How to Improve Projects with Communication (Part 1)

Why I’m so hung up on communication

As a Digital Project Manager and freelance content-creator, I deal with words and communication constantly – for upwards of 50 or 60 hours a week some weeks.

I see a lot of really great communication but I also see a lot of no-good, terrible communication.

What’s been really interesting to me, too, is that most of the project issues we run into at the agency aren’t traced back to design and development…they’re traced back to communication.

  • There was a bug, sure, but the client isn’t happy because we never communicated that there could be a bug.
  • Or the color scheme wasn’t spot-on, but that’s because we didn’t communicate well in Discovery and figure out what the client wants and how they want to stand out from the competition.

And it’d be one thing if bad communication just couldn’t be helped – if it were like an unavoidable software bug that came with the programming language. But bad communication isn’t like that. It IS something you can help with a bit of knowledge.

That’s what this is about: how you can make communication updates at the beginning, middle, and end of your projects so you have happier clients, more referrals, and greater personal satisfaction with projects.

Some assumptions…

Before we dive into the deep end, though, it’s only fair you know I’m making a few assumptions about you.

  • I assume you’re a relatively decent human being who, on the whole, isn’t a jerk. If you are, it’s by accident.
  • I assume you care about any work or project that has your name on it. And that you aim to do that thing well – even if it requires a lot of work.
  • And I assume that most of your communication about projects and with clients happens online. Like me. Physical cues and nonverbal communication aren’t something I address here.

For the rest of this, I’m going to organize communication tips around what’s useful at the beginning, middle and end of every project.

The beginning of every project

That’s a non-alcoholic beverage, of course.

Once a contract is signed and the first check is written, most of the projects I’ve managed have this honeymoon stage. Everyone is hopeful, stoked and ready to chip in – We’re doing exciting things! For exciting people! THIS IS AWESOME.

That momentum is a good thing and I don’t at all want you to kill it.

Instead, I want you to leverage that energy and excitement to push for answers to questions you really need to know. 

What’s obvious to them isn’t obvious to you

You need to ask questions and push for answers for that reason.

The client has some specific purposes for bringing their project to you and signing on with you; it’s super important you know what these are.

You can dig into this through a formal discovery (like we do) or an informal phone conversation.

But you’re going to have to dig. Because I guarantee you the client assumes what’s obvious to them is obvious to you. (It’s not.)

Start with the most important question – “Why?”

You’ll want to start with the most seemingly obvious question: Why? Why are we doing this at all?

A lot communication breaks down because either you or the other party ASSUMES something.

So right off the bat, test your assumptions on why the project is happening.

You don’t have to ask every version of why, but you could.

Asking the most important question multiple ways is a great way to dig for the answers you need. Because what’s obvious to them isn’t obvious to you.

The “why” question is so important because the client knows, in their head, what success for their website looks like. They’re not always going to lay it out on the table, but you need to know it in order to succeed in their eyes and have a good outcome.

That’s how you get referrals and more business.

Other crucial questions we ask

Don’t miss the bold ones. (That’s why I made them bold.)

One question I never skip is that first question.

If a client has never done a project like this before...

It means I need to take extra care explaining things. They may not know that it’s normal to have some bugs after launch. Or for us to seem a little quiet when we first start developing. This kind of client has never taken a website journey before, so they need a very detailed map on how we’re getting from point A to point B. They’re usually going to get more anxious, more often, than someone who’s been through the process already.

If a client has done a project like this before…

They typically had some kind of memorable experience the last time around. Usually a bad one. If a client tells me the last group totally botched designs or had some kind of major bug on the sign-in page, I know they’ll be especially skittish about those pieces this time around. 

Without that kind of context, a client can seem unreasonably neurotic or fixated on certain stages or site pieces.

Knowing the client’s context helps us guide a project with compassion, kindess, and efficiency.

The last question  – what pages are most important to you? – is similarly helpful. I’ve found it’s extremely important to bring up key pages early in design and development because they’ll demand the most approvals, revisions, and time.

Voice of customer data

While we only work with human clients, we’re all avid animal-lovers.

