IT communication 101: What do babies and clients have in common?

Some of you might have this stereotipical view on business consultants: charming “heroes” spreading shiny presentations full of buzzwords to report back what their clients tell them. IT guys are the opposit of it (caucion, stereotypes go on!): shy pale creatures that prefer to stare at their screens and hide from the sunlight. While my colleagues (IT guys) definitely do not support the second description, they look down to the image of the consultants. Yet we can learn several things from them, especially when having a client-facing role. Moreover, as to the (perceived) paradigm change, everyone is a consultant now. Coding is just 30% of the job, the rest is filled with communication, decison making etc. So, in this story I gonna talk to you about things that we could take from the business to the IT communication.

[TL;DR: Make your clients feel safe by being predictable, prepared for challenges, and by delivering good news; make your client feel special by focusing on their needs; build trust for your remote relationship]

When I structured my observations from the past projects, I realized, that all communication tips and tricks can be summarized in 2 categories: 1) taking care of your clients as if they were babies and 2) taking care of your clients as if they were jealous wives. Let me explain these comparisons.

When working for clients, we are here to solve their problems and take away their fears. There are many worries out there, but they all have uncertainty in their core.

Baby with notebook

Imagine a kid at the hair dresser:

  • Will mum stay with me? Where is she? Won’t she leave me to this stranger?
  • Should I trust this guy (hair dresser)? What is he going to do with me? Will I look nice afterwards?

To keep the child safe and comfortable, it should know, that his mum won’t leave, that this guy can be trusted, that he knows what he is doing and explains each step before he starts and only if the kid is OK with it.

Back to IT communication and clients: What recommendations can be derived from the situation above?

  • Tell the client what you are doing: what tasks you are working on, what is the current status quo; name your plans, challenges and considerations. Be ready to provide an overview over the area of your responsibility. Sure, you don’t have to do it every 60 minutes, yet the danger of not letting them know is that they start asking themselves what are you actually doing and if you are doing something useful. You don’t want this to happen. How: have a dashboard, update the Kanban board, have a short talk.
  • The second recommendation relates to the first one: If something is blocking you, do not hesitate to speak up. Here is a negative example: 2 colleagues enter the project on the same day. 3 months later their passwords expire and need to be changed. While the first immediatelly informs the colleagues that he is blocked and works on the solution, the second keeps silent. Knowing that the expiration date equally affected both employees, the client wonders, what the second colleagues was doing and if he noticed the password expiration at all. By speaking up you show that you don’t waste their time and don’t just sit around. How: get up and talk to people, prefer slack or a phone call (synchronous communication) over writing an email — get your things quickly (if this is really urgent).
  • There is an extra bonus that you can add when talking about challenges. Remember, nobody want to hear just the bad news. Add some (structured) hope to it: “XYZ is blocking me, yet to overcome it, we could implement A or B. I would recommend to go with A, because of C and D.” If you approach your client like this, you convey that 1) you are focused on the solution 2) you share your expert knowledge with the client and 3) you let them decide how to proceed. How: always ask yourself how you can help, before reporting a problem.
  • Remember to talk to your client when the things are good, too. Found a performant solution? Fixed a tricky bug? Mention it. Why? Besides pointing out that you are a valuable resource (would not hurt you), you reassure your client that you are moving forward, meaning that their project is moving forward. Be the deliverer of good news, make your client feel safe. How: mention in dailies the accomplished tasks, too, celebrate your success and share your joy with your colleagues.
  • Remember how scared kids are when mumy is suddently out of sight? So, when leaving the office, tell your client when you’re going to be back (next Monday, in two days etc.). This goes well with a quick overview over the project status, so that they know that you are not leaving the drowning ship. If you are going to work on your way home (e.g. sitting in the train), tell the client if you are reachable via phone, if you are going to have Internet connection etc. Similarly, let the client know that you are in the office, when coming in on Monday (do not just enter silently and wait for the daily). How: by saying “Hi” and “Bye!”, as simple, as that. By the way, you can combine it with a quick update on your plans (cf. point 1). Same applies to vacation planning, sick leaves and further absences.

All in all, the status you want to achieve: the client can rely upon you because you know what you are doing and… they know what (how, why and when) you are doing. — a.k.a. trust through predictability

While the first part is dedicated to the observations on how to make your clients feel safe and comfortable, with the following tips they should feel special and valued, just like your loved ones.

  • In some museums, participant of parallel guided tours are not supposed to know about other tourist groups, so that they have the feeling of being the only guests. The feeling of uniqueness is nice, so whenever you have to call other clients or colleagues from unrelated projects, leave the open space office to 1) give the client the impression that the current project is in the focus of your attention and 2) to minimize distraction of your co-workers. If the client starts to feel (think / interpret / imagine) that you are not being “faithful” to their project… well, jealousy has never done any good, trust me.
  • Show that your clients priorities are your priorities. It does not mean that you have to work round hours just because the client wants you to. However, you need to sense the situations when it is crucial to show the client that you gonna stand by in this critical moment.

When the ball hits the target? When you throw it with all your focus in the right direction. Same is valid for your client’s success, a.k.a. trust through priority alignment

Many developers would like to work from home from time to time. Speaking about the client as your “beloved one”, home office could be compared to a longe-distance relationship. There, trust is everything. How to build it?

The good thing is that you don’t have to do anything different from what you’ve been doing before. The bad thing is that you have to stick to the principles that I’ve described above both in the office and when working from home — points to get trust through predictability and priority alignment are still valid and even more relevant. E.g., make sure that if you said that you are working, you are online and / or reachable via phone or email. Do always participate in scheduled calls or excuse yourself if you cannot. Let the client know when to expect you in the office and when you are working from home. Actively ask people to speak up if you haven’t heard the input due to the low quality connection. Make sure you are “present” through coinputs in dailies, pull requests or questions/answers in chats.

[Disclaimer: you think the author misses the point or provides incorrect information? Blame the author AND provide missing / relevant / correct information in your comments — help other readers (and the author) to get it straight! a.k.a. #learningbysharing]

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Learning tech hacks by sharing them with you— that is what drives me. #learningbysharing

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Maria Korneeva

Learning tech hacks by sharing them with you— that is what drives me. #learningbysharing