Keys To Better Communication With Clients

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I recently spoke with a prospective client who started the conversation by saying that he had called us because he was unhappy with his website’s current design and development team. Questioning what about his current team he didn’t care for, I discovered that it wasn’t the company’s product or its prices — he was satisfied with the work they did for him and felt that he was charged fairly for it. He was unhappy with their communication.

Communication Breakdown

Poor communication is a surefire way to damage any project or relationship, but when I dug deeper into this particular case, I realized that lack of communication was not the issue; the company provided regular updates on projects and milestones and so on. Rather, it was the words they used when giving those updates and answering questions. The problem was that the provider spoke “Web speak” and nothing else.

Stop sign with confusing message1
Communication will fail if your messages are confusing to your audience. (Image: Jon Wiley2)

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this complaint from someone when discussing their Web team. While they appreciate the provider’s knowledge of the profession and industry, they bemoan the reality that they cannot translate that knowledge into language that someone who is not a fellow Web professional would understand. While the updates may be plentiful, the communication is still poor.

Peer-To-Peer Communication

Those of us in the Web industry enjoy countless opportunities to exchange knowledge with our peers. From attending conferences and meetups to contributing to conversations on blogs to communicating on platforms such as Twitter3 and Dribbble4 — Web designers and developers can share information and learn from each other in a myriad of ways. The way we communicate in these circles, however, is very different from how we must communicate outside of them, even though we are often discussing the same topics.

The way we speak about issues such as browser inconsistencies and approaches such as progressive enhancement and responsive Web design must be tailored to the audience we are addressing. This is, of course, easier said than done. After speaking with our peers in technical terms that we all understand, how do we then alter our language and way of speaking to present a technical piece of information in a non-technical way? The truth is that, like everything else in our industry and in life, it takes practice.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Over the years, I have been told by a number of clients that they enjoy meeting with me and discussing their website because I “make it easy to understand.” I have been commended on presenting these technical concepts in a very accessible way and on the fact that it seems to come naturally to me. While I appreciate that my clients feel this way about my presentational skills, the truth is that I have worked hard to be able to talk in this way.

In this article, I will go over a few of the ways that have helped me adjust how I speak about what I do in order to better communicate with my clients. I will also address some warning signs of communication breakdown, as well as ways to get those conversations back on track if they do falter.

Business Second

I have long praised5 the benefits of having casual non-business conversations with clients. This practice also has a place here as you strive for more effective communication with clients. Too often, communication is strained from the start because a client fears you will speak to them in terms they do not understand. No one wants to appear confused or uninformed, especially in a business setting, and that type of anxiety can make a bad situation even worse. By starting a meeting off with light informal conversation, you help to minimize any anxiety the client may have and set the tone for the rest of the meeting. Additionally, you might learn something about the client or they about you, helping you to continue building a genuine, long-term relationship that goes beyond just the business you do together.

By starting out the conversation with something other than business talk, you enable the client to see you as someone other than just “their Web designer,” and you have a chance to break the ice and strengthen the relationship before the discussion turns to business.

Learn Their Language

While casual conversation is a good way to start a meeting, you will have to get to business sooner or later. To complement the technical explanations that you normally give, you could also learn your client’s language and speak to them in terms they understand and are comfortable with.

“Speaking their language” doesn’t mean adding horrible business jargon to your vocabulary. It just means understanding what is important to the client and speaking to those topics. By correlating technical information to their business goals, you will find that the message is much better received.

Text from a publication6
Understanding what is import to your clients and tailoring your communication to those needs will help get your message heard. (Image: darkmatter7)

For example, you may be well versed in topics such as HTML5, CSS3, responsive design and so on, but you should go beyond the technical application of these topics. You must also know how they can be used to help meet the business goals of your clients. This is the language that clients speak. If you explain how CSS3 media queries enable a website layout to reflow according to screen resolution, creating a UX that is optimized for the user’s current environment, then you will usually be met with a blank stare. Instead, say that you will build the website to work well on a variety of devices, from large desktop monitors to handheld mobile phones, thus enabling the visitor to complete their task as easily as possible, whether that task is to read content, sign up for an account or make a purchase. Such tasks are the purpose of the website and are directly in line with your client’s business goals. By making it easy for people to complete those tasks with whatever device they are using at that time, you give the website the best chance to convert those visitors into actual customers.

