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.
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.
Communication will fail if your messages are confusing to your audience. (Image: Jon Wiley)
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.
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 Twitter and Dribbble — 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.
I have long praised 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.
Understanding what is import to your clients and tailoring your communication to those needs will help get your message heard. (Image: darkmatter)
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 Island 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.
Communication is a two-way street between you and the client. (Image: Jerad Heffner)
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.
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 Bjerke)
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?
© Jeremy Girard for Smashing Magazine, 2012.