Avoiding confusing client communication

Effective communication with our clients is one of the most important parts of our job. Yet most of us put little consideration into the tools we use.

A quick heads up. A client I am currently working with called Fleep is sponsoring this post.

As a web designer exactly what is your job? You probably think that it is to build websites. But that is only a part of your responsibility.

Imagine for a moment you were to go to a restaurant. The food was incredible but the service was horrendous. The waiter ignored you and got irritable every time you ask a question. Would you go away happy?

Going to a restaurant is not just about food. The service you receive is a key component in the experience. The same is true when hiring a web designer. It goes without saying that clients expect an incredible website. But they also expect good service too.

A good waiter is on hand to answer your questions and make your visit a more pleasurable experience. They are communicating with you to ensure they know exactly what you want and to update you on the progress of your order. We need to do the same as web designers and yet most of us put little consideration into how we communicate with clients.

The secrets to good client communication

Getting client communication right is a tricky business. Too often we expect the client to fit in with the way we do things rather than adapting to their needs.

We tell them that we are going to manage their project with an app like Trello or Basecamp. The client is then expected to learn this system and adapt their thinking to suit this new tool.

We expect a lot from our clients asking them to adapt to our project management tools.
We expect a lot from our clients asking them to adapt to our project management tools.

But the problem is not just limited to the tools we use. Mentality when communicating with clients is important too. Often client communication is more about ‘ass covering’ than is providing a good service.

We present the client with intimidating documentation and lists of tasks. We do this because we fear criticism if things go wrong.

Unfortunately this is the opposite of how we should be working with our clients. There are three secrets to good client communication. These are:

  • Make it familiar. However we choose to work with clients we must ensure that it does not have a steep learning curve. It must feel comfortable and familiar for the client.
  • Make it flexible. Too often the tools we use forces clients to adapt to our own mental model. We should not expect clients to fit in with our way of working. Instead we need to adapt to them and their requirements.
  • Make it friendly. Communication with clients should have a personal touch. It should not all be about formal documentation, specifications or task lists. It should be like chatting with a colleague.

Of course finding a tool that will do all this, and ensure the project goes well is a tall order. So what are the options available?

The options available

Let’s set aside for a moment by far the best communication tool; speaking to clients face-to-face. Unfortunately this is rarely an option for the entire duration of the project. What does that leave us with?

There are three types of tool that are available for communicating with clients and managing projects.

First there is email. Email has a bad reputation within the tech community. We see it as limited, out of date and so full of spam that it is almost useless.

Despite attempts by people like Mailbox to reinvent email, it is still not the best for managing project communications.
Despite attempts by people like Mailbox to reinvent email, it is still not the best for managing project communications.

The problem is the rest of the world doesn’t see email like this. For the majority of people it is still their primary communication tool. Admittedly it is not the most efficient method despite many attempts to reinvent it. But it is a tool with which all clients are familiar and so it fulfils one of our three criteria for good client communication.

Then there are tools like Trello or Basecamp. These project management applications exist to bring structure and order to projects. There is no doubt that they do this well and are the preferred tool of choice for most digital project managers.

They are excellent project management tools. But that is not the same as being a good client communication tool. In fact they fail to meet any of our criteria for good client communications.

There is no doubt that tools like Basecamp are great for project management. But they are not as strong as a communication tool.
There is no doubt that tools like Basecamp are great for project management. But they are not as strong as a communication tool.

They present a steep learning curve to many clients. They force those clients to adapt their mental model to fit the way the software works. Worse still they reinforce a formal project management structure. A structure that undermines the more friendly and personal elements of good client communication.

Fortunately this is an area where our third category excels. The new generation of chat applications such as Slack are great for friendly team collaboration. They are also flexible allowing people to work in the same natural manner they would do if working side-by-side.

Slack are great for more natural conversation but important decisions and tasks can get lost.
Slack are great for more natural conversation but important decisions and tasks can get lost.

Their downside is that they are so flexible you can lose tasks, files and key decisions in the stream of discussion. Also like Basecamp or Trello they ask a client to create an account and remember to login throughout the project.

With no one type of application solving the problem of client communication the result is often chaotic. Communication happens across many applications. As a result tasks, files and key decisions fall between the gaps.

There must be a better way.

Is this an impossible challenge?

This problem has been front and centre in my mind recently as I have been working with a company called Fleep.

Fleep endeavours to solve the client communication problem. But it does not fit into the three categories I’ve outlined above.

In fact in some ways they remind me of how Steve jobs first announced the iPhone. When he took the stage he explained that Apple were releasing three products. A phone, a new iPod and an Internet communication device. As we now know this turned out to be three products in one.

Fleep feels like that to me. At first glance Fleep looks much like Slack. It could be mistaken for yet another chat application. But it has some interesting features that I believe put it in a class of its own.

Fleep could be mistaken for a chat application like Slack but it has some interesting features that make it a class of its own.
Fleep could be mistaken for a chat application like Slack but it has some interesting features that make it a class of its own.

First, it integrates closely with email. The client does not need to register to use Fleep. In fact they could choose not to open the application at all. They could continue to use email while you manage your projects through Fleep.

Second, Fleep will soon include many of the features of project management apps like Basecamp. For example it is possible to pin key decisions so they are not lost in the flow of conversation.

You can also convert a conversation into an actionable task with the click of a link. The whole idea of the app is to turn casual workplace conversation into manageable projects.

Is Fleep the perfect project management and communication tool? Probably not. At least not yet. But it is an interesting step towards better communication with clients.

What I am sure of is that client communication is a vital area that is often overlooked. There is a desperate need to improve the way we work. I look forward to seeing how Fleep and other similar applications develop in the future.

Boagworks

Boagworld