Six Steps to Improving Client Communications

By Margo Harrell, Jessie Smith

Foundational to any engagement, client communication sets the tone for the project moving forward. Establishing effective communication as early as possible is pivotal in the success of a partnership. Here are six points to keep in mind before heading into your next client meeting.

1) Be an active listener. In any collaborative situation, deeper understanding can be achieved by observing, listening and reflecting. One of the first and most important steps in improving your communication skills is being an active listener. Pay attention to your client’s communication style: Is he or she direct? Does the client ask a lot of questions? What terms or acronyms does he or she use? Does the client understand the product or service?

In data- and analytics-focused discussions, look for usage of highly technical terminology to gauge your stakeholders’ familiarity with data-related concepts. Use this to adjust your own use of technical language. Also, become a subject matter expert about your client by gaining insight from his or her point of view and working to understand the person’s vision for the product/service.

After identifying your client’s priorities and communication style, you will be able to adapt your own style to facilitate more effective and successful communication. This will lay the groundwork for the additional five steps.

2) Establish trust. Being an active listener provides the foundation for establishing trust with the client. Trust comes from working toward a mutual goal and having an understanding of one another that can only be built when you are empathic and transparent with the client. Trust is built over time through your demonstrated expertise. So, be diligent in your work and understand the ins and outs of the product/service so that you can confidently answer any question thrown your way.

When utilizing reference statistics, benchmarking data or other specific data points, be sure to use reputable sources and be prepared to share the source if asked. Finally, be honest with the client when challenges arise and work to resolve them together; proving you can support the client as a trusted adviser puts you in a great position for the next step.

3) Be proactive. As an expert in the market, you want to ensure you are proactively identifying risks that could impact the project or client in the future. Acknowledge the why’s behind the risks, review potential impacts, and address how you’ve seen previous clients deal with these specific blockers.

Always come with a recommendation in hand, highlighting the pros and cons associated with each solution and be able to address any concerns the client has on the method. If you’ve listened well to the client’s concerns and have built trust, he or she will likely agree with the option you recommend.

Additionally, it may be useful to supplement your recommendation with supporting materials like spreadsheets, charts and slide decks, especially on data-related topics. Always double-check these materials prior to sharing, and if possible, have someone else review as well. A proactive review can allow you to fix and address any errors prior to hearing this feedback from the client.

4) Use visual aids. Hundreds of online communication platforms are available today. Find one that fits the communication style established with your client. It could be as simple as a standard Microsoft PowerPoint or a more involved Trello board.

Use these forums to create documentation of open tasks and ownership, end-to-end project mapping, timelines, brainstorming sessions or anything else that may be of importance. This serves as a paper trail for additional accountability and provides visibility into how far both teams have progressed since the beginning of the engagement. This fundamental project management tactic will keep stakeholders informed and tasks moving forward.

Visual aids can also be helpful when sharing data — but be purposeful when selecting your charts. Choose the chart that expresses the information in the clearest and simplest way, include any necessary titles and descriptions, and keep formatting consistent. You want your client to understand the chart’s message, with minimal explanation needed from you.

5) Feedback and iteration. Over time, the relationship between you and your client will naturally change. Changes can occur within the leadership of the organization — in stakeholder responsibilities and positions, project types, engagement levels and many other aspects.

So, it is always important to reassess your current communication style with your client and ensure it is optimal for your current type of relationship. You might want to (1) consider a change in email and meeting frequency or (2) move to a new style of visual aid formatting that is more appropriate for the upcoming project.

For data-focused feedback, it may be helpful to implement the use of a feedback tool. There are ample reasons that your communication style may need to be adjusted, so ask for feedback from your stakeholder whenever such changes occur. Ask about the style and where improvements could be implemented. Ensuring that your client feels comfortable and confident with your communication style will only strengthen his or her trust in you.

6) Consistency is key. Remaining consistent in data practices and communication with your client is essential. Consistency in data practices ensures logics are understood and secures accuracy in calculations. Consistency in communication establishes confidence, reinforces trust and prevents misunderstanding and unmet expectations.

Be patient with the client: Repeat concepts when needed and never promise something you cannot deliver. Saying no establishes to a client that you understand your boundaries and know your limitations as an individual and as a service provider. Set clear expectations and goals with the client, meet the goal and exceed it where possible. Clear and consistent communication leaves minimal space for confusion and dissatisfaction.

Every client is unique, and will have his or her own communication style, present different problem, and have alternative ideas. In professional services, you must adjust your approach to best deliver for your client. Becoming a trusted adviser is no small task, but when accomplished, it can be one of the most rewarding parts of your job.

(Photo credit: Getty Images/Maskot)

About the Author

Margo Harrell

About the Author

Margo Harrell is product market manager at IBM in Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The perspective and opinions represented are those of the author and do not represent those of IBM; they are reflective of the author’s experiences at various companies and organizations.

About the Author

Jessie Smith

About the Author

Jessie Smith is senior analytics consultant at IBM in Pittsburgh. The perspective and opinions represented are those of the author and do not represent those of IBM; they are reflective of the author’s experiences at various companies and organizations.