Collaboration

Balancing client communication with the flow of productivity

Staying focused on work can be a challenge when clients expect to be able to contact you 24/7. Chip Camden shares his thoughts about the effectiveness and hindrances of some common ways to communicate with clients.

 Any IT consultant who has been through at least one failed project can tell you that accurate and timely communication with your client is one of the most important factors of success. But it's also possible to have too much communication -- or rather, too frequent. Too many interruptions, even when they're from your client, can fragment your concentration to the point that you can't get anything accomplished.

Here's my take on the effectiveness of communicating with clients via instant messaging (IM), phone, e-mail, wikis/blogs/Web sites, and face-to-face meetings.

IM

I've tried using IM with a couple of my clients. While it speeds up communication, the interrupt factor is too high unless you can effectively ignore it when you need to concentrate. Clients will often shoot you "just one quick question" -- it may take only a few minutes to answer, but that interruption can cost you an hour or more of reassembling the ideas you were holding in your head before your chat client bleeped it out of your thoughts. Of course, you can always set your status to Busy, but is there ever a time when you're not busy?

Andréa Coutu asks "Should you give clients your IM account info?" She makes a good case for giving her IM address only to clients who have become so trusted that they're more like personal friends.

Phone

I've seriously considered going completely phoneless, but, of course, you need to have one sometimes. A ringing phone is even more of an interruption than IM. Besides that, half of the calls are marketers or outsourcing firms. I have been known to turn off the ringer while working, and I always check caller ID before answering. I'll let it go to the answering service if it isn't one of my clients -- and sometimes even if it is a client when I'm deep in a project. I try to train my clients to schedule calls, so they aren't an interruption.

By contrast, many consultants can always be reached by mobile phone, even when they're on another client's site. I don't even carry a mobile phone unless I'm traveling.

E-mail

Most of my client communication is via e-mail. E-mail has a number of benefits: It doesn't interrupt me; I check my e-mail at regular intervals during the day, when I'm between projects or on a break; I can take more time to think about my response before I have to answer; and I automatically have a written record of the conversation.

But e-mail does have its drawbacks: It isn't very secure or reliable, and the spam noise can sometimes drown the signal. Also, it doesn't happen often, but occasionally an e-mail will be delayed or never received at all.

Private blogs, wikis, or other Web sites

A Web site that has secure access and rules for who can modify what content is probably the best solution currently available for reliable written communication without interruptions. If the site provides a secure RSS feed for new entries, you can subscribe in a feed reader to find out about them -- when you want to know, instead of the moment they're authored. This approach has yet to receive widespread adoption, perhaps because it takes some thought and effort to set these sites up, whereas almost everyone already has e-mail.

In person

There is still no more effective medium than a face-to-face meeting. It prevents you from doing everything else, which means that you get concentrated communication at the cost of dedicated time. So, it needs to be planned.

The worst case is the in-person interruption. When someone drops by and asks, "May I interrupt you for a moment?" I usually respond, "You already have." That channel needs to be reserved for emergencies.

On the other hand, a planned in-person meeting can be one of the most effective ways to brainstorm or design solutions -- just make sure that someone is taking good notes. Being a mostly remote worker makes the cost of in-person communication even higher for me -- it usually involves a day or two of travel time. But I like it that way because clients don't abuse face time with interruptions.

Which communication methods work best for you?

What's your preferred medium for communicating with clients? Do you provide different clients with different options for contacting you? (For instance, do you only give some clients your IM address?) Do you carry a mobile device with you at all times so clients can reach you? How do you manage interruptions? Share your answers in the discussion forum.

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About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

13 comments
noraziah_ag
noraziah_ag

For me, I use all of the three mediums of communication; e-mail, telephone and meeting in-person. I e-mail my clients when I need to present them detailed information. I usually list my points to help them see it clearly. This means of communication has its own benefits, as you can refer back to it whenever you need, and the client can reread to remind them or to better digest the information. If I need a quick answer or response, I'll usually give them a call. This usually meet the purpose. As for in-person meeting, I only hold it when necessary because it is the most time consuming means of communication. I hold a meeting with my clients whenever we need to sit together and discuss a matter deeply or need to review some documents or process at the client site.

noraziah_ag
noraziah_ag

For me, I use all the three medium of communication; e-mail, telephone and meeting in-person. I e-mail my clients when I need to present them detailed information. I usually list my points to help them see it clearly. This means of communication has its own benefits, as you can refer back to it whenever you need, and the client can reread to remind them or to better digest the information. If I need a quick answer or response, I'll usually give them a call. This usually meet the purpose. As for in-person meeting, I only hold it when necessary because it is the most time consuming means of communication.

