Keys to great communication

We all know that amazing developer/designer who would just be so awesome to work with… if only they weren’t so awful to work with. And you know what? So many clients have been burnt by them know them too.

When you run your own business, being a master communicator makes you stand out from your competitors in ways that are almost magical. Repeat business and referrals are practically guaranteed.

Here are a few tips to level up your communication game.

Meet in person

It’s 2018. When I say meet in person, I mean any channel that will allow some face to face interaction. Meeting at an office can be great, but skype or google hangouts is equally good. This allows you and your client to evaluate all of the intangible pieces of a future working relationship:

  • Do you make confident eye contact or are you shifty and evasive?
  • Are you able to answer questions simply or do you lose people with technical blah?
  • Are you kindly assertive or a yes-whatever-you-say person?
  • Are you pleasant and professional, or do you come across as distracted or abrasive.
  • Are you enthusiastic, curious, and patient, or arrogant and blaze?

By the way, that bullet list applies to your client too! If they come across poorly you might consider that a red flag. First impressions are critical in setting the tone of a project. While email is ok as a means to qualify leads, you should be ready to quickly move the conversation to a real exchange.

While email is ok as a means to qualify leads, you should be ready to quickly move the conversation to a real exchange Tweet

Err on the side of formal

People’s personalities range from extremely formal to laid-back jokers, and everything in-between. There are times when we gel with our clients so well, it’s like past-life woowoo and everything is effortless. Those relationships are amazing, but more often than not we have different communication styles. Occasionally we may even find ourselves on complete opposite sides of the personality spectrum.

Right or wrong, as freelancers in the web design/development fields, we carry the image of an overly-casual-maybe-even-unreliable profession. I have a simple rule of thumb for working clients who are not in the industry: err on the side of slightly more formal than they are. As time goes by and you have earned their trust, you can let loose and shed some of that formality. But it’s really tough to go the other way.

Be an active listener

Rather than letting your client ramble on and replying with a series of uh-huh’s, give them the confidence that you have fully received their message. Offer feedback, ask clarifying questions, and repeat back to them what you have understood with an open mind. Your client will definitely appreciate your attention and curiosity. Furthermore, you may be surprised to uncover some misplaced assumptions on your part which would have otherwise been overlooked.

Don’t keep your client guessing

You may get emails that can be replied to with just a couple lines under 2 minutes. Those are like the small stack of dishes you left by the sink. “Hey it’s just one or two, barely worth the effort right now”. Next thing you know it’s a 45-minute job to get through. It’s so much better to just get rid of the the tiny pile during scheduled breaks and avoid the accumulation.

But what about those emails that require more? More thought or careful wording, or maybe even waiting on info form another source before you can reply…? Rather than putting it off until you can get back to it, just send a one liner to acknowledge that this request is definitely on your radar and you will follow-up with a considered reply by an actual date.

Now your client can take this off their todo list knowing that you’re on it. And you can set it aside (even snooze it) until a more appropriate time.

Schedule check-ins with your client

There’s a common arc with regards to client communication during projects: a lot of emails/meetings during the kickoff/scoping phase, followed by sporadic and infrequent exchanges for milestones or sign-off purposes. This is particularly true of web development projects where client involvement is less necessary during the actual building phases.

While it may seem logical from your perspective to check-in only when you need stakeholder input, this can be a very nerve-racking phase for clients who are unlikely to be familiar with the development process. After regular contact and high-fives, they suddenly don’t hear from you for weeks. They may start feeling twitchy and wondering if you’re even working on their project.

It really pays off to schedule regular check-ins with your client whether or not there are issues that need their attention. This can take many forms, but at the very least a short weekly email to summarize what you did that week and what you will be working on the following week can do wonders for maintaining good relations.

Every day projects crash and burn not from lack of technical skill, but from poor project management and unclear expectations. Become a great communicator, and you will consistently have an edge in your field.

Comments or questions? Drop ’em in a tweet!