As web developers, we are encouraged to keep up with the latest technology, to constantly hone our skills and to be proficient in many different programming languages, frameworks and platforms. While this professional development is fantastic on a technical level, it often leaves behind an important part of our development, the client relationship.
In my years as a freelance developer, one of the things I hear most often from new clients is something along the lines of “my previous developer wouldn’t listen to me” or “my developer didn’t fully understand what we needed”. The first couple of times I chalked it up to coincidence, but over time I started to see a pattern. As developers we often get caught up on the technical/problem-solving side of things, and neglect to put the same amount of effort on the communication with our clients.
How can we ensure our clients feel understood and heard, and in turn improve the client relationship?
Listening is one of the building blocks of any relationship. In active listening we are not just merely hearing words, but understanding and reflecting back. Before you say anything to a client, listen… attentively. Don’t think of how you are going to answer, just be in the moment and listen. An easy technique to use is reflecting or mirroring. After a client has finished making a point, tell them “just so we are on the same page, you need…” and summarize in your own words what you understood. It may seem forced at first but over time it becomes second nature, and you will be surprised by how many times a client realizes they didn’t communicate clearly enough, or you realize you didn’t understand what the client was really saying.
Explain in simple terms… ELI5
One of my favorite subreddits is ‘Explain it like I’m 5’. The idea behind it is to explain complicated concepts in simple ways, and doing so in such a way that anyone, no matter their background or knowledge, can understand. This NEVER means that you should be condescending or patronizing, it means you should communicate effectively in simple terms. You have to be able to communicate in a way that any client can understand, even those who are technologically-challenged. Focus on explaining the overall process, and avoid the nitty-gritty technical details, or jargon, which can be confusing. I find that clients that understand the overall scope of a project are more satisfied than those that don’t know what’s going on. Being able to explain and articulate the basic concept behind a project, not only builds that trust and confidence in your expertise, but also helps the client stay connected throughout the process.
Identifying the root issue
Sometimes clients know they have a problem (or a need) but can’t quite articulate it, or hone in on the cause. I had a prospective client reach out to me because they wanted to transfer their website from their current host. Sounded like a simple enough request… the client was sure that the hosting company was the problem, and that the only solution was to move his site and purchase a more expensive hosting plan. Asking questions and trying to narrow down the root cause will save you, and your client, many frustrations. Ask open ended questions to get to the underlying issue, or the goal. In that simple scenario I asked my client not only why he wanted to switch hosts, but asked where his website was failing exactly (unsually long load times, and time outs), the average number of monthly visitors, and what he was expecting to see after he switched. Turns out his web host wasn’t failing at all… his website just wasn’t properly optimized. The client was ecstatic to have his website finally up and running optimally, and very appreciative for the long term savings from not switching. Had I fulfilled his original request, not only would the problem with the still be there, but the client would have been frustrated with my work, and with the new host.
At times clients will request things that are not possible, either technically, or within the scope of the project or their budget. As you explain to the client why something can’t be done, have an alternate solution or workaround ready. No one likes to hear that what they want, or need, is not possible. Being ready with an alternate solution keeps the project moving in a positive direction and makes your client feel valued. It might not be exactly what they had in mind, but if you find a workaround for the issue at hand, or find an alternate way of giving them that feature they need, the client will be just as satisfied. This does not replace having a clearly-defined SOW (statement of work) or MSA (Master Service Agreement), or both. It just simply refers to areas where you have to work with the client and bridge that gap between expectations and reality.
Not many things build trust and confidence as much as being dependable. Consistently deliver for your clients- be there, meet deadlines, produce results. We all run into unforeseen issues in projects, or life gets in the way. If you have consistently delivered for your clients, they will have that trust in you, and will give you that space when you need it most. Never promise what you can’t deliver. It’s better to seem unsure about something, than to promise and not able to deliver those results. Over time clients will value you for your consistency, and will recommend you to their colleagues and friends. The reputation you build through your consistency is invaluable.
Whose Site is it anyway?
While it’s crucial that you give your opinions freely on your areas of expertise, remember this is your client’s website and business after all. For some clients, it’s an intensely personal experience and they only accept their viewpoint- “my way or the highway” clients. When I come across issues on a site whether in design or function, or I find myself disagreeing with a client’s direction, I state my opinion thoughtfully, with my reasoning behind it, and in simple terms. Sometimes clients will agree with my viewpoint or defer to my expertise, and sometimes they simply won’t. In moments like that it’s important to remember that this is your client’s project and that the goal is for them to have a website/project THEY will be happy with. That jarring orange font might seem completely out of place to you, but to your client it might be part of their brand identity, or their favorite color. Always thread carefully in those cases and avoid “lecturing” your client or trying to force them to see your way. Explaining orange font is not as legible, or accessible, and giving them alternate complimentary colors are all acceptable responses. Once a client digs in their heels and says they MUST have that orange font exactly, then you need to remind yourself… whose site is it anyway?
“Know when to fold ’em”
Relationships are all about chemistry, that applies to friendship, love, family, business and the workplace. Sometimes the chemistry is not there, and you might not be the right developer for the client, and that client might not be right for you. Learn to identify your “deal breakers”. If you don’t care for having to explain every step of a project, avoid clients that require that level of communication, or need a lot of “hand holding”. Focus on clients that are less concerned with the details, or work in a team so that the Client Relations role falls on a different team member. If you work best being free to make all the choices on a project, avoid clients that micromanage. Instead, focus on clients you’ve worked with and that trust your work. I am happy to work with clients with different levels of demand and need, but my deal breaker is respect. If a client is disrespectful or demeaning to me, or anyone in the team, that’s a client I won’t be working with again. It seems simple but you should always set yourself up for success. Picking the right clients for YOU, who are compatible with YOUR work style, will ensure a happy client and a happy YOU.
Victoria Martinez is a seasoned Web Developer with over 15 years of experience. She specializes in WordPress and Woocommerce, and has worked directly with clients and agencies.
Victoria develops websites that are clean and modern, fully responsive, mobile-friendly, SEO friendly, and privacy compliant. Her main goal and focus is to deliver websites that provide a great user experience while reflecting her clients’ unique brand.