Nobody likes to be rejected. When you build up the courage to ask someone out or apply for a job, rejection is hard not to take personally. But in my line of work, rejection is a weekly reality, and my colleagues and I are the ones doing the rejecting.
We work in contract compliance, ensuring that contractors who work with the city are in compliance with their professional services and construction contracts. When we have questions, or lack information, or just can’t make heads or tails of a request for payment, we have to reject the payments back to our friends the project managers (or PMs) and ask for more documentation or detail.
This process used to include formal letters and a lot of waiting. The process wasted our time as we waited for whatever we needed from our PMs, and wasted the PMs’ time as they waited to get information from the contractor. In the end, it also wasted the contractors’ time, as their payments were delayed pending extra information and documents.
When I started my Peak Academy adventure, I knew I wanted to work with my team to change our rejection procedures. One change felt obvious. Initially, my suggested improvement was simply to get rid of the formal rejection letter. Our rejection letters were cold and impersonal, and in most cases, addressed issues that could be resolved with a quick email. The formal rejection was easy to ignore, while a personalized “Hey, can you help me with this?” kind of email is harder to ignore in someone’s inbox. We ditched the letter and agreed to email questions about payments to the project manager responsible.
Another problem kept us from handling rejections efficiently: we did not track rejection trends in any useful way. Each of us had a gut feeling for what our most prevalent rejection reasons were, or who we had the most rejections from, but we had no metrics to back it up. We implemented a tracking method in our database that allows us to monitor the rejections we process, and we can now note trends and improvements.
As a separate solution to a different problem, contract compliance now divides payments by project manager workgroups, meaning we process pay requests for an assigned team of project managers. This allows us to work much more intimately with project managers and to identify training and contractor needs more readily than before. Without rejection letters, with a new tracking system, and with improved workload distribution, what began as a “just stop it” regarding rejection letters has evolved into a complete overhaul of our team’s approach to working with project managers to solve problems.
The numbers so far bear out our experiments. In July, rejections took an average of 13 days to process. By August we cut this down to 9.4 days, and in September, rejections only took 6.9 days. This means that before we made these changes, a rejected invoice took an average of six days more than a non-rejected invoice. Now, rejection only adds two extra days. Based on estimated salaries for compliance techs and project managers, cutting those four days of wait waste saves the City nearly $2,000 per rejected invoice, for a soft savings of $75,048.15 in 2015 and an estimated savings of $150,189.53 for 2016. We may save even more once we have the data to better address rejection trends.
The part of Peak Academy that really pushed me to work on this process with my team was the understanding that everyone has a customer. On the face of it, we might not serve anyone the way a waitress serves a dinner or a hairstylist serves a client. But we have customers, and we needed to evaluate the way we were building relationships with them. With the old process, we didn’t treat PMs as customers to serve. The estimated cost savings are certainly exciting, but I tend to think that the most important improvement we’re making is in how we work with our customers to accomplish our shared objectives. Together, we are making it easier and more desirable for contractors to do business with the City and County of Denver.
Cassie Schoon has worked for the City and County of Denver in finance and administrative roles since 2011 and has been a freelance writer for several Denver-area publications since 2005. In her spare time, she enjoys travel, gardening, and posting way too many photos of her cats on Instagram.