Process vs procedure: How they differ and why it matters

Imagine that an accounts payable employee at your company needs to pay an invoice. How do they manage that task? They might

  1. Ask a manager for permission to pay it
  2. Confirm the amount with the department that incurred the charge
  3. Make a copy of the invoice and the check
  4. Do none of the above and just pay it

Now imagine that every accounts payable employee processes the invoice differently. You’d end up with no managerial oversight, potential overpayments, and little to no record of your bill-paying activities — that could create chaos!

Having standard processes and procedures — whether they’re related to paying an invoice, passing a budget, writing a report, following up on a lead, or anything else — is essential to successfully running a business and consistently producing high-quality work. Let’s examine process vs procedure and explore the benefits of implementing each in more detail.

What’s a process?

Charles McMillan, founder of Stand With Main Street, defines a process as a high-level plan of action required to complete a specific goal. From a big-picture perspective, it describes the actions that an organization needs to take and the people, departments, and resources that must be involved to achieve the goal. In a nutshell, process is the what, who, where, and when of work.

A sales process, for example, might include the following steps, which tell salespeople what they have to do, who they need to talk to, and the order of steps they need to take to close a sale:

  • Prospecting, identifying potential customers
  • Connecting with prospects and qualifying them
  • Presenting your product
  • Handling objections
  • Closing a sale

But the process doesn’t tell them how to do these steps, which is where procedures come in.

What’s a procedure?

A procedure is a specific, formalized, documented outline of the exact techniques needed to complete a single step in the process.

“A procedure defines the sequence of precise actions necessary to accomplish a given result, while a process is made up of several procedures,” says McMillan. “Successful systems break down processes into procedures, then integrate them so they become a sequence of clear instructions that the people accountable for those operations can follow.”

If we go back to our sales example, the procedure for prospecting (the first step in the sales process) might look something like this:

  • Research the target market and your competitors
  • Compile a list of prospects through your customer relationship management (CRM) software, website, LinkedIn connections, trade show contacts, etc.
  • Start a conversation with them through targeted emails, webinars, and social media

Once the salesperson has checked those elements off the list, they’re ready to move on to the next part of the process — connecting and qualifying — which has its own set of procedures, and so on.

In the end, it’s not really about process vs procedure — the two concepts work together, hand in hand. Not every process requires a procedure (though some have multiple procedures), and not every procedure is part of a larger process.

Often, companies create processes during growth phases. When a greater number of people are doing the same task, you need a way to ensure quality and consistency. Also, corporate rules, legal concerns, and regulatory compliance issues may help you determine if a standardized process or procedure is necessary.

Following a process and its procedures: A recipe for success

For the most part, organizations should standardize processes and procedures, meaning that everyone will accomplish certain tasks in the same way. Standardizing processes and procedures can help your business do the following.

Improve customer service

When employees have a clear understanding of what steps they need to take to resolve problems, they deliver a more consistent customer support experience.

For example, without a well-defined process, agents don’t have a clear time frame for responding to customer complaints. As a result, some customers will get help more quickly than others, which is likely to prompt complaints.

A good process, on the other hand, might define the response time as 24 hours and include a script. With that, customer care agents know when to respond, what to say (since it’s defined in the procedure), and how to escalate a problem if needed, which makes for happier customers overall.

Empower employees

The consistency and clarity that comes with processes and procedures keeps employees motivated and engaged. Knowing what the company expects of them eliminates confusion, making it easier for them to achieve goals. Employees who achieve their goals contribute to the success of the entire organization.

Support growth

And here’s perhaps the best argument for implementing processes and procedures: It supports growth. Having processes and procedures gives you a way to evaluate your practices and promote the ones that are working.

For example, says McMillan, “A company may assess the effectiveness of their systems by taking the same actions every time a customer approaches them. This type of measurement lets them dive down into what’s working and what isn’t so they can make changes as needed.” Essentially, it allows you to duplicate successful methods and apply them on a wider scale.

You should periodically evaluate both processes and procedures to make sure you’re doing things as efficiently and effectively as possible as your business grows. You can also use tools like Jotform Approvals to help automate process workflows, improving your productivity even more.

Photo by Felicity Tai

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