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How To Communicate In Language Your Client Understands

January 11, 2018

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When ClientFlow was conceptualized, one of our key goals was streamlining project communications with clients and reducing back-and-forth interactions.

While our software provides a great way of doing that, the language that you use in your client communications is also critical.

How many times have your clients come back to you for clarification because they didn’t understand something in your status update email?

How much time have you spent clarifying or re-clarifying those points?

If any of that time can be attributed to the client not understanding your first communication, figuring out how to communicate in language they understand is a task for you to think about.

Why Is Communication Hard?

Just because you sent an email doesn’t mean you have communicated. True communication implies an exchange of meaning between parties, which is the piece that often goes missing along the way.

Why don’t you easily transmit meaning? When we communicate, it is based on our own background, knowledge and understanding of the world. As an expert in your field, it’s easy to explain things as you would to a knowledgeable colleague, confounding your clients because they don’t speak the same ‘language’.

When the client hasn’t received ‘meaning’ from your message, they may completely misunderstand and want (possibly inferior) a better explanation based on their own understanding. You could also be caught in a frustrating, time-consuming cycle of back-and-forth emailing. Not something you want if billable hours are important to your business!

Developers: Avoid these commonly misunderstood terms! Get your free download here…

Speaking Your Client’s Language

Learning the right language to use with clients begins before they’ve even hired you for a project. If they don’t understand what you do, they may balk at your fees or object to what they perceive as ‘too many hours when all you had to do was stick in a line of code.’

It’s part of the job to make sure your client understands what’s involved. Here are a few ideas to improve communication:

Explaining what you do

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” — Albert Einstein

 

This quote applies to your clients too: if they’re not able to explain simply what you do, then they don’t understand because you haven’t explained it well enough!

One of the easiest ways to clearly explain what you do is to focus on the benefit to others. For example; “I am a UX or user experience designer. I make it easier for visitors to use your website so that you can increase conversions.”

Remember that language can conjure connotations for the client that may hurt your image. For example, in this Fast Company piece “Why I Stopped Calling Myself A Freelancer” Suzan Bond explains that the term “freelancer” projected an insufficient image of what she actually could do.

Potential clients often see terms like freelancer to be the equivalent of “dabbler”, “student looking for a bit of money on the side” or “low-cost line item”. Beyond that, freelancers often aren’t viewed as strategic thinkers. Instead, their simply people that accept tasks assignments and complete them without any free thought. Consider this from the above article:

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Speak the language of the business so that potential clients treat you as a serious business.

Listen First

If a potential client is interested in engaging you, the entire project is likely to go more smoothly if you truly understand the client. Speaking their language begins with listening to them.

Before you start a single line of their project, here’s what you should understand:

  • The problem. In their own words, what problem/s can you solve? For example, “clients have told us they don’t understand where to go on our website.”
  • Why they think the problem exists. They may have a completely different idea of why it exists than you do, and you need to address that concern.
  • The end goal for the business. This is the piece that spins their wheels. If you understand end goals, you can better communicate progress in terms of those goals.
  • Who their clients are. Depending on your role, you may need to create something in their client’s language too.

Set expectations early

One of the most common client frustrations is feeling out of the loop or that you’re not responding quickly enough to queries. Set expectations early for how you will communicate and how quickly you are able to respond.

Weekly progress reports may be all you need to keep them updated, but be specific about how they can reach you at other times. You will go a long way towards maintaining trust if you are up-front about any problems that arise and prompt with communication.

Your expectations may include:

  • A timeline for the whole project or for individual milestones.
  • Agreement on strategies and goals.
    • Scope of work. This will help the client understand what success looks like and how it should be measured. It also clarifies what you will and won’t be doing to avoid confusion later.
    • Budget. If the client has a set budget you need to know about it early, particularly if you are billing for hours worked instead of a flat rate for the whole project. You need to ensure they understand how long certain tasks can take if this affects the price.
  • Agreement on communicating project updates.

Focus on how your recommendation solves their problem

Communication between expert and non-expert can be fraught with misunderstanding, especially if it’s loaded with jargon. If your client needs Google to decipher your report, they either won’t bother and will come back to you with a million clarifications, or they’ll be frustrated and feel out of the loop.

What the client really wants to know is how what you did helps solve their problem. Relate in your reports how “writing user interface code” will achieve their business goals. For example, “website visitors can now easily see the shopping icon at the right and click through to your store.”

Try to keep jargon to a minimum, or at least provide an explanation that is easy to understand. That is not to say you should come across as condescending: just keep things simple and respectful.

Developers: Simplify your client communications, get our free list of ideas here…

Don’t Rely On Email

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Cartoon by EveryDayPeopleCartoons.com

Email is a great medium for dealing in facts. In fact, as Geoffrey James recommends, “any communication that is primarily factual should be communicated in writing.” This is because a written record ensures that the facts aren’t lost at decision time.

Email is less efficient during the conceptual stages of a project where you’re discovering basic needs. The answers a client may give usually lead to more questions from you, and then the back and forth starts…

Even if you usually begin a client relationship with a standard questionnaire, scheduling time for a phone call or two can help with clarification and develop a closer relationship with the client.

A phone call may also be your best form of communication if the client needs to be talked through something. If they’re nervous, it’s more effective to allay their fears over the phone.

Finally, Some “C’s”…

Any business discipline seems to come with it’s own set of “C’s” and communication is no exception. In brief, Andrew Klausner for Forbes sets out the 4 “C’s” of communication which you should aim for:

  • Clear
  • Consistent
  • Convenient
  • Compelling

Pretty simple really, though not always easy in practice!

Communicating with your clients isn’t difficult or time-consuming if you set up your projects well in the first place. This means positioning what you do, how you can help them and how that will achieve their business goals in language that the client understands. Make sure you set clear expectations and don’t be afraid to pick up the phone.

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