In the end, you are still talking about responsive design and CSS3 media queries, but you are focusing on the business results instead of the technical execution required to achieve the results — and your client can certainly understand and get excited about business results.

Write Non-Technical Articles

As you begin to use new technologies and experiment with new techniques, one way to reinforce your learning is to write about it. Authoring an article helps you to fully think through the process. It can also generate conversation that furthers your knowledge of the subject. However, if the only articles you author are technical ones meant for other designers and developers, then you may be compounding the challenge of being able to communicate with a non-technical audience.

If you enjoy writing articles about Web design, try producing some that are geared to your clients or other business owners. By writing about the aspects of Web design in a non-technical, client-focused way, you can continue to explore the best way to present those topics. Over time, you will find that your explanations in the articles become part of your normal vocabulary with clients, giving you talking points that find their way into your meetings and conversations.

Teach What You Know

In addition to writing articles, also take your knowledge and experience to the classroom or stage and verbally teach what you know to others. The website design and development course that I have been fortunate enough to teach at the University of Rhode Island8 for the past few years has been an enormous help to my presentational skills. Being able to present technical information to students, a group that actually bridges the gap between technical and non-technical, has helped me find ways to discuss these topics in a manner that is accessible to beginners but also informative enough to be applied to the work they are doing.

Even if you don’t have the opportunity to teach a class at the university level, consider volunteering to lead a class on basic HTML and CSS at your local library or high school. The benefits you get from the experience will influence how you speak with clients and help you better present technical concepts in a way that is easy to understand, never condescending and always productive.

Communication Is A Two-Way Street

While these tips may help you improve your own skills, the fact of the matter is that quality communication is not one-sided. It has to flow in both directions: from you to your clients and from your clients back to you. Part of your job is not only to improve your own skills, but to ensure that your client’s are up to snuff as well.

Direction for two-way traffic9
Communication is a two-way street between you and the client. (Image: Jerad Heffner10)

Here are a few things to look out for on your client’s end of the conversation.

Lost In Translation

When kicking off a project or speaking with a prospective client, one of the first things you should do is determine who you are speaking with and what their role in the project will be. Are they a decision maker with the authority to provide quality feedback on the project, or are they a messenger? If you are dealing with someone who is essentially a go-between, then you run the risk that your words will be mangled when recounted to the actual decision makers or that their words will be mangled when recounted back to you. This is a recipe for misunderstanding and tension.

This scenario is especially common when dealing with large companies in which meeting with the decision makers is very hard to arrange. Still, you should be pushing for this. Key decision makers must be present at key meetings and presentations in order to maintain quality communication. This might sound strict and a bit unrealistic, but anything less will not do, and this is what you should demand. Explain that you understand that their schedules are tight — yours is as well — but developing a successful solution will be a team effort, and key personnel from both sides must be in contact with each other directly for it to work. This doesn’t mean that C-level executives need to be at every meeting, but it does mean that you shouldn’t be meeting with only a messenger.

The success of a project is directly related to the quality of the communication during the process. Make sure you are speaking with the right people during it.

Responding Before Reading

Feedback given in a project will often contradict previous feedback or decisions. In some instances, this happens because the client gave that initial feedback hastily without fully understanding the nature of the issue or the decision being made. Whenever this happens to me, it is almost always because an email was not fully read and the reply was sent too quickly.

Email is a necessary form of communication, but it is also easy to rush through and even dismiss entirely. If you rely solely on email or another kind of digital communication, then you risk the conversation breaking down.

Pick up the phone or schedule an in-person or video meeting to review and decide on key points in the project. Dismissing a conversation is much harder in a meeting than when opening one of the hundreds of emails they likely get each day. If you require digital communication as a record of the decisions made, then you could certainly follow up on the meeting with a recap of what was discussed and decided. Meeting to make decisions and then using email to recap and reinforce those decisions lead to fewer misunderstandings caused by hurried responses from a distracted team.

Late to the Game

Another scenario to be mindful of is when someone jumps into the communication loop deep into the project. Even if you have excellent documentation on the decisions and communication that have happened so far through project management software like Basecamp, these late additions to the group will rarely be able to assimilate all of the information that has been accumulated, meaning their feedback and comments will not have the benefit of this historical knowledge. This can be dangerous. The new team member will often want to make an impact on the project, but if they do not understand the decisions that have been made thus far or why they have been made, then they could easily derail the project. Of course, you want to avoid this.

