A lot rides on the things people say when information technology (IT) consultants interact with clients. Good communication can be the foundation for building lasting and valuable relationships with customers. But poor communication is a great way to damage those relationships. Since teams from across the IT organization interact with the end-users as projects unfold, everyone on the team needs good communication skills. Individual professional development and the organization’s business growth are by-products of communicating effectively.

Keep it Simple…and Practice

For most people, communication is not something that comes naturally. But good communication is not rocket science. And it’s something everyone can learn. It is common for software developers to have daily interaction with clients. So, it should be a priority for individuals to effectively express themselves within those interactions to both maintain, and ideally grow, the relationships.

“Avoid technical jargon. Try to talk in terms your audience will understand,” said Norm Gilbert, Technical Lead at TDK Technologies.  “It might not come easy. To make a topic understandable is going to take practice and it’s going to take time. The more we practice this, the better we get at it.  And the better we are at identifying when things start breaking down.”

Use every client interaction as an opportunity to practice. One way to do that is to share information in writing, with a face to face meeting or using a phone call. Sharing with a client builds confidence and ensures they are up to speed on the project at hand. Also, casual, non-business conversation can break the ice and make people feel comfortable.

“Many times, the words that are said and how they are spoken have a big impact. It can have a positive effect and build relationships,” Gilbert said.

Sharing information with your colleagues is another opportunity to practice. Having clear and concise communication between development teams and testing teams is critical during this process.

“In this day of continuous development, anything you do can affect someone else. So, it’s important to think outside of the development ‘silo’, if you will. Think about what will happen to other people if something changes,” Gilbert said.

Effective Customer Interactions

Effective communication is not a checklist. It’s an overall approach that involves a culture which embraces customer service, personal courtesy, and conversations that reveal issues which need to be solved. Understanding communication channels, along with the client’s preferred method of receiving information, is an important aspect of that.

  • Email provides a record of client requests, is easily searchable and offers a great way to communicate with multiple people.
    • Think about what you want to say before you write.
      • Read it over carefully, ask a colleague to read it first if you have doubts about tone, language or context before sending.
    • Make it personal for the individuals in the ‘To:’ section.
      • Reserve ‘To:’ recipients for an ‘action’ where the sender needs something.
      • Be careful about who is included in the ‘cc:’ line of an email.
        • Does “Everyone” need to be included, which can be counter-productive if someone sends a ‘Reply to All’ response.
    • Avoid long e-mail ‘chains’.
      • Start a new email chain when the subject changes.
    • Be careful about context, which can get lost in email communication.
      • Sometimes face to face meetings are best to avoid “email skirmishes”.
  • Skype is a great tool for conference calls and less frequent conversations.
    • It allows screen-sharing.
    • The service is free to use.
  • Lync is a day-to-day tool for developers and project managers.
    • Make yourself available on this channel.
    • Keep a history of the communication.
  • Social Media, primarily LinkedIn, can build trust and confidence. It establishes the person and organization as a trusted expert.
    • Keep your profile up to date.
    • Contribute and repost items to establish credibility and trust.
    • Accept connection requests, especially from clients.
    • Showcase skills and the ability to collaborate.
  • Texting: Don’t be afraid to give away your cell phone number.
    • People typically won’t abuse it.
    • It shows you are willing to make yourself available at any time.
    • Ask people by text “Are you interruptible right now?”
  • Telephone conversation is an excellent tool for client follow up and discussing immediately pressing matters, issues that have surfaced, and planning.

Discussing Sensitive Topics

Being able to talk about sensitive topics is crucial to affecting positive change and becoming a trusted advisor for clients. Depending on what is said and how the message is delivered, the outcome can be positive and begin building the bridge to change. Here are some ideas on how to handle sensitive situations.

  • Be Brief: Keep it short and on topic. Don’t bring up old issues.
    • Communication works best when it is focused.
  • Be Positive: Don’t be a cheerleader, but stay away from the blame game.
    • Ask for what you want, instead of what you don’t want.
  • Be Specific: Address specific behaviors and incidents.
    • Ask for something specific and measurable.
  • Label Your Feelings: Letting others know what you are feeling helps break down walls.
  • Be Understanding: This shows you are listening and appreciate other perspectives.
  • Accept Responsibility: Everyone plays a role. Assuming responsibility for your part can help.
  • Offer to Help: How can I help? What can I do?

“A lot of issues are emotionally charged, even in the development environment. So, take a moment, pause, and think about what you’ll say before you say it. When trying to build a trusted advisor role with a client, don’t let frustrations emerge through any of the communication channels,” Gilbert advised. “And if there’s any doubt, then don’t do it. All it takes is one word, one phrase, one frustration or one outburst to effectively ruin that relationship.”

Gilbert provided these additional tips and reminders on effective communication:

  • Always be polite
  • Be on time
    • Apologize if late
  • Finish what you started
  • Do what the client wants
  • Be risk averse
  • Work independently
  • Individual reputation is critical

Sometimes difficult things need to be said. How you deliver those messages is important. Be prepared and make your point clearly. The way you handle a crisis is also critical. Address the issue directly, accept responsibility, provide a solution and offer ways to prevent the problem in the future.

Technology consultants who take initiative to improve the way they interact with those who will ultimately use their services increase the probability of advancing their careers. Clear communication demonstrates technical acumen and enhances your professional reputation. It also makes you someone clients will want to work with in the future.

An IT pro who'll take the time to learn my business. Is that too much to ask?