To Say or Not to Say: Strategy in Client Communication

by Jane Portman 5 Minutes

Client CommunicationHere’s common business wisdom: sharing your professional insight on the project is the best way to land a dream client. But is it wise to disclose all your ideas open-heartedly? Why not apply some strategy in your client communication?

I’ve been on both sides of the fence: as a creative director managing freelancers, and as an independent design consultant. Trust me, it’s not only you who’s fighting for the best projects.

Your potential client is also fighting to attract the best talent and get projects done on time. That “ruthless” manager really needs more empathy than you might think! It’s a win-win if both sides communicate well.

Behave as a consultant

It doesn’t matter what your actual business role is — freelance artisan, hired manager, or top-level executive. If you’re selling services, on the initial stage of the project you’re inevitably going to be a consultant to your potential client. Information is always provided upfront. Effective communication is not only your business tool; it’s a meaningful part of your service.

That’s why you should adopt the mindset of a consultant at least for a little while. Even if it doesn’t come naturally, think about your communication in a more strategic manner. Sometimes it helps to keep that sincere flow of ideas to yourself.

Think: to say or not to say?

The secret of reserve knowledge

I love referring to Dale Carnegie for this. It’s not merely a technique, but rather a whole approach to your behavior. The point is to gather (or keep in mind) ten times more information than you’re actually going to use, be it data, arguments, ideas, or anything else that has conversational value.

First, this helps to select the most meaningful 10 percent of your ideas that are pure gold and represent your top value.

Second, this gives a solid non-verbal advantage in communication. Extra knowledge (and strategic silence) gives you a radiating confidence that makes you an instant winner in any situation. I’m quite positive it shows even when you communicate through other channels — it affects your wording when you use Skype or email.

When the conversation is over, you shouldn’t feel like an empty barrel, having shared everything to the last drop. More importantly, the client shouldn’t catch you unarmed in the middle of a negotiation.

Finally, it’s great to have extra material that you can gradually disclose further on during the workflow, adding more value to your client’s experience.

What Not to Say

Cut premature activity

If you’re great at customer service, you most likely have a natural inclination towards solving problems. You might have a natural urge to immediately jump in and work out the entire solution. And your experience may very well give you the skillset to do that quickly and effectively!

But do your best and resist that urge. Minimize unsolicited activity; instead focus on meaningful discussion that will set the stage for further actions.

Ask instead of answering

Setting a list of problems to be solved during the project takes qualification and is hard enough by itself. There is no reason to dive into answering any questions right away. Most likely there won’t be time for thoughtful analysis anyways. Why not do that later on, when your involvement is already settled and your hours are billable?

By taking that approach you also mitigate certain risks. No matter how experienced, you never know what details will come up during the research stage, and how they will influence the flow of the project. You never want to bind yourself and your client to any premature decisions.

Designers tend to go even further and dive into visuals straight away. That’s even more risky, and it also devalues further activity — by doing something early on you indicate that it doesn’t take much time and effort (and similarly, further stages won’t take effort either).

Skip technical details

It might look reasonable to show off your tools and technical skills that are relevant to the project. I used to think so, too. Most times in business, however, these technical terms are irrelevant, unnecessary, and confusing. Instead focus on actual everyday benefits that these tools will help to deliver.

Also avoid common clichés that bear little to no practical use. After all, you’re not hired to “establish effective channels of communication,” you’re hired to develop a messaging app. Talk simply, strive for clarity.

Avoid self-promotional monologues

What you can do is briefly mention certain areas of expertise that define your niche and show your relevance to the project. But never let it transform into a lengthy monologue. Nobody really cares for your regalia. If they do, they’ll go to your website and get your full bio and testimonials.

Actually, the best advice is to avoid any kind of monologue. The only type of solo speaker should be your client talking about his problems, but even in this case you should break it up with encouraging statements and relevant questions.

Don’t give false hope

Today’s projects tend to have a very flexible agenda. Don’t make any promises on activities that don’t rely solely on your input. Don’t be overly optimistic with anything — it can be an initial warning sign for an experienced manager, and will simply aggravate everybody down the road when reality bites back.

Even when setting up minor milestones, always be realistic (better pessimistic). If you think you can work miracles and finish a week earlier, just don’t mention it. Let it be a pleasant surprise if it actually happens.

Trust me, if you simply deliver quality results step-by-step in a timely fashion and adhere to your milestone dates, it will be more than enough to keep any client happy.

Always Speak Up

If something isn’t clear or goes wrong

If you have any questions, or it looks like the client isn’t getting it, but is too shy (or too busy) to ask, clarify! Make sure you double-check the most important points. And never proceed if the task or the working terms are unclear.

Always report any issues as soon as they arise. If there’s a milestone coming up and you don’t think you’re going to make it, give your client notice. If there’s something missing in the task, don’t stay in silence until you hit the deadline. You’ll save precious time and provide peace of mind for your client, as well as protect your own dignity.

Question clients’ decisions

Never be a nodding porcelain toy! It wasn’t only for your execution skills that they hired you, but also for your opinion and ability to take guidance. You’re the one who possesses the expertise, so almost all clients will be glad if you question their task and suggest a more sensible alternative solution.

Add sprinkles to your cake

Certain details particularly delight clients. Think about adding these little “sprinkles” to your professional arsenal.

First, meet your clients halfway to show your understanding. Say a few extra words to confirm that you’re aware of their problems and business goals, understand the task, and agree with the deadline. It’s just a few more words, but they make great checkmarks on the imaginative “safety checklist.”

The second important thing is to explain your choices when you deliver work. You can save numerous revisions by mentioning that you tried a few other paths before choosing this particular solution. This can apply both to miniscule details (which ironically tend to get unnecessary attention) and more important decisions.

Listen before saying

Listen to your counterpart and try to mimic his or her conversation style. If your client is very polite and wordy, do yourself a favor and add in a few extra courtesies. If your client prefers to keep messages short, react similarly — skip all the fluff and focus on action.

But no matter what communication strategy you choose, strive for clarity, respond to all messages in a timely manner, be honest, and stay consistent with your deadlines. This is the basis of a top-notch experience that makes your clients come back for more.

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by Jane Portman
Jane Portman is an independent UI/UX consultant and writer who helps software businesses make more money with strategic design. Jane is the author of Mastering App Presentation: the complete guide to showcasing design work.