If a new member does jump into the project, bring them up to speed and direct their enthusiasm in a positive way. Schedule a meeting or a call with them and perhaps one or two others from the team, just to “get up to speed.” Explain what the team has decided so far and detail what the next decision points are and how their input into those upcoming decisions will be helpful.

By directing their enthusiasm at upcoming decisions instead of back to previous decisions, you enable their contributions to help, rather than hinder, the project.

Paying Attention To The Signs Along The Road

Despite your best efforts, there will always be times when communication breaks down and the project is put at risk because of it. While working to avoid those breakdowns is important, being able to identify them and recover quickly is just as important.

Road sign showing hazardous conditions11
Paying attention to signs along the road will help you determine whether you are traveling at a comfortable speed or need to proceed with caution. (Image: Eric Bjerke12)

Obvious signs of strained communication in email include expressions of frustration, clearly miscommunicated messages and decisions that contradict previous conversations. When you see these emails, do not reply to them to “set the record straight.” Pick up the phone and do it. When communication is already strained, a flurry of emails back and forth usually does little else than compound the frustration. Once again, this is where an in-person or video meeting helps.

By discussing the issue verbally, you stand a much better chance of resolving it and getting everyone back to healthy communication. Regularly scheduled meetings are great, but if you notice signs of miscommunication, don’t wait until the next one happens; ask for a quick call or meeting to address the issue immediately.

Quality Communication For All

Communication skills do not benefit Web professionals alone. They apply to anyone, from any industry or business, who has to communicate with others. No matter what business you are in, healthy communication skills will help you do it better. Fittingly for an article about conversation, I invite your contribution to the discussion:

What ways have you found to improve communication with your own clients?

(al) (il)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.flickr.com/photos/61436699@N00/1208632794/
  2. 2 http://www.flickr.com/photos/61436699@N00/1208632794/
  3. 3 http://twitter.com
  4. 4 http://dribbble.com
  5. 5 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2012/01/25/how-to-deliver-exceptional-client-service/
  6. 6 http://www.flickr.com/photos/85494010@N00/54973638/
  7. 7 http://www.flickr.com/photos/85494010@N00/54973638/
  8. 8 http://www.uri.edu/prov/certificate_noncredit/certificate/Multimedia/MultimediaTech.html
  9. 9 http://www.flickr.com/photos/80974239@N00/2611679744/
  10. 10 http://www.flickr.com/photos/80974239@N00/2611679744/
  11. 11 http://www.flickr.com/photos/13815852@N06/4658636393/
  12. 12 http://www.flickr.com/photos/13815852@N06/4658636393/

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Jeremy was born with six toes on each foot. The extra toes were removed before he was a year old, robbing him of any super-powers and ending his crime-fighting career before it even began. Unable to battle the forces of evil, he instead works as the Director of Web Development for the Providence, Rhode Island based Envision Technology Advisors and teaches website design at the University of Rhode Island. His portfolio and blog, at Pumpkin-King.com, is where he writes about all things Web design.

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  1. 1

    Really liked your article and think your point of times when email communication may be failing for what ever reason that a face-to-face meeting or a phone call is a great way to get things clarified and back on track.

    Btw did you keep your sixth toes in a jar :)

    4
    • 2

      Jordan @ simpixelated

      July 16, 2012 2:43 pm

      This is why I am starting a business based on helping clients communicate and connect with agencies. There is so much talent in the world, but amazingly, many small businesses only end up interviewing with a handful of agencies. Trying to communicate your business goals to a technical team, then having to translate their technical speak back to business goals is extremely taxing. I want to make that process easier by doing all the things mentioned in your article: educating, translating, and ultimately connecting these businesses with agencies that do communicate properly. Thanks for this timely article!

      0
      • 3

        We need to realize we are not only in “technology” or “design” – we are all in human services. The fact that agencies and clients need a translator is sad in my opinion and don’t know if another voice at the table is the answer to the problem.

        5
  2. 4

    Thanks a lot Jeremy, very nice article. Almost all problems you stated in the article happened to me. Especially when the communication with a client is going to be strained. And thanks for the solutions and tips you gave.
    Great work! I’m waiting for more :D

    0
  3. 5

    I am a business developer at ping2world(ping2world.com/), so better communication is always the key to get more and more business online. I greatly emphasize in understanding the customer requirements, so I prepare the data flow diagrams, flow charts and project scheduling reports.