Lei Fan
Lei Fan

There are secured Email solutions as you know...but yes.. it's not that reliable

tuomo
tuomo

Communicating with customers can get overwhelming and the more "friends" in customers you make, the busier it gets. Then it's time to have a small conversation with them and to explain that as much as you would like to do all and everything anytime, you just don't have time and have even to sleep sometimes - lol! This doesn't happen only in external consulting but can happen even in (a 24x7) company where you work. After a couple of projects with different organizations, making friends, etc they often think that you are there for them only and it is even more difficult inside - they are after all always supposed to able to reach you. I have been in both situations and as my first CEO in a big company said - I'm hired for my knowledge - consulting, not as labor, so.. Later on working in a VAR/consulting company got weird - being a friend with our customers made them think that I'm 24x7 available and they always seemed to get my home and cellular phone number? Nice to know you are needed but for family reasons just too much work when my customer count did go over 25 competing, large companies. Talk about busy and disruptive work - yes, we had face to face meetings talking about possible problems, changes or new projects, mainly once a month. Now, 25 customers in 200 mile radius, once a month meeting - not much time for anything else. So - if you don't watch it, it gets just overwhelming and difficult to get away. Even if someone else takes your place, you still are the first "friend" for a long time to connect, it's just the human nature.

daria
daria

One of the things that might be equally impornat is making your work transparent for your clients. That is givving them insight into where you team stands at. There's a number of tools that make this possible. For example, tools like Wrike make it possible to work with clients in a shared workspace.

joshnankivel
joshnankivel

Great post! I wrote about this in terms of general business practice and project management communication. I wrote mainly about how a mentor helped me as a young manager in effective communication techniques. Josh Nankivel pmStudent.com

greg.williams
greg.williams

I also find that email is the best method for me to communicate with my clients, for the same reasons Chip mentions. Most of my work is conducted at my client's sites, and I carry a mobile phone always. I did have one situation where a former client asked me to step into their office after I had spent a few hours working on their network. This individual let me know that they did not feel that they were getting what they were paying for due to intermittent phone calls I received and answered while on their site. I don't answer every call, and I always check the Caller ID first, but I want my clients to know they can usually reach me by phone if necessary. At first I was taken aback, as I had never received this feedback before. I apologized, assured the owner that I was only billing them for the time actually spent working on their system, thanked the owner for the feedback, shook hands and left. I began to wonder if my other clients felt this way, that maybe it was time to change the way we communicate with them, but the more I thought about, the more it didn't "fit". For this reason, and a few other issues that occured before and after this incident, we terminated our relationship with this client. So far, this is the only client we have ever "fired". This client did not meet our expecations of the "model" relationship we want with our clients. In hindsight, I believe it came down to a matter of perception and trust.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Naturally you want to be there to help your clients when they get in a jam. But if you provide them a "red phone" to use in emergencies, how do you keep them from using it for trivialities?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, it's easy for people to lean on their friends for some quick input. Sometimes it can get annoying to the point of wondering whether you really need friends at all, until you find yourself in a similar situation. That's a tricky one to manage, because you aren't supposed to put off your friends, or define rules for them.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

In fact, just yesterday I got the distinct impression that a client was calling just to make sure that I was really working on their project. The call interrupted my work on their project, so it was self-defeating. Perhaps I should have figured out a better way to keep them up to date so they wouldn't feel so all alone and wondering.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

That's an interesting observation about the difference between the older generation and the tech generation. Of course, it's not so much age as attitude -- at least, that's what I tell myself as I hurtle towards 50. ;)

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Thanks for your comment, Greg. It does sound like your client was looking over your shoulder -- and a lack of mutual trust can really get in the way of a successful engagement. Either too much time spent on validating your work, or too much time spent on agonizing over it. I take it the sort of consulting work you do is prone to emergencies, e.g. network admin or security. In my line of software development, emergencies that have to be dealt with in less than a day are rare. Thus I find the mobile phone more of an annoyance than a help.

UAnimosity
UAnimosity

I agree that e-mail would be the best course of action. If you or the client are concerned with security then you can always keep e-mails to internal domains only (that you can access via SSL) or create trusts between their exchange server and a private one you (As the consultant) use for business, and have them forwarded to your phone/blackberry. Billing the client for only the time you're working on his project is important. This is where pay structures can help or hurt, and where you need to specify policy. It may be a good idea to charge a fee per phone call for new clients, until you have a rapport with them, and they won't disturb you or use the (red phone) unless it really is an emergency. They can keep to secured e-mails you can read/respond to when you have free time and still let other clients know you're focused on their project. Keeping off your phone can be tough when you're starting out because you want to please and obtain as many new clients as possible.