How to talk to clients about complex things - Heart Internet Blog - Focusing on all aspects of the web

It doesn’t matter whether you are a designer, a developer, a writer, or an agency boss: communication is key. How we talk to our clients can define the success or failure of the business relationship.

So what happens when we need to explain a complex or unfamiliar concept? What strategies can we deploy to win our client around and gain their understanding?

Here are five things to keep in mind:

Set a clear framework

Every client relationship must be framed by clear expectations and mutually-understood goals. If you don’t fully understand what your client is trying to achieve for their business and why they have hired you, it’s not going to end well.

Gaining this understanding can take time so don’t feel anxious about needing to grasp everything at once. Learn their industry terminology and study not only the way they speak but the problems they are trying to solve.

Because if you learn to speak your client’s language and understand their pain points, when the time comes to explain difficult concepts that might otherwise be alien to them, you will already have done much of the heavy lifting.

It’s amazing how having a confident grasp of a client’s sector will stand you in good stead when you need to explain things back.

Just think of it like visiting a foreign country where you have taken the time to learn a little of the language. When the need arises to explain something about your own land, you are able to use the local language to unpack concepts that might otherwise seem remote.

Pick your channel

Remember that so much about explanation is dependent on the context. Just think of all the different communication channels available to us these days:

  • Video conferencing (Skype, Hangouts etc)
  • Email
  • IM
  • Phone
  • In-person meeting
  • Text
  • Integrated comms apps like Slack
  • Social media
  • Email marketing
  • Direct mail

However, not all communication channels are created equally. Email can be a brilliant way of communicating simple messages to various people at the same time, but it is not always the best method for conveying a complex idea. How can you properly gauge understanding over email?

Not that one communication channel is exclusive to another. You might start by chatting with different stakeholders to assess the best way forward. Next, you send an email to outline your recommendations. After that, you follow up with small group meetings to gather feedback.

Anticipate difficult concepts ahead of time, and work out which communication method best conveys your point. Prepare simple explanations that communicate technical detail in clear, layman’s terms.

Show don’t tell

Sure, you need to explain things verbally. But showing rather than telling will get to the heart of the matter fast. For complex or technical matters, think of the different ways you can explain by showing:

  • A whiteboard presentation
  • A flowchart
  • A series of simply-crafted slides that allow you to elucidate the concept in real time
  • A cartoon that encapsulates a concept
  • A video that demonstrates a technical process in action

Apply the same principles when learning about your client’s business. Seek out videos and visuals that outline the core concepts.

If the same topic keeps cropping up for explanation, create support material and add it to your company’s website. Clients will appreciate your helpfulness.

a woman presenting with the aid of post it notes

Chunk it down

People grasp things in different ways. Just think of your own learning style.

Break complex ideas into simple topics. “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough”, Einstein said. By returning to a topic with a client several times over, you give them the opportunity to develop their confidence in the subject.

One of the additional benefits of carefully explaining something is that it will reveal to you the things you don’t fully understand about the topic.

The primacy effect

Pay careful attention to the way you order things with a client. What you put in front of them first is what they are most likely to focus on. Start things as straightforwardly as possible before navigating into more complex waters.

Check understanding as you proceed, and go slow on more difficult matters. Nudge the conversation along.

Some arguments require a degree of persuasion, but pick your battles wisely. Don’t get frustrated, and always be prepared to concede a point. Locking horns with a client is never a good idea, except on the rare occasion. Who’s paying whom?

Challenge and educate, but don’t fight. Understand the drift of a conversation, and guide it to a meaningful close. Stay aware of what you are imparting to the client, and what the client is imparting to you.

Some helpful pointers:

  • Listen, don’t interrupt.
  • Use analogies wherever possible.
  • Veer towards positive statements when explaining what needs to be done. Conveying the benefits of a website redesign will likely go down better than lecturing a client on why everything they have been doing is wrong.
  • Don’t assume knowledge of acronyms.
  • Remember that teaching is an art, and art takes practice.
  • Use your emotional intelligence.
  • Offer supporting evidence for the points you make.
  • Convey enthusiasm for the detail.
  • Show you care.

Above all else, develop a foundation of trust in your working relationship with the client. Be open in acknowledging when you don’t know something, and encourage your client to do the same.

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