At Nebbia Technology, while I have Software Developer as my title, more and more I realize that the value I bring to the table is as much communicating with clients as it is communicating with computers. While computers have a very strict way that is required to communicate with them, via code, the discussions I have with humans can foster a lot more nuance – as well as a lot more ambiguity. As we have given reverence for the skills to code for computers, I wonder if we’ve lost some focus on communicating with each other. I believe those skills are becoming even more important as our technology becomes more complicated to describe.
While by its very nature communication between humans isn’t an exact science, I’ve picked up some techniques over the years to help communicate with clients (and others) and I want to share them with you. Without further adieu, here’s are those tips right now regarding The Lost Art of Client Communication.
Asking Clients To Explain The Why
Often, a client will come to us with an issue: We want to be able to clone projects in Azure DevOps, we want to move an application to Azure Platform-as-a-Service but it has a dependency on Message Queuing (which relies on a VM to operate), we want to start using npm for our front-end dependencies rather than NuGet and make sure that works with our Azure Pipeline.
This is often the type of question I’ll see come up, and you’ll notice something is missing from each of these requests. The why! Why do we want to clone projects, why do we want to move to Azure, why do we want to use npm?
If you are a client of ours (hi, thanks for reading our blog), let me give a friendly word of warning: if you don’t tell me why you are doing something, I will ask. We know that we are not the expert at your business domain, and we are experts when it comes to Azure and Devops and software development. So if you don’t give us the why, we won’t be able to leverage our deep understanding of those technical areas to help you navigate whether the proposed solution is an effective one. Our clients are very intelligent and they’ve usually hit on a technical solution that works well for their purpose, however, occasionally we know a little bit about another solution or two that might work well for them.
I believe we’ve saved some clients hundreds or thousands of hours from going down a dead-end path simply by asking why and working on a technical solution from there. Doing this is one of the best tools in my client communication toolbelt.
Explaining To Clients Our Why
Oh hey, this is the other side of it! I make many decisions every day for all sorts of reasons, and it’s easy for me to jump right into explaining the result of those decisions. What does not come quite as naturally is backing out and discussing how I got there. However, that’s often very valuable information for our clients.
I’ve fell into the trap of just explaining the solution before, and often it is met with skepticism. Once I start with what business outcome they are looking for, walk through technical solutions I evaluated, and discuss how I came upon the solution I’m proposing, it usually is met with a positive response.
Starting with why is a two way street. If I expect clients to tell me why they are doing something, what challenge they are looking to overcome, what opportunity they see, what risk they hope to avoid, then I expect they hold me to answering those sorts of questions as well.
On Being Succinct
“Omit needless words.” – William Strunk Jr.
Assuming Clients Know More Than Me
At the beginning of a conversation with a client, I assume they know more than I do. I’d rather do that then cause them to feel stupid. I’ve been on the other side of that table, and it is disheartening to feel minimized because of a perceived lack of experience.
If they ask questions or I get the sense that they don’t understand, we can dive deeper. Even then, I assume that they know more than me, just in other ways. Even if a person does not know a bit from a byte (or even a nibble, which is a real thing), it doesn’t mean that they couldn’t teach me a thing or two about business, life, or a different technical area.
Leaning Into Tension
You know when you are on a phone call, and there’s a few seconds of uncomfortable silence? I try not to let that fester. Sometimes, those uncomfortable silences are the tipping point between a successful project and an unsuccessful one, and I like to just nip it in the bud as early as possible.
Those moments of tension that can be cut with a knife are meant to be cut. Tension is ok, tension means ideas or truths are being expressed that makes people uncomfortable, and that is a path to growth. Letting it just hang in the air, though, is a missed opportunity. One indication that a little nugget of tension went unaddressed is when the phone call is over, a flurry of discussion about the phone call itself occurs. In healthy communication, I believe most of what needs to be said should be expressed on the call, and afterword if the conversation sounds like “Ok, let’s do this thing!” then it was a successful discussion.
That’s why I try to lean into it. When there is a moment of tension, I poke at it while expressing transparency. Often, doing so in the form of a question can be less of a challenge and more of a request:
- “I’m not sure what you mean, can you elaborate?”
- “I think what I heard was this. Is that right?”
- “You mentioned doing x. I am a little afraid it might affect y in this way. What do you think?”
Tension is expected, and attempting to bring hidden fears or concerns out into the sunlight is one way I try to make sure that it’s used productively.
Honesty Is Good Enough
There’s a natural inclination to put everything done, as a consultant or developer, in the best light possible. However, there’s also a line where the “best light possible” becomes shades of of the truth, then gray areas, little white lies, and then finally just plain old lies. I’ve found that when I’m doing the best that I can and working very hard at it for a client, the truth is good enough. There’s no need to hide schedule impacts, family emergencies, unexpected technical challenges, or anything else that might be scary to mention to a client behind a shield of lies. Because those lies are never worth it when it comes to the impact they have on trust.
I know we at Nebbia Technology are competent, knowledgeable, and hard working. We are also fallible, so if something unexpected or outside of our control happens that prompts a difficult conversation with a client, knowing we are really good at what we do (and yet not perfect) makes trusting our clients with the truth much easier. When you have nothing to hid, honesty is good enough.
Stolen (borrowed) from some tidbits I picked up from Dr. Laura Gallaher, remembering that our clients and us are on the same team really helps with communication. We have the same goals, we truly believe that if we are not helping our clients succeed then we are not succeeding. We are absolutely looking to create the biggest, most positive impact for our clients. So when occasionally we don’t agree on the approach, it always helps me to remember that we are on the same team. A client’s success is our success.
Rarely is a solution absolutely right or absolutely wrong, even in the world of computers where binary rules. At the lowest level, there is either a 0 or a 1. Thankfully, as we’ve abstracted layer after layer in computing, there are a ton more options now!
I had a recent conversation with a team member here at Nebbia about npm vs. Yarn as a package manager. I said po-tay-to, he said po-tah-to. And you know what? At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter a whole heck of a lot. A business will not succeed on npm or fail by using Yarn. Or spaces vs. tabs. Or C# vs. VB.NET.
Although you really should use C#.
I try to give the level of weight to conversations about technology that they deserve, and even on the most important conversations leave the door open to using technology that I might not like personally. There is no right technology or wrong technology, and I’ve found the more tyrannical I’ve been about using one over another, the less I’ve been able to get done.
At The End Of The Day…
At the end of the day, Nebbia Technology exists so that we can leverage our Azure, DevOps, and just general software development expertise to help make other’s lives easier. If you’d like to communicate with us, feel free to drop us a line on Twitter @NebbiaTech or via our contact page.