Mastering the Art of Client Communication

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At some companies, designers and developers have little to no interaction with clients or customers. It’s not uncommon for the people working on a project to be walled off from clients by account managers or customer service. At Grio, every designer and developer is client facing, and everyone ends up doing some of the work that is traditionally done by an account manager, such as managing day to day contacts, relationship management, and responding to problems & issues.

We know that good communication skills are key to building strong client relationships, which leads to repeat customers. As the person on the front lines, the designer or developer is the closest to any issues with the client, and is also in the best position to help mitigate those issues. Good communication can help keep small problems from turning into bigger problems.

Over the years, Grio has put together the following rules of client communication.

  1. Put yourself in the client’s shoes
  2. Always provide a recommendation
  3. Address client complaints proactively
  4. Escalate issues ASAP
  5. Overcommunicate
  6. Communicate professionally

Following these rules – and learning from our experience! – can help you maintain excellent client relationships.

Put yourself in the client’s shoes  

In order to serve clients better we need to understand their needs. First, this involves listening – what problem is the client trying to solve? What pressures are affecting their business?

Understanding the client’s business goals will let us serve them better.  Its also important to remember that clients have various pressures from their own organizations and investors, and so their goals may not always be what we would assume. Listen carefully to what the client’s needs really are and make sure that everyone is on the same page about how to meet their goals.

Always Provide a Recommendation

Clients often come to us with requests and proposals that we either can’t implement or don’t think are a good idea. If you disagree with a client’s proposal, it’s important to let them know not only why you disagree, but also what else can be done that will meet the their needs. We never want to respond with only “No, we can’t do that” – we always let clients know what we can do that will help them solve their problem. We never want clients to be left guessing or not knowing how a problem is going to be solved.

I’ve often found that clients will start out by proposing a solution instead of telling you their problem – sometimes the reasoning & business needs behind their requests needs to be teased out. For example, a client might come to us with a request like “I want you to make the login button bright red and blinking” instead of telling us the real problem, that they don’t think users are finding the login button.  Once we understand the real problem, we can work together with the client to find the best solution. This is where a company like Grio gets a chance to really differentiate ourselves as ‘consultants’ rather than just ‘contractors’ – our job is to be the client’s guide, and to give them our professional recommendation as experts in the field.

Ultimately it is the client’s product and their decision, and even when we give them our best recommendations backed up by the soundest arguments, sometimes they decide not to go with our recommendations and make a decision we think is wrong. It’s important not to take this personally and remember that it happens all the time – accept it and move on to the next thing.

Address client complaints proactively

If a project or deliverable is going to be late or a goal isn’t going to be met, let the client know as soon as possible. If something doesn’t work as expected, or is slow, or has bugs – let the client know that and what steps you are taking to address the issues.  Whenever you know about a problem in a product, try to be the one to point it out first – don’t hope they won’t notice.

Escalate any issues as soon as possible

Every project at Grio has an account manager and a project manager*. Project managers are responsible for keeping the project on track, account managers are responsible for keeping the client relationship on track. Project managers and account managers need to know as soon as possible if there are any problems on a project. Whenever an issue arises with a project, the project manager needs to know as soon as possible so they can help to address it with the client, and if necessary bring in the account manager as well.

  • On a smaller project with only 1 or 2 people the “Project Manager” role may be filled by developers or designers working on the project.

Over-communicate

Frequent updates help put clients at ease about their project’s progress. We never like to let more than a couple of days go by without giving the client an update on the project.  If you feel like you are communicating too much, then you are probably communicating at the right level. If things with the project are not going well or the project is getting close to a release, communicate even more frequently, at least once and possibly multiple times per day.

Be careful about overusing industry buzzwords that a non-technical client might not know. For example, saying “A design that adjusts for both mobile and web” is just as easy as saying “Responsive design”, but clients who are not as familiar with web development might not know what “responsive design” means. Be sure to explain more technical terms in plain language without using too many acronyms and buzzwords.

Also, beware of over-reliance on IM & email – these are invaluable tools, but they can be dangerous when communication starts to break down. A fast response to a skimmed email or IM can further escalate a problem.  If misunderstandings start to arise or there seems to be a disagreement, pick up the phone, or reply with a request to set up a time to talk about the issue. When multiple emails are going back and forth, a phone conversation is usually a much faster way to get everyone back on the same page.

When possible, try to set up at least one face-to-face meeting with the client during the course of a project. Face-to-face meetings are a great way to get the information you need while building a rapport with clients.

Communicate professionally

Professional emails use good grammar, proper punctuation, and have a signature at the bottom with your company name, email address, and other contact information. You might not think that people will judge your work by how you write emails, but they will, even if it is not conscious. Sloppy looking emails can communicate “this person is sloppy, maybe they do sloppy work”.  In addition, poorly written emails are harder to read and understand, so clients may only skim your emails and not fully grasp what you are saying, leading to possible misunderstandings. Always proof-read an email before you send it off to a client to make sure you are presenting yourself as professionally as possible. If you aren’t confident in your writing for any reason, have someone whose opinion you trust look over your email before you send it.

It’s fine to say “I don’t know”

Finally, it’s fine to say “I don’t know” when a client asks a question that you don’t know the answer to. Sometimes people can become flummoxed when asked a question by a client that they don’t know the answer to – remember that no one knows everything, and if you don’t know the answer to a client question, it’s fine to say so.  Some other phrases you can user are “I need to double-check on that.” or “I need to do some research to answer that” or “I need to look into that and get back to you”.  A confident “I don’t know, but I’m going to find out” sounds much better than a wishy-washy “well…I think…it could be…maybe…” – just say I don’t know, find out, and follow up!

Hopefully these tips can help make your next project run more smoothly than ever. Do you have some additional tips or rules that you use? Feel free to share them with us in the comments.

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