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In the driver's seat: a Canadian automobile association takes control of e-mail overload by creating consolidated daily e-newsletters that keep sales staff up to date.

With more than 770,000 members, the British Columbia Automobile Association (BCAA), an affiliate of both the Canadian Automobile Association and the American Automobile Association, is the largest member-services organization in the Canadian province. BCAA fulfills its mission to provide security and peace of mind to members through three interrelated business lines: the nonprofit BCAA Club and the for-profit BCAA Travel Agency and BCAA Insurance Agency.

Operating in an increasingly competitive marketplace, BCAA is pursuing an aggressive growth strategy. In 2004, BCAA posted its first operating profit in more than 10 years. In 2005, it aimed to generate higher sales revenue and post an even higher year-end profit. But first, BCAA's sales division of 550 employees (55 percent of the total workforce) needed more efficient access to information that they could use to cross-sell and up-sell products and services.

A survey conducted in August 2004 showed that rather than a streamlined and functional information distribution system, salespeople were confronted by too much e-mail. While it was convenient to use e-mail to distribute information from the BCAA support departments in the head office in Burnaby to the 24 sales centers around the province, employees felt burdened by the number of e-mails they received. The e-mails were too long, the subject titles were inadequate, and it was difficult to determine what was just FYI and what required action. Employees were forced to rely on unsearchable attachments for crucial updates, and it was time-consuming to retrieve information after its initial distribution. Employees also felt that the organization's intranet was not being used enough.

In October 2004, focus groups held with the assistant sales managers reinforced the survey results. Sales managers were also concerned about the proliferation of sometimes contradictory information that undermined their own credibility. Before this project, BCAA's sales division received numerous e-mails produced and distributed independently by four key product and support departments based at the head office:

* Insurance services

* Membership services

* Sales development (distributing management-only news)

* Travel services

These departments restricted distribution to Tuesdays and Thursdays whenever possible. However, they didn't limit the number of e-mails they sent, so employees received an overwhelming flood of e-mails twice a week.

Objectives

By improving electronic communication between the support departments and sales staff, BCAA hoped to equip the sales managers and agents with the information they needed to be more productive and grow revenue. The communication team set out to create a new e-communication process. They wanted to achieve the following objectives by the end of July 2005:

* Increase information access/readership

* Increase the timeliness of communication

* Provide information in a format that was easier to read

* Keep audiences better informed about BCAA'S products and policies

* Simplify the retrieval of information after its initial distribution

Solution and implementation

The project team fulfilled its mandate with the launch of four e-newsletters:

* Sales management (for managers only)

* Insurance

* Membership

* Travel

The e-newsletters are delivered daily to sales managers and agents at 6:30 a.m. They are distributed via two e-mails, and use a new standard for subject lines that ensures that recipients are alerted to action items. Each uses the same templates, formats and publishing rules (for example, articles should be no longer than 250 words), which makes reading them easier and more intuitive.

The e-newsletter articles use links to the intranet to refer readers to more in-depth information. All of them reside on the intranet (the sales management version is on a private site), and articles are archived by date and topic so readers can easily find information later.

The e-newsletters have a single sales editor who is responsible for their production and distribution, and who has the ability to catch conflicting information and to bring up such conflicts with the product and support departments that provide the content.

Selling this project to senior management wasn't necessary. The then-vice president of sales sponsored the project and participated in the first workshop. It was necessary, however, to sell the project to the product and support departments. Their buy-in was essential because the communication team anticipated changing distribution and publishing methods, as well as roles and responsibilities.

The strategy to secure buy-in and develop the best solution for everyone was to open the lines of communication between the publishers and a representative group of their audience. The publishers as well as sales managers and sales agents worked together on the design, execution and evaluation of the project. A senior representative of the sales division also participated to ensure the group's broader management views and priorities were adequately represented.

Securing buy-in also required education. For most department publishers, this was the first time they had used a content management application, and the learning curve was steep, especially for employees already carrying heavy workloads. Publishers participated in three educational workshops to learn about these new tools.

Measurement and evaluation

On 20 June 2005--five weeks after the e-newsletters were launched--an online survey of recipients was completed. Of the 550 people surveyed, 336 returned complete responses, for a response rate of 61 percent--double that of the first survey conducted in August 2004. This higher response rate may have been partly due to the fact that the new process ensured all sales division employees personally received operational news. The 2005 survey results confirmed that the communication team had achieved its objectives:

* Increase information access/ readership. Overall readership was up 20 percent, with 40 percent of all recipients reading the product e-newsletters daily and another 20 percent reading them two or three times per week. Meanwhile, 86 percent of sales managers said they read the sales management e-newsletter daily; the remainder said they read it two or more times a week. Most notably, 50 percent of recipients said that their volume of e-mail had decreased.

* Increase timeliness. Comparing the e-newsletters with the previous biweekly e-mails, 79 percent said the e-newsletters provided timelier information.

* Provide an easy-to-read format. Seventy-eight percent said the e-newsletters were easy to read.

* Keep audience better informed about products and policies. Seventy-six percent said the e-newsletters kept them better informed about these topics; 70 percent said the e-newsletters were more useful to them in their job; and 85 percent found the information to be accurate.

* Simplify the retrieval of information after initial distribution. Seventy-two percent said the e-newsletters and intranet archiving made this easier.

A little more than a year later, BCAA assessed reader ship again. Comparing the first three months of readership from May to July 2005 to the same three months in 2006, the organization determined that readership had increased for all e-newsletters, from 23 percent for the management e-newsletter to 44 percent for the membership e-newsletter.

The e-newsletters have successfully become a part of BCAA's sales managers' and agents' daily routine, and are often requested by employees outside the sales team. The introduction of the new information distribution system also correlated with an increase in BCAA sales revenues. (The organization has since opened three new sales centers as well.) BCAA celebrated its best-ever operating profit in 2005, when sales revenues increased by CDN$10 million over fiscal year 2004.

Heather Prime, ABC, is manager of employee communications for the British Columbia Automobile Association. A specialist in change management and internal communication, she is a recipient of 15 IABC awards.

Tudor Williams, ABC, IABC Fellow, is principal of twisurveys, an organizational research and strategy development company specializing in employee, association member and customer research, based in Delta, British Columbia. Ryan Williams is president and research director of twisurveys, specializing in organizational and behavioral research.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:case in point
Author:Williams, Ryan
Publication:Communication World
Date:May 1, 2007
Words:1249
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