    -14
  4. 6

    You hit the nail on the head. I’m a project manager and an account manager all in one and I’ve learned my lesson on communication. Every time I get lazy and send a design off for approval through email instead of calling and walking them through what we have done I am reminded why I don’t usually do it in the first place.

    We as “the web guru’s” are so involved and consumed by every project we forget that clients can’t read our minds. And yes there is a fine line between explaining and teaching but giving the client a summary of why you did what you did will help you every time.

    4
    • 7

      Absolutely. When you present your work and explain your decisions, it goes a long way to minimizing knee-jerk feedback. When the reason behind the decisions is understood, it allows those decisions to be better appreciated.

      2
  5. 8

    Small talk is key in my opinion. I recently met with a prospective client and he was running around the shop when he met with me and because I wasn’t in control of the conversation it ended up being a slight mess. Typically, sitting in a quiet or neutral location with time to discuss life outside of business has yielded great results for me. With the added time they are buying more into a professional relationship than just a designer to do their bidding. Uncomplicated small talk is key. Great article!

    0
  6. 9

    This is a very important skill for me as I’m the in-house Web developer in a company of 100 people. I’ve found that the more jargon you use, the less people respect you because you really are “talking another language”. My direct boss is not technically based at all, so it’s been valuable to learn over the years how to put it into terms that allows him to make a decision.

    Using the example of manage the content of joining instructions to be published online for an event. To have the content saved “directly against each event” means nothing, until you say “this allows you to have control over the content for every event, until the moment when something generic amongst the content changes, in which case you would have to go into every single event to change the content.”

    I find that explaining actions rather than concepts helps people to visualise a system. It allows me to do the projects that I want to do!

    1
    • 10

      I think you need to know both languages. You need to know all the jargon to communicate with programmers, and you need to know how to translate that jargon into everyday language when dealing with non-programming savvy people.

      1
    • 12

      “…learn over the years how to put it into terms that allows him to make a decision”

      ^ kids, cut that phrase, print it out, and frame it!

      If there is ONE ESSENCE that the article can be distilled down to, that may be it.

      Lets say you bought a TV that is now defective, or you have a web site feature which is not working. You take the TV back to the returns desk at the store, and the code back to the developer or agency.

      In both cases you may (unfortunately) rant for several minutes sharing your FEELINGS but not expressing your NEEDS/WANTS
      (i.e. a new TV or refund, or a revised code for the web site)

      Much of the “new” customer service training (and indeed, a good piece of the article above) is ” how to ‘sift through the self inflicted communications fog” we abuse ourselves with.

      The exhortation to engage in “small talk?”, that is simply a mechanism for establishing a BASELINE for our conversation, in the same way a Polygraph analyst establishes some baseline questions, before beginning the REAL questioning.

      I think articles like this one are ESSENTIAL and are a very fine arrow in the quiver here at SmashingMag.

      Communication is the spice of life, and he who controls the spice controls the universe.

      4
  7. 13

    As a client, I would empasize 3 points :
    - make me talk about my projects and business objectives so you can be relevant
    - avoid too much small talk and get to the point, unless it’s an informal meeting
    - tell me something I don’t know!

    1
  8. 14

    Too many articles written by bloggers are based on one single scenario that has occurred one time in their career. Writing an article about it is like writing a new policy/law because someone, somewhere, one time neglected to do something, or did not do it well and now they feel it needs to be addressed.

    -2
    • 15

      ^ I sense you are about to make a point, perhaps even a relevant one.

      I think if you are perhaps saying that the points made by the author are overreactions to “one off” situations, that you are mistaken.

      I think communications problems are the greatest issues we face, especially as we move to wholly digital means of talking, where non-verbal clues such as tone of voice, body posture and eye contact are absent.

      4
      • 16

        You’re absolutely correct Steve – these are not “one off” situations, but are pitfalls I have fallen into numerous times and have seen many of my peers fall into as well. They are also issues which, having addressed them in my own work, have helped me to improve my communications and relationships with clients.

        Writing articles like this not only allows me to share my experiences to hopefully help others also improve their communications, it also reminds me of these lessons for my own projects!

        1
  9. 17

    Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts on client communication. This article reveals the power of great communication in a business scenario. Jeremy Rocks!!!

    0
    • 18

      This is great article and Jeremy Girard thanks a lot to share it… be blessed and happy…

      0
  10. 19

    Nice information.Thanks for sharing.