If the questions above give you nothing else (which is unlikely), they’ll at least give you voice of customer data.

What I mean by that here is insight into the client’s tone, level of formality, vocabulary, and other qualitative aspects.

It means speaking their language and that’s immensely important. To effectively communicate, the other party has to UNDERSTAND what you’re saying, not just hear it.

This is particularly relevant when it comes to crafting emails, which we’ll come back to later.

I’ve sent both kinds of emails.

Depending on the client, these can both be right or wrong ways to talk to someone:  

  • Clients can view the first option as friendly and personal. Or unprofessional and intrusive.
  • Likewise, clients can see the second option as professionally to-the-point and respectful of their time. Or standoffish and robotic.

If you’ve spent time talking with and interacting with the client – gathering that voice of customer data – you’re going to know what kind of tone is appropriate for which client.

Setting expectations

If you skip setting expectations, you’re in dangerous waters. Or, er, skies.

Once you’ve gotten a feel for who the client is, it’s time you give them some direction on how you work and how this thing works overall.

This matters because if you don’t define the route you’re going to take, they will. And it may not be a good one.

You’ve heard the phrase, “nature abhors a vacuum?” Clients abhor vacuums, too.

When it comes to setting expectations, think about eating at a restaurant

Imagine you show up at the host desk and they say, “it’ll be a 30-minute wait and then, once you’re seated, it’ll be about a forty-five-minute wait for your food. I apologize but the kitchen is short staffed this evening.”

If you really want to eat there, you’ll say okay and be content with the wait times described. 

But if they HADNT told you this and you unexpectedly waited for nearly an hour, then hangrily waited another half hour for your food, you’d barely be able to taste it you’ll be so angry.

That’s one small, but relatable, example of how expectations can really help or really hurt you.

Set expectations in these areas

You guessed it. The bold one is important.

I usually say something about what time zone I’m in, what times I’m most available, and what method of communication will get them to me and my team the fastest. For me, that’s 9am-5pm ET and through Teamwork, our project management app.

I also clarify that this project isn’t a “choose your own adventure” kinda thing. We have a plan – and there’s some creative flexibility within that plan – but it has some very well defined steps and deliverables.

And if you do nothing else, clarify what you AREN’T building for your client. Believe me, it’s MUCH better to do this now than halfway through the project. Some things we try and cover are:

  • what’s totally custom vs. what’s an existing software/plugin
  • what design means (it’s usually not illustration)
  • whether we’re providing photos, content, icons

Remember, things always get off track

There’s always a plot twist, isn’t there?

Keep in mind that “normal” isn’t a project going according to plan. “Normal” is changes, out of scope requests, and road bumps. That’s why it’s super important to mention what you’ll do when those things crop up.

For us, this means explaining change orders.

A word about change orders

Change orders are what we use to course-correct. When a client wants to add a new feature, add more designs, or any of number of things, we’ll say, “sure this is what that costs and how much extra time that’ll take.”

If they agree, we put all that info down in a change order and ask them to sign it.

Hey look! A free template!

That’s a snapshot of the heart of our change order. The only thing you’re not seeing from our template is the header, a legal byline, and the signature area.

I try and make it painfully clear what’s happening so there’s no confusion later. I’d recommend filling out each and every one of these fields, even if your answer is “no impact on…”

The goal here is helpfulness

I promise not to be a backseat driver if…

I know this can all sound a little controlling, but the goal here isn’t to be stiff or micromanaging. The goal is to set healthy boundaries and define helpful context.

You’re helping the client understand what can and should happen vs. what doesn’t and shouldn’t happen so you both can keep moving in the right direction together.

You’re helping both parties get to the set destination as smoothly as possible.

That helps your business.

This is Part 1 of 3 of Laura Bosco’s WordCamp Birmingham ’18 talk. Read Part 2.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and online readability.

Authored By

Project Manager

Laura leads team efficiency by communicating with clients, tracking hoards of details, and providing timely support. She likes challenging recipes, hedgehogs, beautiful words, and bourbon.

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