Being able to communicate effectively with clients is easily one of the most important aspects of being a web designer. The communication process starts immediately as you’ll need to learn what the client wants and expects from you, and as you get to know more about their business. The need for communication will continue through every phase of the design process as you and the client work together to create a site that will be effective for the business. After the design is completed, it’s likely that you’ll provide some customer support at least occasionally, so the need for good communication will always exist.
In this article we’ll take a detailed look at the topic of communicating with clients. Many of the tips that are mentioned can apply to communication in general, but the article comes specifically from the perspective of a designer/client relationship.
1. Start with a Solid Foundation
Communication is of critical importance during the early stages of the client process. At this time you will need to get to know the client’s business as well as possible. You’ll want to understand the products and services that they offer, their corporate culture, and what makes them unique to their customers. Additionally, you should get a solid understanding of their customers and what they will be looking for when they arrive at the website. It’s also important to understand the client’s specific goals for the website, what they wish to improve (if it’s a re-design) and what they need to get out of the site.
By taking the time up front to communicate with the client and to build this solid foundation for the project you can save time and avoid miscommunication later. It’s a good idea to have some sort of intake process that you go through with clients to get through this stage, it can help to make sure that you don’t miss out on any important points.
Some clients may be hesitant to dedicate much time before the project begins for this type of communication. When that is the case it can be helpful to explain that all of this is important in order for you to give them a website that will truly work for their business and for their customers. Emphasize that taking this time up front can help to make the process smoother and quicker, and to avoid costly mistakes.
2. Have a Method or a System
In the previous point I mentioned that it is a good idea to have a standard process for client intake. In addition, it’s also helpful to have a method or system for client communication beyond that point. If you are just responding to emails or phone calls as they come in with no records or organization, chances are you could benefit from putting a system in place.
If you’re working with several clients at one time it can be very challenging to remember exactly what was said by which client and what was done at different points. There is no right or wrong method, but you could consider using a resource that is intended for customer service (see our post 12 CRM Options for Freelancers), or you could develop your own system and processes to keep track of communication. At a very minimum you should have folders in your email to keep track of messages from and to specific clients.
Without a system you will probably find yourself scrambling to find out what was said about different aspects of the project. Having a record is always good because it will avoid the need to go back to the client when it’s not necessary and it will also help to protect you in case there is some type of dispute down the road.
3. Do More Listening Than Talking
The client’s website is all about them, their business, and their customers. For this reason it is important to emphasize the need to listen and let them provide you with the information that will help you to do the best job possible. Of course there will be plenty of times where the clients should be doing the listening, but especially during the initial stages when you are just getting to know about their business, be sure to place the most value in listening to what they have to say.
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions
Misunderstandings will always lead to wasted time, so don’t be afraid to ask the client questions that will help you to get on the same page and to design something that will work for them. Your customers are busy, just like you are, so they may be in a hurry when you are talking to them, but don’t let that discourage you from getting the information that will help you to do your job for them.
Many clients won’t give a lot of information to you about their business or their customers unless you ask because they may not see the need for you to fully understand their business. Those clients who don’t have a good understanding of what is involved in creating a successful website will often think that a skilled designer can just pick up a new project and create something special without really taking the customer’s specific situation into consideration. In most cases they just don’t stop to think about all of the communication that is needed, so you may have to be proactive and ask a number of questions.
5. Be Patient with Your Explanations
The typical client does not have a great understanding of websites or design, and that is why they are hiring you. As you are explaining things to them throughout the process, be patient and remember that this is probably not an aspect of their business that they are very comfortable with. Clients appreciate designers who show patience and a willingness to explain things in a way that they can understand, without putting them down.
6. Explain Your Reasons and Thought Processes
As you give your opinions throughout the process it is important that you also explain to the client why you are giving that advice. Clients will often want you to do something that you don’t think is a good idea. When those situations arise, rather than just doing it the way they want or doing it your way with no explanation, take the time to demonstrate to them why you think it is important and what the potential impacts can be.
