarded it to trade support. They’re fixing it now.

A: How long is that going to take?

G: I don’t know … Oh, hold on. I just got an email. It’s fixed.

A: [Exasperated sigh!]

Why am I ready to spit nails? Clearly, the support team jumped on the issue exactly like I asked them to. The issue affected only one trade and it was fixed in an hour. That’s not a bad turnaround, at all.

I had to waste some time writing extra emails, making phone calls, and unnecessarily had to stay on top of one more issue as all of the other morning chaos unfolded.

BUT, the real problem is that Sonia is sitting out there on the desk, having to remember that her 3-month risk is wrong and not knowing when it will be fixed. Even worse, she doesn’t know why it’s wrong. So, she has to assume that other risk might be wrong, too. But, the markets are opening and she has to trade. So, she’s effectively flying blind. That can’t go on very long. So, she has to work out another way to verify her risk.

During our 1-hour radio silence, she’s panicking. By the time we finally come back to her with a perfectly good explanation, we’ll only be able to restore part of the confidence that we’ve undermined by leaving her in the dark. She will be thinking, “I don’t ever want to be in this situation again!

And why? Not because she can’t trust the system. There was nothing wrong with the system; it turned out that somebody entered some data incorrectly. And, it’s not because she can’t count on the people behind the system. They jumped on the issue and demonstrated real competence by rooting out the cause and getting it fixed in one hour.

Nope. Sonia is going to waste a huge chunk of time figuring out how to avoid relying on a perfectly reliable system because we communicated badly. While she was sitting there not hearing from us, Sonia came to the conclusion that nothing was being done and, therefore, that we can’t be trusted. Now, she’ll be circumspect about everything we say. So, she’ll hear us and understand that the issue was addressed quickly and that there was nothing wrong with the system. And, she’ll basically believe all that. But, she’ll still be thinking, “I don’t ever want to be in this situation again!” and she’ll be trying to figure out what she can do about it.

And you know what? That’s a rational response. Sonia doesn’t see the internals of the system. She doesn’t watch the people work. The evidence she has to go on is the behavior of the system and the communication she gets from us, which we botched.

Here’s how the conversation should have gone:

Sent: 07:30
From: Sonia
To: Aaron
Subject: Bad risk in ABC?
Aaron – Is anything wrong with the risk system this morning? I see no 3-month risk on ticket #123456 in book ABC. – Sonia

Sent: 07:31
From: Aaron
To: Sonia
Subject: Re: Bad risk in ABC?
Sonia – I’ll have someone take a look right away.

Sent: 07:31
From: Aaron
To: Risk-Support-Channel
Subject: Fw: Bad risk in ABC?
Can someone please jump on this?

Sent: 07:32
From: Garth
To: Sonia
Cc: Aaron; Risk-Support-Channel
Subject: Re: Fw: Bad risk in ABC?
I’m looking into it. I’ll send an updated in a few minutes.

Sent: 07:50
From: Garth
To: Sonia
Cc: Aaron; Risk-Support-Channel
Subject: Re: Fw: Bad risk in ABC?
The trade is arriving in the risk system with bad data. I’m in touch with trade support and should have an update within 30 minutes.

Sent: 08:30
From: Garth
To: Sonia
Cc: Aaron; Risk-Support-Channel
Subject: Re: Fw: Bad risk in ABC?
Sonia – The trade has been fixed. Please take a look and let me know if you still see any issues. Thanks.

Sent: 08:35
From: Garth
To: Sonia
Cc: Aaron; Risk-Support-Channel
Subject: Re: Fw: Bad risk in ABC?
Just to be sure, we ran a check for other tickets with the same problem. It looks like everything is good.

Sent: 08:35
From: Sonia
To: Garth
Cc: Aaron; Risk-Support-Channel
Subject: Re: Fw: Bad risk in ABC?
You guys are awesome! Thanks.

5 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Elliott / Nov 7 2012 3:28 pm

    I usually try to cc the person who raised the issue on the initial email to the support desk. This let’s them know that their question has been picked up. But then again, you’ve got to make sure that the business is not then included in every follow-up email from that point. Then you need to worry about over-communicating — also a problem!!!

  2. alipeles / Nov 11 2012 3:52 pm

    Agree. Under vs. over-communication is hard to balance. I’m planning to write on this topic later on, but I generally think that you want to give people all and only the information that would reasonably affect the decisions that *they* make. I.e. you don’t want people to ask, “Why didn’t you tell me that earlier?”, but you also don’t want them asking, “Why are you telling me this? Do I need to do something?”

  3. Navaneeth / Nov 14 2012 4:53 pm

    I would also add that once the issue is resolved, Garth should introduce Sonia to any tool that is available though which Sonia could have diagnosed the issues on her own. Maybe the upstream system had a tool to pull up this position.

    I believe that we need to empower our clients with whatever research/audit tools that are available so that they are not dependent on the IT teams. Once the source of the problem is identified, the user can then contact the appropriate IT team.

  4. alipeles / Nov 19 2012 2:31 pm

    Agreed! IT might also want to put in place some sanity and fishy data checks. A number that’s consistently significant and suddenly drops to zero might be worth highlighting, depending on the context.

    Key point that will come up in some later item: Post mortem analysis can identify potential improvements even when nobody committed any errors.

  5. Stephen / Dec 4 2012 8:58 pm

    I agree with Elliott on adding Sonia in CC when relaying the issue to the support team – that, or giving her the means to follow up on it by mentioning the support team’s e-mail in the acknowledgment mail.

    While it is admittedly the support team’s lack of response that puts the user in a panic, it might as well be her lack of a means to chase up that’s giving her fits. She could always ask you again, but you might be occupied with other stuff too. So eliminating the middle man, or at least setting up that link between the end-user and the support team is essential during crisis situations.

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