• Advice

How to communicate effectively with clients

Just because you’ve spoken words to a client doesn't mean you’ve communicated.

Communication implies that you have a mutual understanding of what’s being spoken about; that you’re both on the same ground.

It isn’t enough that you do good work. It’s not even enough that you answer their emails in a timely way.

If you spot a puzzled, slightly suspicious look on your client’s face or get a confused, contradictory, panicked email on a Sunday morning, you haven’t communicated effectively. No matter how frustrating (or clueless) your client is, it’s still your job to make sure communication happens.

Here are the top 4 reasons communication with clients fails:

1. You haven’t asked the right questions

Are you making assumptions about what the client wants?

Did you look at their existing website and say, “As a web designer, I know just what it should look like!” or at their disorganized house and say, “As a professional organizer, I know how to make their office look just like my super-organized office.”

New freelancers sometimes assume that they have to have all the answers -- or more often, that they should have all the answers.

These kinds of freelancers assume that initial conversations with a client should be all about what the freelancer can do for the client and the benefits of their services. They’re still in selling mode, and they feel they need to start giving answers right away in order to seem like a valuable, experienced professional. They jump right into their advice.

This isn’t communicating, because the client may have a completely different vision of what they want, and are in a different world entirely. Even worse, if they’re not comfortable in your field (if you’re a designer speaking to a small business owner, for example), the client may assume that what you’re talking about is what they’re envisioning -- so they may even tell you they’re fine with that or meekly nod their heads! So you could go forward with a project direction and it will come as a complete shock to you when they hate the first draft.

Good freelancers ask before they tell.

They understand that they have a set of tools and experiences on hand that they must learn to apply to their client’s specific needs. (There’s nothing like years of client work to make you humble about what you do and don’t know.)

The initial meetings or phone conversations should be you picking your clients’ brains. Tell your client that in order to understand what they need, you’re going to ask them some questions that may seem obvious, but it’s very important to you that you become part of their team.

Before starting a project, keep these communication goals in mind:

  • Understand their end vision. “In the best case scenario, what would be the result of the project?”
  • Understand their history. “What have been some of your more successful projects / campaigns / etc. in the past -- and why did they work?”
  • Understand the importance and context of the project. “How does this project fit in with other goals of your life / business / department?”
  • Understand their process. “How do projects normally run through the department? Who’s overseeing the project? Will you be my only point of contact?”
  • Understand tone and branding. “Which of these samples looks most like your current brand vision? Are there any Style Guides for your organization I can look at? Are you looking to re-think your branding or style, or are you hoping that this will be consistent with your current vision?”

Obviously, you’ll need to ask them different questions depending on your field. Don’t expect that this will take you 5 minutes -- an entire 30 minute meeting could be spent with you “interviewing” your client. Once you’ve established what they want, then it’s time to talk about you.

2. You’re not talking in their language

So it’s time for you to start explaining to clients what you do or why you made a certain project decision on the first mock-up.

The stakes of this conversation are huge.

If you don’t explain why you did something effectively, the client could send you back to the drawing board to make a (inferior) second draft based on their vision. Believe me, this can make you pretty mad.

If you don’t explain what you actually do, the client could hear your quote and balk -- or get the bill and feel taken advantage of for hours here and there that you haven’t properly set expectations for.

They don’t understand why setting up an online store isn’t just “a widget or something.” They don’t understand why it takes you so much time to clean up the design.

It’s your job to make them understand.

Let’s be clear: you do not necessarily need to teach them the fundamentals of design or how to set up an online store. But when you’re explaining what you do or why you made a certain decision in a draft, you do need to give them enough information to make a decision. Since you know their project goals, “enough information to make a decision” means that you must relate each of your decisions and your billable hours back to the main goal of the project.

For example: “This server type would be a good fit for your business because your employees complain about a, b, and c, and this solves each of these issues in such-and-such way.”

