Communication is key to a lasting relationship… with your clients. And to exercise good communication, you need to set expectations not only early on, but also during a project, in order to maximize opportunities for success. There’s a popular saying goes, “if we can’t define it, we can’t measure it, and if we can’t measure it, we can’t manage it.” By setting expectations, you A) minimize chance of error via miscommunication, B) assign responsibility and accountability, and most importantly, C) define accurate project scope for both you and your client. So take some time and look over these important steps that will help you establish expectations with your clients.
Setting Expectations at First Contact
Establishing Roles: Discuss your capabilities as well as your limitations.
First impressions are always important, and they certainly apply when setting expectations about what you can can do for a client. When a client calls or emails you, it’s important to be straightforward about what services you do and do not provide. If you can provide excellent front-end development but you don’t have a familiarity in e-commerce, don’t be afraid to state that. Your clients shouldn’t expect you to be savvy at everything and you shouldn’t pretend that you are either. It occurs frequently where a party acts upon the assumption that the other party member can or cannot do something; as a result, scopes unexpectedly change and trust is broken. By the way, this rule of setting capabilities and limitations applies both ways. Don’t assume that your client will provide all necessary content and assets on X day. Be realistic and discuss what’s possible and what’s not — and identify potential weak points that can be resolved through early and smart planning. Otherwise, you’ll be left with the consequences of delayed response times, disappointing deliverables, and missed expectations.
Establishing Duties and Participation: Identify the point of contact and the frequency that you will be communicating.
It may seem like an unnecessary question to ask someone in this age of technology and high-speed connection, but you’d be surprised how difficult it can be to reach the right person at a time when you need them the most. It’s important to identify the point person of contact that you should go to for general communications, questions, and concerns for your project. If there are other special needs and circumstances for communicating, such as talking to a head developer or a marketing campaign strategist, be sure to get introductions down early in the project as well. If you’re one of four members on a team, make sure you designate the point person of contact on your side as well so that all channels of communications remain efficient and filtered (to prevent superfluous and unnecessary disruption to others).
In addition to determining the point people of contact, it’s critical that you determine frequency of contact as well as expected response time with your client. If your workflow involves a very iterative process that requires a lot of protoyping and progress checks, make it known that you will be contacting your client frequently and that you will be expecting a more participatory role from them early on in the project. If you’re prone to sending preliminary designs first thing in the morning, inquire if you can expect a feedback response by the afternoon; that way you can plan your schedule accordingly on when would be the most efficient time for you to do revisions.
Creating Project Requirements: Reinforce accountability and transparency by creating a timeline filled with milestones and important due dates.
Aside from the primary purpose of a project timeline, which is to outline a project’s scope at a more granular level, creating a timeline for a project accomplishes two significant things: 1) it sets responsibilities and encourages accountability on both ends of the relationship, and 2) it gives a sense of transparency and trust. Timelines and milestones remind both parties that a collaborative effort must continuously occur throughout a project in order to ensure progress. With the second point, having the details of a project laid out in detail fosters client trust by providing transparency through the relationship.
Reinforcing Expectations During a Project
Preparation and Information: Keep organized, planned, and transparent
Remember, you’re the one who’s done dozens of these kind of projects, not your client. As such, the responsibility of keeping a project well-planned and organized falls on you. It’s up to your expertise and familiarity with your work process to lead your client and keep the project moving at its most efficient pace. Keep a spreadsheet, centralized documentation, and have a go-to person (project manager or scheduler) to get a birds eye view on the project as a whole. Evaluate how well things are going as a whole, use foresight to determine what’s to come, and make the necessary plans to continue keeping everything going smoothly.
Iteration and Confirmation: Repeat your understanding of things to prevent misinterpretation and miscommunication.
It’s pretty easy to hear and interpret what someone has to say, only to later find out that what you thought you heard wasn’t what they meant at all. Whether it’s due to ambiguous communication on their part or a gross misunderstanding of your own, misinterpretation can easily happen if you’re not careful. Prevent these mistakes from becoming problems by reiterating, in your own words, the key points of the conversation. This is a great practice, not only in person, but on the phone and over Skype as well. It’s also recommended that all verbal communications be followed up with a written synopsis to ensure clarity and accountability.
And be sure to practice iteration and confirmation when your client is trying to explain something to you, like a description of a particular visual aesthetic they had in mind, or when they’re simply expressing their opinion on something. You’ll quickly learn that not everything you hear is what you think it is.
Next Steps: Always keep the project in motion.
Remember that you’re the expert. Therefore, you should always be proactive in setting expectations on whatever the next courses of action should be — whether they depend on your clients’ actions or your own. Setting next steps reassures your client that A) you’ve got a good handle on where the project is at, B) their wishes and expectations are being met, and C) everything is still progressing at an optimal pace. On an additional note, next steps also keep you responsible for keeping the project on course while keeping your clients accountable for any dependencies that they need to be responsible for.
Resources That Can Help Foster Communication
So now that you know how to build up good expectations for you and your client, here are a few awesome tools that can help you achieve efficient communication for your next projects.
- Basecamp: A good web app that keeps conversations, files, and schedules in one central location.
- Notable: A useful feedback tool that allows individuals to make annotations on an image (such as a screen shot or design comp).
- Phone: The classic go-to for having conversations and presentations. Although online exchanges are important, don’t be afraid to call up your client when you need to for the quickest response!
- Google Voice: A free alternative to phones — Google voice has a great interface that allows you to make calls and take transcribed voice messages while staying on your Gmail interface.
- Skype: Useful for calls, conferences, screen shares, and instant messaging, Skype is a popular and familiar app that many of your clients will already be familiar with using.
- Join.me: A easy-to-use and free online screen sharing and conference calling application that has remote control functionality built into it as well.
- Google Video and Hangouts: Another useful alternative for having video chats and conference calls with multiple users.
- Google Spreadsheets: A great method for creating schedules and task lists that can then be shared and collaborated on via the web.
Have any other suggestions or advice on promoting communication with your client? Make a note of it in the comments — we’d love to hear about it!