There are two kinds of trouble that IT consultants can meet up with during a client gig: the good kind and the bad kind.

The good kind is where you have to deal with technical problems and your client is working with you; the bad kind is where the technical issues are relatively easy to fix, but you seem to be battling your client all the way. Many consultants continually face the bad kind of trouble, and there’s a specific root cause: inadequate communication skills. This article will examine several communication problems that consultants can face and solutions to either avoiding the problem completely or, at least, minimizing the damage.

The first problem: Knowing too much
Consultants sometimes get a solution in mind even before talking to their clients and, in doing so, automatically raise issues that then have to be dealt with. In this situation, the consultant often comes across as a know-it-all who hasn’t considered valid business issues, or one who is focused too narrowly on just technical issues.

“We were having a discussion with a highly technical consultant comparing peer-to-peer computing and client/server, and he went down the technical hole about messaging,” said Roger Strukhoff, former division head at high-tech publisher IDG and cofounder and director of CoverOne Media, Inc., in San Ramon, CA, which develops custom magazines for high-tech companies. “He knew everything about messaging and had written hundreds of thousands of lines of code, but that’s not what we wanted.”

The solution: Shut up and listen
In the end, if you’re not listening to your client, then you aren’t doing your job. To help boost your listening ability, you should read books on listening and examine your own listening skills, advised Toni Erlich, owner and director of Connections, a New York-based corporate training practice that specializes in teaching interactive communication skills and listening.

If the consultant mentioned above had paid attention to Strukhoff’s questions, he would have realized that Strukhoff wanted to know about the business side of things. Companies, Strukhoff explained, are running businesses, and they regard technology as one of an arsenal of tools at their disposal to help them run their businesses.

“You must understand you’re talking to the business side of the company, not the technology side,” he explained. “Even when you’re talking to a senior IT guy from your client, he’s responsible for the business of the company, and you have to gauge where he wants to go.”

Second problem: Clients just don’t understand
Often, clients don’t seem to grasp what a consultant is saying about a project or an issue. Many times, the client, instead of asking for more insight or explanation, will just end up misinterpreting your feedback or insight, and you’ll wonder why the client isn’t reacting to your suggestions.

The solution: Speak their language
The main reason for this problem is that clients have the requirements of their business in mind, and have their own way of doing things that consultants must adjust to. “Business people have their own jargon and culture and do things for very specific reasons—the same way techies do things for very specific reasons,” Strukhoff said. “They may ask very obtuse questions sometimes, but that could be one of their techniques.” Business clients “don’t want to become purveyors of technology; they want to talk about shirts or toys or food or whatever they’re making,” Strukhoff added.

So you may want to couch what you say in terms that show your clients how your proposal will benefit them, either in terms of improving productivity, cutting costs, generating revenue, or attaining whatever business goal they have in mind. For example, instead of talking about e-commerce approaches, you could show a retailer that adding an online store gets people to look at its products over the Web early in the week, which prompts them to make purchases at the brick-and-mortar stores, Strukhoff explained.

Table A shows what Erlich says are the top five complaints from both clients and consultants, based on information Erlich gathered from her corporate training classes.
Table A

Clients’ complaints about consultants
• Don’t listen
• Don’t explain what they’re doing
• Are impatient
• Are annoyed by client ignorance
• Don’t like being asked questions
Consultants’ complaints about clients
• Don’t listen
• Don’t describe what’s wrong
• Are never happy with the resolutions
• Ask too many questions, which creates distrust
• Want too much explained

Third problem: Different sociocultural environments
High-tech experts spend years in environments where every assumption is questioned, where discussions can be abrasive, and where those slow on their mental feet are taken down hard. Bringing that type of environment into a client environment can be poisonous.

The solution: Watch, learn, and adapt
To keep this from happening, a little politeness and the realization that clients have a valid point of view can go a long way. “At the end of the day, people are going to have to want to work with you,” Strukhoff said. “Remember when you’re talking to a client that it’s not a debate or an argument, and think about what you’re going to say before you say it.”

Fourth problem: Client roadblocks
At times, it can seem that the staff working at a client firm keeps setting up obstacles in your path, and you can be tempted to bypass them and run to the CIO. But if you do, you’ll likely stub your toe on some corporate cultural taboo or cross invisible political boundaries—events that are often hard to apologize for or undo.

The solution: Make peace with the roadblock thrower
First, tactfully find out who’s throwing up the roadblocks and why. It could be a staffer in a minor but crucial role who feels he or she has not been given enough courtesy; or it could be someone acting on behalf of a superior whom you’ve unknowingly offended or whose turf you’re encroaching upon.

Whether you’re innocent is not the point; make peace with that person and get him or her on your side. “Good communicators are always aware of local political climates and cultures, and follow them,” Erlich said.

Five quick fixes and other resources
According to Erlich, there are five things consultants can do immediately to improve communication skills:

  • Find someone you think “does it right” and do what that person does.
  • Decide whether you want to communicate better.
  • Give yourself a deadline to achieve this goal.
  • Decide how you’ll know that you’re communicating better.
  • Make the necessary changes in your behavior.

It may seem staid, but Dale Carnegie’s “How To Win Friends & Influence People” is still a good place to start for consultants looking to learn and boost client communication skills. You might also check out “The Ten Day MBA,” a book geared toward helping readers understand what business people think and how they think.

In additional to those two publications, there are also communication courses and seminars available. Professional speaker Doug Stevenson runs the MessageMastery series of keynotes and seminars designed for people who want to motivate others to action. Interactive e-zine offers various kinds of tests, including a communication test to help you determine your interpersonal skill level. After completing the test, you’ll receive a detailed, personalized interpretation of your score that includes diagrams, information on the test topic, and tips. CDI Communications, Inc., offers training videos of live seminars on developing communication skills. The videos are from 20 minutes to four hours long.

No matter how you work to improve communication skills, the bottom line is simple: The client is the boss, and you’re the employee. As Strukhoff said, “Always remember who’s paying the bills,” and act appropriately.