You then need to back up that claim with facts and experience -- without the jargon. “I’ve found that this server is not only faster than the one you have, but it’s also more secure because of x ability and is easier for your IT team to work with.”

Here’s how to learn to talk in your client’s language:

  • Listen first. What’s important to them? This relates back to the first point in this article.
  • Talk in terms of business goals. If you’re providing a set of options, relate each option back to how each accomplish the various goals of the project.
  • Pay attention to feedback. If your client provides negative feedback, now’s the time to ask even more questions about the project goals.
  • Practice. The people who are best at speaking intelligently in layman’s terms have worked hard at it.

Remember, you’re (hopefully) not speaking to an idiot. Just because the client does not speak your language doesn’t mean you have to speak like you’re talking to a 5-year-old or be condescending. You know more than they do about your field, but they know a whole heck of a lot more than you do about their business.

3. You haven’t determined who the decision-makers are

This one looks simple, but as most veteran freelancers know, knowing where the power lies can sometimes be very tricky.

If you’re smart, you’ve asked them who your point of contact is (see #1). You understand how projects move through the department. If you’re lucky, your point of contact will be the ultimate decision-maker.

If you’re not lucky, the decision-maker will be four or five people, who come in at various stages of the project with different goals. So you’re not communicating properly with the client because you don’t even know who your client is!

Unfortunately, you can’t change the decision-makers. You can’t reorganize the company. But you can know what you’re getting into and then set expectations with your point of contact that all of those decision-makers must be involved in certain key stages of the project.

Be upfront about this. If your point of contact is a bit unclear about who will be actually editing your drafts, or choosing between options, tell them politely that it’s important that you know because you want to get a good handle on everyone’s expectations. Chances are that the point of contact will realize that this is necessary and will check in with her/his team and come back to you.

Then tell them that there will be certain times -- like when you send the first draft -- that it’s important that you get all necessary feedback then.

What really helps get your point across? Limited revisions in your contract. Gently remind them that having all the decision-makers present will ensure that they aren’t charged for additional revisions.

Just to sum up, the keys here are:

  • Ask who the decision-makers are.
  • Make sure that the decision-makers are involved in key decisions so you don’t get side-swiped by a decision-maker 3 drafts into the project.
  • Have a limited revisions clause in your contract.

4. You’re over-relying on email

You’ve probably seen this one before: a client says “This looks good,” to a draft over email with a few suggestions, and then when they receive the 2nd draft, they’re suddenly very opinionated about stuff they didn’t talk about before.

This is human. We don’t see things one day that we see the next.

But you can significantly cut down this late-stage revision by spending extra time upfront calling or meeting with your client and spending this time asking the right questions.

Don’t just send over the first draft on email and call them later. Set up a call, during which you send the first draft and go over it over the phone. During that phone call, you’re explaining your decisions (see #2).

I find that this is especially important when you’re being asked to move the client in a new direction. Sometimes freelancers are hired during rebranding or reorganization efforts, and although the client says that they want something innovative, they’re nervous.

If you just email over your “innovative” concept, they may balk. You need to hold their hands through the process.

Relying on email communication is also big issue if you’re having communications difficulties. Don’t let your busyness or laziness prevent you from calling up a client at the first signs of:

  • Quick, “dashed-off” emails from your client. In some cases, this could mean that the client is losing focus on the project and may not understand what you’re discussing or what they might be agreeing to. Ask if you can schedule a quick, 10-minute phone check in with them.
  • Differences of opinion. Even if you’re not arguing but are just working through a decision where it’s clear that you have a difference of opinion, one wrong word over over-stated opinion can snowball out of control quickly.
  • Late contact. If a client is late in sending you approvals or responding to your questions regularly, ditch email as main mode of communication and ask if you can have a regular check-in phone call once or twice a week so you can ask any necessary questions at once and save them time.

Freelancers, when does communication fail for you, and how do you get your point across or get the project back on track?