Working with clients is like getting a constant crash course in communication. (Say that three times fast.) You don’t want to spend too much time on meetings and phone calls, but you do want to make sure everyone’s on the same page about the project and where it’s going. You don’t want to send incredibly long emails, but you also don’t want your intentions to be misunderstood. It can be a minefield! Luckily, there are simple steps you can take to make it less fraught:
When they aren’t done correctly, meetings can be a drain on productivity, time, and energy. At the same time, it’s likely you don’t want to cut all client meetings completely. They can be great for building rapport, and unless the project is a super-straightforward one, they’re almost always essential in the beginning stages of a working relationship. The answer? Have better meetings.
Ask yourself if this is a necessary meeting. Before putting a meeting on the books, ask yourself if the meeting can be replaced by a quick email or two. If so, go that route instead. If it’s one quick question or you just need to update the client with the work done in the last 24-48 hours, an email will suffice. If you need to discuss the progress of the project thus far, future plans, and ask questions about the scope and direction of the project, a meeting is probably a better option.
Come with an agenda. What topics are to be discussed? What’s been completed since the last meeting? What specific questions do you have? What’s on the horizon for the near future as far as the project goes? If you want to, you can even set up a collaborative document online for this agenda and share it with the client ahead of time. That way, they can come to the meeting prepared and organized, too, and everyone will be on the same page.
Have a “it’s done when it’s done” policy. One-hour is often the default length for meetings, but it doesn’t have to be. Schedule 30 (or even 15) minute meetings instead, especially if they’re just check in meetings. And if everything on the agenda is cleared before the scheduled meeting time is up, do another quick check for questions and then head out so you can get back to work.
Managing feedback isn’t something that you learn in most traditional business courses, but it’s an important part of the process. If you approach feedback inefficiently, it can easily get your projects way out of scope, leaving you with less money in your pocket at the end of the day.
Step one is to never take anything personally. If the client has issues with the work, it’s with the work—not with you. Try to move past any hurt feelings and focus on turning their feedback into actionable insight.
Before the project launches, you want to minimize the project stakeholders. By “stakeholders,” I mean the people who have decision-making authority in the project. We’ve all had the experience of working on a project where all 10 people on the team have the ability to make decisions, and it almost always ends badly. The idea here is to avoid death by committee syndrome, where those ten decision makers all debate every single change on the project, which, in turn, creates a project that tramples all planned timelines.
When you’re getting feedback, get all of the feedback at once before implementing. This is especially important if you’re collecting feedback from multiple people. What can happen is that you get the feedback from one person, go make the changes, then another person wants you to change it back, then person #3 doesn’t agree with either of the two previous people…you get the idea. Let clients know that it’s part of your process and policies to wait until you have all feedback from their team before implementing it.
And then, before you do implement that feedback, repeat and summarize it to the client. Sometimes, what they say isn’t what we hear. All you need to do is quick email along the lines of “Okay, based on what I’m hearing, I’m going to make the logo smaller and move it up on the website, shift the sidebar from right to left, and make the social icons more prominent by giving them brighter colors. Is that right?” That gives your clients a chance to say yes or no, and any potential miscommunications can be stopped in their tracks.
Email is another area where we spend a lot of our times as modern professionals. Given that it’s text communication instead of face to face, there’s a whole new layer of opportunities to be misunderstood. And the delay in reply can throw project timelines off. So how do you keep your email under control, while still keeping in touch with customers?
Ask better questions. Before you send an email with a question in it, make sure that the question is as specific as possible. Instead of “Did you like the new design?” try “I changed the header and footer as requested, what do you think about the new color?”
Prevent endless email chains by providing multiple answers and solutions in one email. Instead of asking one question and then waiting for the client to reply, address their potential answers in your email. For example, “I wasn’t quite sure what you meant by your last email—are you saying that you’d like the logo to be resized to be smaller? If yes, that should be doable, and you can expect a new mockup next Tuesday. If you’re suggesting that we change the header size as a whole, that might change some of the other layout elements. We can still do it, but it will take a little longer. Let me know what you think.”
And always have boundaries around your email. This is less for the client’s sanity (although, good email boundaries tend to create good client boundaries) and more for your own. Continuously checking your email throughout the day has a huge negative effect on your productivity. Instead, aim for office hours (after which, you don’t answer email), and try to avoid getting into your email inbox on the weekend. Inside of those office hours, it’s helpful to set up a time for batch-processing your email. For example, I have an hour or so set aside on Mondays and Fridays when I go through all of my email at once, and then spend about 10-15 minutes at the end of each work day replying to client emails and important emails on Tuesday through Thursday. This lets me address the emails that need to be addressed, without being in and out of my inbox all day.