Balancing competing demands from customers and your employer

Here’s a technique you can use to prioritise tasks when faced with competing demands from customers and your employer.

I’ve shamelessly called this technique the “work priority matrix: customer/employer” to try to sound intelligent and, hopefully, get some nice search juice. You could also call it the “crivens-o-lordy, customers keep telephoning to demand work that’s really urgent, my boss wants me to do those things I said I’d do last week, I’ve got five proposals to write, three to chase up, I haven’t invoiced anyone this month so we might not get paid, oh my god I’d forgotten about the new starter – she’s downstairs in reception now? Really? What shall I do?” model. But that’s a bit of a mouthful and unprofessional, of course.

A former manager at the West Midlands Regional Observatory first showed me this thinking process. I’ve used it a lot since, particularly in my last job with Podnosh, which involved lots of client-facing activity. I suspect the idea comes from the Urgent/Important matrix attributed to both the late Dr Stephen Covey and former US President Eisenhower.

The principle

Your boss wants you to work on something and your customers have urgent requests. What do you work on first?

The process

Think about each task and decide if it’s:

  1. Urgent for both your customer and employer
  2. Urgent for your employer
  3. Urgent for your customer
  4. Not urgent for your employer or your customer but it needs doing at some point

Next, write each task in the relevant quarter of the matrix:

Work priority matrix shows four segments. X-axis labeled urgent for customer. Y-axis labeled urgent for employer.

You now work on the tasks in segment 1 first, then segment 2 and so on.

Another way to think about where to place tasks is to consider tasks from a risk-averse perspective. While somewhat negative, this can be useful.

For example:

  1. If I don’t this task straight away, my relationship with the customer will be harmed and the employer’s business or reputation will suffer. This is crucial to both employer and customer. Tasks might be related to key dates like a product launch or delivery milestone agreed by contract or funding agreement. Alternatively, it might be highly public activity such as a customer’s annual conference.
  2. It’s important to the health of the employer’s business that I do this task soon. If I don’t, things will become more difficult and I won’t deliver the really urgent stuff in segment 1. This could include writing proposals, getting new work in and chasing invoices – getting work lined up and getting paid for work you’ve delivered. This includes the stuff your boss wants you to do quickly that isn’t a big deal for your customers.
  3. My customer wants this done quickly. If I don’t do it soon, they will think less of me. The world won’t end if I don’t jump on this straight away. However, if I respond quickly with minimal fuss and solve the customer’s issue, I’ll keep up my relationship with the customer (or even improve it).
  4. This isn’t urgent to my employer or customer. I still need to do it though. My tasks in this segment are typically expense claims, research and self-learning new skills or software.

You can download the template (it’s A4 landscape) from the following links:

What do you think of this approach? Does it work for you? Am I simplifying things too much? Am I cavalier in bumping customers’ urgent demands to segment 3?

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