    0
  11. 20

    Think you’ve written a good article here Jeremy. I’ve experienced similar calls from clients, mainly those looking for assistance with SEO. As a copywriting company we do create copy with this in mind and have a general knowledge of the subject but we’re not experts by any means and wouldn’t claim to be. What we’ve found though is that companies and consultants in this area are purposefully creating a cloak of mystery around certain topics by using unnecessarily complicated and technical language. Essentially they are purposefully confusing clients and making them believe the subject is something more complex than it actually is so they will spend more money.

    0
    • 21

      I have taken similar calls from clients “looking for SEO”. In many cases, they have already spoken with other companies and when they relate what they have been told previously, it is often a complicated mix of techno-babble and industry buzzwords designed to confuse the company into buying into a contract to get something they don’t understand, or in many cases, even really need. Countering that approach with easy to understand language presented in a friendly, and being honest about the services you recommended based on their needs and goals, is a great way to build a good client relationship from the start.

      1
  12. 22

    I didn’t read your article because it was so verbose and had long paragraphs- BULLET POINTS BULLET POINTS BULLET POINTS. My clients don’t read long texts.. and, apparently, neither do i!!

    All the (previous to this ) comments were also horribly long!

    -8
  13. 23

    Good article Jeremy.

    Following on from one of your earlier points, I find that a common pitfall made by the rookie designer/developer is to think that they actually NEED to baffle their client with technical jargon in order to sound credible and impressive. Completely and utterly wrong.

    (These tend to be the same people who think that wearing a sharp suit and peppering their emails with robo-phrases like “going forward” and “reaching out” makes them dot com millionaires.)

    1
    • 24

      Right on. That “rookie” behavior is one I actually talk about with the students I teach because, as you said, it really is a common pitfall to try to compensate for a lack of experience by overdoing with the technical jargon.

      0
  14. 25

    I completely agree with you regarding the communication used to be with the mediator or the decision maker. Best thing if you want the decisions in your favor use any screen sharing to show your communication points.

    This way all points will be discussed without any hassle.

    Note: Make sure you should know how technical the person is on other side.

    0
  15. 26

    As a writer who believes that every person, every business, every idea has a story to tell, I so appreciate your article. I’ve always written in plain language and tell my clients why would I use a four-syllable word when one or two will do. When I write web copy, I break it down, even if it is a very technical topic. You never know who may stumble upon your website.

    Thanks!

    0
  16. 27

    In addition I would also add that one key to keep a good relationship with a client as a solid agreement signed by both client and designer/artist.

    After a thorough discussion with the client about what they want done, tell them that you will be send them an agreement to sign. If the client objects or becomes evasive, try and find out what their issues are. If there is a mutually acceptable way to settle the client’s issues, then proceed. But do not back down on the written agreement. If the issues can’t be resolved or the client won’t tell you why they have a problem with signing an agreement, there are signs of trouble. Let them know they should contact another artist, then walk away from the project.

    A good agreement should include:
    • A thorough description of the project based on what you and the client discussed
    • What is and is not included (helps manage scope creep)
    • How many rounds of revisions are included and what happens when those revision rounds have been exceeded
    • Your fee and a payment schedule
    • A kill fee if the client cancels the project.
    • A payment for “time spent to date” in the event the client stalls the project for a set period of time (3 weeks to a month). If this happens, you may also opt to add a provision to nullify the agreement and require a renegotiation and new agreement to restart the project.
    • An expiration date (usually 30 days) in which the client has to sign the agreement and after which, the terms of the agreement expire.

    more: 5 essential tips for better client and designer communication http://blog.visualpelican.com/5-essential-tips-for-better-client-and-designer-relationship/

    Thank you, Rokas
    blog.visualpelican.com

    0
  17. 28

    Nodding my head over the entire section about mangled messages when you have a non-technical P.M. on one side talking to a messenger on the other side. Extremely hard to do good work in that situation, one that is definitely NOT one-off in my experience. Thanks for a nice piece.-

    Chris

    0
  18. 29

    Great article! I have a question here maybe a little bit off topic but, I have often face times when my client is very very enthusiastic at the beginning, they like how I work and I feel my communication with them has been quite good… but they suddendly as the days pass I feel they start to loose interest in the proyect… I have to keep calling and calling just to remind them I need some kind of information or something, fearing that if I don’t call them I will probably seem uninterested with their project. What shoul I do or say in that situation?

    0

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