How to Avoid Miscommunication with Your Clients
By Jena Kroeker
Have you seen or heard the comedy routine “Who’s on First?” with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello? Hard as they try, they can’t avoid miscommunication. As Abbott tells Costello the nicknames of the players on his baseball team, Costello becomes increasingly confused and frustrated.
When Abbott says, “Who’s on first,” Costello thinks he’s asking a question. But what Abbott really means is that the first baseman’s name is “Who.” And then when Costello asks, “Who’s on first,” Abbott says “Yes.”
At one point, Costello tries to repeat what Abbott is saying, somehow gets it right, but says, “I don’t even know what I’m talking about!”
Have you experienced miscommunications like this with your clients? They can sour an otherwise healthy working relationship. And in a virtual setting, where you aren’t in the same room as your clients, it takes extra effort to communicate well.
In a previous FreeU blog post titled “Your Guide to Writing Effective Emails to Your Clients,” we discussed how subtle differences in meaning can cause miscommunication.
For example, an article titled “What Does ‘A Few’ Mean? What Does ‘A Couple’ Mean?” describes how
two work colleagues differed in their interpretation of the phrase “a few days.” The person writing the email meant a day or two, but the receiver assumed she meant longer and would miss her project deadline. Consequently, it’s important to use a specific number when the quantity or timing is essential.
Also, be conscious of terms like “soon,” “shortly,” or “ASAP.” Before using them, consider whether they might cause confusion. For example, “shortly” can mean a few minutes when a flight attendant says the plane will be taking off shortly. But in other contexts, “shortly” might mean an hour, a day, a year, or longer. The timeline is flexible. Can you think of other ambiguous words that could be replaced with more specific words to avoid miscommunication?
And now let’s explore some common problems and solutions to help you communicate well.
Five Ways to Avoid Miscommunication with Your Clients
Your client sends you instructions for a project. It sounds like it should be straightforward, but you don’t understand what you’re being asked to do. Is one of the words a typo? Is it a technical term you should know? You’d like to move forward with the project, but you’re stuck. You had a face-to-face video meeting with your client, but you can’t remember what he said. You lost concentration for a moment and started thinking about what to have for lunch.
Listen well during meetings. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask your clients to send you written instructions afterwards, or take notes during the meeting. Taking notes will help you focus better on what’s being said. David Yeo provides some good advice in his article, “How To Communicate Better With Your Clients As A Freelancer.” To avoid miscommunication, he suggests reviewing your notes after the call and then sending a message to the client to “ensure both parties are on the same page.”
When receiving written messages from your client, be sure to ask for clarification when needed. Some clients may say they want you to show initiative without needing too much guidance. But asking good questions is part of showing initiative, and they’ll thank you in the end because you’ll avoid wasting time and making unnecessary mistakes. A 99designs article titled “Working with clients remotely: 5 tips for better collaboration,” recommends,
“Don’t be afraid to over-communicate. In a remote setting it’s better to communicate more rather than less. That way you will both be on the same page at all times—and your relationship can keep growing and develop into an ongoing one.”
2. Inconsistent Communication
You don’t communicate with your clients enough. After receiving a message from them, you don’t respond for several days. They start to think that you’ve forgotten about them and aren’t working on your project. Or you respond within a few hours, thinking that’s soon enough, but the client is frustrated that you don’t answer within minutes. You each have different expectations for communication.
Set expectations for response time. Include this information in a welcome package accompanying your contract, letting your clients know how often you check messages. If you’re taking time off or going on holiday, set up a vacation responder on your email to remind them you’re away.
In addition, determine project turnaround times and agree to check in at regular intervals during project milestones. Find out when you can expect your clients to answer any questions.
3. Missed or Lost Messages
You receive a message from your client and accidentally delete it. Or you miss seeing a message when you stop to check several at once. Vice versa, your client may miss a message you sent. This problem is compounded when you and your client use more than one messaging platform. Communications about one project are scattered throughout email, text, and Facebook Messenger.
Use online project management tools like Asana, Trello, Wrike, ClickUp, or Basecamp to consolidate communication into one platform. Become skilled at using the software’s features so you communicate in the clearest way possible. Learn how messages are stored in the tool so you can quickly access them.
In her article, “A Quick Guide to Client Communication Skills,” Kat Boogaard explains,
“When you work in professional services, your goal is to make your clients’ lives easier, not add stress and obligations to their plates.
“What does this mean for you? You need to keep communication centralized and streamlined. All of your notes, status updates, files, decisions, and more should live in one place, so that clients can find what they need without wasting time digging for it in endless email threads or comments.”
If your clients would prefer not to use a project management tool, choose one communication method and stick with it. For example, if they’d like to use email, figure out a labelling system to keep messages organized.
4. Feeling Disconnected
You’re communicating back and forth with your client, but still feel alone. Your messages are primarily about the project with very little personal connection. You start to feel weary and unenthusiastic, moving through the motions from one project milestone to the next. Sometimes you wish you could stand and chat around the watercooler with your client. But you both work virtually and live two time zones away from each other.
Have regular meetings with your client through video conferencing tools like Zoom. Or if you’re “Zoomed out” after using it during the global pandemic, be creative. Go for a walk outside and phone your client. If you’ll be in their local area, plan to meet face to face in a coffee shop. Use that time as an opportunity to connect on a personal level and not just address work issues.
In addition, set up a private Facebook group including your client and any team members. In this group, you can address day-to-day work issues and chat around the watercooler. Brighten each other’s day with encouraging posts, and check in to see how everyone’s doing.
5. No Boundaries
You feel like your client is invading your personal life, and they feel like you’re invading theirs. Urgent messages fly back and forth, with no consideration for time zone or time of day. You wake up in the morning to find an inbox bursting with requests for immediate action, starting at 5:00 a.m. You start to tell people you work on call and remain eternally tied to your messaging apps.
Similar to the solution for inconsistent communication, set expectations for response time and be clear about your office hours. Commit to a particular mode of communication that works for both you and your client. Respect your clients’ boundaries and preferences.
Also, think through requests before you send them so you don’t overwhelm your clients with too many messages at once. Be aware of the time zones your clients are in and contact them with enough notice so they have time to get back to you. Clearly distinguish urgent from non-urgent messages.
Kristen McCormick’s article, “11 Actionable Ways to Build Client Relationships That Last,” shares recommendations from Brett McHale, who advises against “being always available” so you don’t disrupt your work-life balance or neglect other clients. Furthermore, he suggests specifying that instant messaging will be used for urgent matters and email for non-urgent ones. Doing so “cuts out the back-and-forth emailing, and also reassures your clients that while you may not be always available, you will also never leave them hanging.”
Getting to Know Your Client’s Communication Style
One way to avoid miscommunication is to stop it before it starts. That’s why it’s important to understand how your client’s communication style might differ from yours. For example, you may be used to a more formal communication style in a previous career. Perhaps formality was a sign of respect in that context.
However, many freelance clients in different industries are more casual and informal, so you may need to adjust your previous communication style to suit theirs. If you’re too formal with a client who likes being informal, you can come across as stuffy. So, as long as the communication remains respectful, a more informal tone can be maintained.
As the article above says,
“When you’re talking to a client, you need to keep the communication professional, even if the clients are friends of yours. Keeping it profesh means you’re able to convey your expertise and confidence in your own abilities.”
So, to set yourself up for success, observe your current and potential clients’ manner of speaking and writing. Put yourself in your clients’ shoes and avoid lingo or jargon they may not understand.
And now we’d like to hear your thoughts. Have you experienced miscommunication with your clients? If so, how did you solve the problem and improve your communication? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!