ASAP is not a time management policy; it's a fire that you can’t constantly fight and win. I always say that great service is not putting out fires, it’s preventing them in the first place. That’s why I teach inside sales representatives (ISRs) who are bombarded with demands to fulfill irrational requests ASAP to calmly utter this simple response, “Whew! For a second I thought you were in a hurry.”

The answer is a joke and, of course, not what the customer has in mind when issuing the ASAP demand. The customer’s expectation is that the ISR will drop everything and get to the demand pronto! The problem is that every ASAP demand can’t be done immediately, and therefore becomes the biggest customer service problem in your organization. 

ASAP demands are vague and inherently set the stage to disappoint customers. An ASAP demand infers that buyers should decide how fast a task should be completed while receiving no input from the person actually doing the task. This places inordinate stress on the doer because the customer has created a lose-lose situation. If you fulfill the demand as expected (and you really don’t know what was expected), you’re no hero, but only did your job. If the customer perceives that you’re late on a task, then you’ve failed.

ASAP requests must always be the start of the conversation, not the end of it. Step one for ISRs is to recognize that you have two types of customers: internal and external. Your internal customers are fellow employees at the organization. External customers are the buyers of your products. Step two is to remind your internal customers that the job you are working on as a team is to jointly satisfy your external customers.  

In my training program devoted to growth and effectiveness, I teach ISRs to take a leadership role and communicate more effectively. I want all readers to recognize that ISRs are more than the backbone of service and administrative support. They are the best observers of operational problems in your organization. Here are the key training points I offer to them:

  • Manage choices within the confines of opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is a term used in economics classes. It defines the cost of every activity relative to alternative actions. For example, a demand for an emergency delivery clearly satisfies the salesperson negotiating on behalf of an angry customer, but it also means that a calm customer who has operated within the confines of normal business activity consequently might be delayed. The lesson I teach is to manage by choice. “Yes, I can get Task A done this morning. But it means we’ll have to delay Task B until the afternoon and Task C until tomorrow. Which order would you prefer I prioritize those three tasks?”
  • Stop accepting ASAP requests. When your internal customers negotiate too aggressively, remind them you are a team. Define your workload and calmly offer a realistic deadline to complete a task. Otherwise you will have no way of knowing if you are satisfying expectations. If confronted with an ASAP request, stop. Immediately. Agree on a deadline that you can realistically fulfill.
  • Stop volunteering quick turnarounds. This is the curse of time management success. Too many service and sales representatives promise overnight turnarounds on quotes, take-offs, and other administrative tasks when the customer would be happy with a response in a matter of days. Ask when your customer wants you to complete a task and then negotiate a realistic deadline from there. 

ISRs of the world unite! Stop accepting impossible deadlines and insist your customers negotiate deadlines. Take a leadership role with your co-workers and host a meeting as a means for improving task management and the communication of expectations with external customers.  In the end, that’s who we all are trying to please.