Balancing competing demands from customers and your employer

This is a technique you can use to prioritise tasks when faced with competing demands from customers and your employer.

Shamelessly, I’ve called this technique the “work priority matrix” to sound intelligent and attract search juice. You could also call it the “crivens-o-lordy, customers keep telephoning to demand work that’s 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? What will I do?” model. But that’s a bit of a mouthful and unprofessional, of course.

A former manager at the West Midlands Regional Observatory 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 imagine 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 only
  3. Urgent for your customer only
  4. Not urgent for your employer or customer but will need 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 quarter 1 first, then quarter 2 and so on.

Another way to think about placing 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, this will harm my relationship with the customer. The employer’s business or reputation will suffer. This is crucial to both employer and customer. Tasks may be related to key dates such as a product launch or milestone agreed in a contract or funding agreement. Tasks may be highly public activity such as a customer’s annual conference.
  2. It’s important for the health of my employer’s business that I do this task soon. If I don’t, things will become difficult and I won’t deliver the urgent tasks in quarter 1. This could include writing proposals, generating new work and chasing invoices – lining work up and getting paid for work you’ve delivered. This includes the stuff your boss wants you to do but isn’t a big deal for your customers.
  3. My customer wants this done now. If I don’t do it soon, they’ll think less of me. The world won’t end if I don’t jump on this immediately – but if I respond quickly with minimal fuss and solve the customer’s issue, I’ll maintain 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. Typical tasks in this quarter are expense claims, research and learning new skills.

You can download the template (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 being cavalier in bumping customers’ urgent demands to quarter 3?

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