Clients will typically see things as they appear on the surface, but from your experience you may know that there is more to be considered in the situation. When this is the case you need to explain to the client the other factors that are involved and why you feel a certain way.
7. Give Advice When Needed
Designers really are consultants to clients as well. Clients (at least most of them) know that you have more expertise in the area than they do and they’ll trust that you are interested in doing what is best for them and their business. There will be situations where you will need to be willing to give them advice on a particular decision that needs to be made, or situations where you should add some of your own ideas for making the project better.
Some clients know what they want and as a designer it can be easy to get caught up in giving them what they want, without giving much thought to ways that it could be improved. Don’t be afraid to advise clients based on your professional experience. Most clients will respect your opinions and appreciate that you are looking out for their best interests.
8. Avoid Jargon
One of the biggest frustrations for clients is when designers talk to them with terms and phrases that they don’t understand. Although you are working online all the time and you probably communicate with other designers and developers a lot, keep in mind that your clients will not have the same experience, so you should avoid using terms that they are unlikely to understand (or at least explain what they mean).
As you work with clients you will get a better understanding for how tech savvy they are, and you can adjust your communication accordingly. Some clients will have a very good understanding and will be able to communicate without the need to explain everything, and others will have very little knowledge or experience related to the internet and web design.
9. Avoid Assumptions
Assuming that the client understands certain things or that they want something a particular way can lead to miscommuniation. If you’re unsure about something, take a minute and ask the client rather than assuming and causing a lot of work that needs to be re-done later.
10. Use Examples When Possible
One thing that can really help your communication, particularly when you are explaining things to clients or giving them choices, is to use real-world examples. Explaining options over the phone or through email can be challenging, and at times ineffective. By using examples to help, you can make things more clear for clients and get more accurate response and avoid misunderstanding.
An example of this would be if you are talking to a client about the type of navigation menu they would like to use on their site. Rather than trying to explain the differences you could provide them with URLs of a few sites with various styles so they could see it in a real-world situation.
11. Make Your Communication Count
Because your clients are busy, most of them will not want to be constantly receiving emails or phone calls about the project. One of the lessons I’ve learned from my experience is to make the communication count. Try to put your questions together in one email rather than sending 4 different emails in one morning with one question each. Additionally, make an effort to be as clear as possible when you communicate so there is no need to go back and forth several times just to understand the issue at hand.
Because clients value their own time, they will appreciate if you maximize the time that you have in communication and if it requires them to respond to less emails or take less phone calls. This also goes back to the need for good organization and having a system to keep tabs on the communication. If you forget what a client told you, you can either go back through your records to find out yourself or you can contact them to ask again. Of course, it’s preferable to not have to go back to the client when it’s not necessary.
12. Put it in Writing
One of the reasons that email communication is effective is because it gives you and the client a record of what has been said. There may be times where it is necessary for customer service or for legal purposes to have a record of what was said, by whom, and when. Aside from email, other types of CRM tools can also help for record keeping.
For situations where you are talking to clients on the phone, it’s a good practice to type notes after you get off the phone to summarize what was discussed, and of course you will want to include the date and the names of the specific people that you spoke to. While you may not be able to prove that what is in your notes was actually discussed, it is still better than not having record at all, and it can be just as effective when you need to go back through the records for your own purposes. Another option is to send a summary of the conversation to your clients by email. This may be overkill for short calls just to discuss one point, but it could be helpful with longer, more detailed calls, and it could also help clients to have an account of the conversation for themselves.
13. Keep it Professional
While you are communicating with clients, whether it be face-to-face, telephone, or email, always stay professional. Clients are paying for your services and they will expect you to conduct your business in a professional manner, so avoid things that could cause them to see you differently. That’s not to say that you can’t get to know your clients on a more personal level, but remember that what you say and write can impact you designer/client relationship.
What’s Your Advice?
What lessons have you learned in your experience with clients? What tips do you have for other designers?
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