16 Apr Straight talk on better ways to communicate with customers
by Shane Howard
From navigating a changing economy and adapting to a new (often remote) work environment, today’s businesses must explore new strategies to streamline project management processes and improve the customer experience. Concise communication is the vehicle you need to keep projects on track.
A recent study tracking almost 11,000 companies found that only a fraction (around 2.5 percent) of companies successfully complete projects. And much of those failures result from poor communication skills.
To retain valued customers, projects must be completed on time and within budget. But to gain the customer’s confidence—and increase the possibilities of future projects—customers need to feel included and informed throughout the project. That need for efficiency and trust begins with communication.
Start with the facts
Before you engage with the client, here are three areas that need to be addressed with facts:
The type of project or service.
Don’t assume your client has similar product knowledge as your team. Be specific about product features and functions, but communicate this in a way your client can relate to. This helps as your team moves through project phases.
Clarify the phase you are currently in with the project.
When your customer understands what the products do, they may have a better grasp on why some phases take longer than others and why your team asks for specific information. Keep the customer in the loop, and you’ll establish a healthy working relationship.
Consider the relationship you have with the client.
The initial stages of your project provide a platform to establish trust. So when you commit to sharing the facts about products, project phases, and the time needed for digital transformation, you set the stage for a mutually beneficial working relationship.
When in doubt, read the landscape and measure what the client wants and expects, then design a formal mode of communication and plan it upfront. This way, the customer knows what to expect and where to look for new information. Remember, your client depends on your team to ensure this project moves forward smoothly and remains aligned with the client’s goals. Build that trust by sharing information with a reassuring, supportive approach. It’s just as important to make sure the client knows what is expected of them and when. Then. . . repeat.
Be reassuring and redundant
You may have initiated the first stages of the project by stating just the facts. But a meaningful customer experience has heart. Take time to inform and reassure your client with frequent progress details, then make sure your team is available for questions and discussions. “People with whom you communicate regularly will appreciate messages relevant to what they’re concerned with at the moment,” says Tracy Brower. Then, repeat important information often.
“Just because you’ve said something once, doesn’t mean people saw it or heard it, especially since there is so much communication everywhere people look or listen,” added Tracy. I’ve never had a client get upset that I told them something twice, but I have had a client get upset when I’ve assumed they knew something already.
Use the right form of communication
Different forms of communication work differently to convey the right message, timing, and the nature of the project. Depending on the communication tool you use, keep in mind the potential misunderstandings caused by cultural differences, slang, internal political ramifications (overstepping a stakeholder’s input, for example.)
The most popular forms of communication often carry risks of miscommunication. Let’s discuss how to best handle those situations.
What are the possible risks of telephone calls?
Those on the receiving side of a phone call don’t know if the person on the other end is distracted. Sometimes non-answers are mistaken for affirmations. For example, a client didn’t disagree with my statement, so I figured they agreed with the terms. But, in reality, the other person may not have heard the question. This is where video conferencing is an asset because it ensures the message was clearly relayed with the right tone and we can gauge the response of the listener.
What about sharing bad news?
Don’t hide behind tech tools when you know you are sharing sensitive information. Bad news or sensitive, emotional information needs to be handled in person or a video-conference call. Don’t text the news that the project is over budget, for instance. Regardless of the news, your client deserves the respect of a phone call.
What about emails?
Did you know more than 125 billion business emails are sent between people all over the world with an average of 125 emails per person? I often use emails for formal documentation and as an update of what was discussed in a prior conversation. But I use a specific format to ensure important information doesn’t get buried in an email thread.
Here are some helpful email tips.
— Keep emails to a single thread and only address one subject at a time. If someone uses an email to bring up a totally different topic or set of questions, start a new thread or a separate email to address the new topic.
— List questions line by line and add a response right under the question. Use a format that is quick to browse and easy to add a reply.
— Use a different color of type for responses. I find it easy to read and easy to find answers.
— Don’t allow emails to exceed two or more passes between people. When email correspondence moves beyond two passes between people without resolution, it’s time to pick up the phone and talk about it. This prevents the information from getting buried in old email threads.
How to handle attachments and sharing documents
Slack and text messaging are convenient tools, but I prefer to use email to send attachments, and I instruct my team to do the same to standardize the process. Explain within the email body what you are sharing and why you are sharing it. For example, I share invoice attachments by email. This also makes it easier to find a document that may come into question later without searching through tons of text threads.
Thoughtful communication is essential for the success of your project management team. Effective leaders know that using standardized forms of communication presented with clearly stated facts partnered with an attentive, reassuring approach is a winning formula to keep stakeholders and your in-house team calm, informed, and on track.
Shane is the VP of Global Operations at Simplus. With his expertise in Professional Services, Operations, PMO, and Software Development and his experiences in partner, C-level, VP, and Director positions in various industries, Shane thrives in operational excellence. He solves complex internal and client-facing problems with scalable solutions.