A Client Story: Communication Styles

A key lesson I’ve learned recently — the hard way — when working with clients is to figure out their communication style.

Some details have been slightly tweaked to protect the clients. Or to protect me. Or both.

There are as many communication style models and descriptions as there are flavors of jellybeans, so for the purposes of this story, I’ll use “direct” and “indirect” as contrasts.

I count myself as a direct communicator (although sometimes I’m wimpy and become an indirect communicator). I like to say what I mean, and for the sake of clients, try to say it as clearly as possible.

I designed a web site for a new client who had heard of me from someone else. We were across the country so did most of our communications through phone and email/Basecamp. Initially, I spent a lot of time on conference calls with the husband and wife so that I could understand their needs and what they were looking for. I would then document my notes on Basecamp to make sure we were all on the same page. However, some decisions were deferred to “whatever I thought was best,” because I was the Designer — the Expert. I would make a suggestion, explain why I was suggesting it and how I thought it would fit their needs and requirements, and they would say, “Okay, sounds good. You’re the Expert!” Who wouldn’t love someone who calls you the Expert — with a capital “E” — on a regular basis?

But some of these decisions became open sores that wouldn’t heal because we would end up picking at them again and again.

Over the phone, the clients would say, “Ummmm… so what do you think about having [feature x]?”

I would think to myself, “Didn’t we already talk about why [feature x] was a bad idea?” So I’d pull up the conversation notes in Basecamp, and on the phone, explain the three or four reasons why we decided not to have [feature x].

“Oh, right. Okay. Yeah. You’re the Expert!”

Repeat every two weeks.

Meanwhile, there were other frustrations building up on both sides. I wouldn’t be surprised if both the clients and I were banging our heads on the table after phone conversations.

Finally, one day it hit me. My clients were indirect communicators! They really, really wanted [feature x] because they thought it was cool, even though it could potentially affect the usability of the site. But because they would just “suggest” it and then backpedal from my more direct communication, I didn’t understand that it wasn’t a question — it was a request.

Once I implemented [feature x], the other frustrations magically dissipated and the process became much smoother, to the point that we ended up really enjoying working together. It helped that I understood their communication style better, too, and was able to interpret what they said in a proper light!

Have you learned a communication lesson the hard way? Please share in the comments or blog about it and link back to this post!


6 thoughts on “A Client Story: Communication Styles

  1. oi! i feel you! am going through a bit of that myself with a client and logo that i am doing. at first, the design was perfect and yes, those fateful words of ‘you’re the designer…’ were uttered. now am in the back and forth of ‘well, can you change this?’ or maybe ‘what about this?’ grrr….. am having issues with when asethticly speaking what they want isn’t as nice looking. the designer’s dilema!

  2. This is something I still learning. I am more of a direct person (but like you not all the time) and say to my team if you are having trouble let me know. However several of them won’t come and ask me questions. I am learning to ask them how they are doing and is there anything I can help with, so they then feel happy asking me questions.

  3. Boy have I! – And its especially fun with a team — when you have several flavors of jelly beans! What works with one does not work with another. And *I* might understand that there’s a communication style thing going on, but how do I get the rest of them to get it and accomodate for one another? Oy vey!

  4. My struggle is the opposite direction – people who are too direct, blunt and sometimes come across as rude! 🙂 My approach is to not treat rudeness with rudeness but with kindness and to clarify what they mean for more understanding. It helps to understand their personality!

  5. ddrdancer – I feel your pain! Hope the logo turns out okay….

    Kate – Good management tip!

    Doodah – In the spirit of passiveaggressivenotes.com, you could print out one of the models of personality/communication and post it in a public place. Ha ha ha ha!

    Angela – Good approach, and it’s good that you are able to step back and not be defensive! I think that might be hard for me.

  6. Oh man! I don’t know about that, but I do my own version of passive agressive notes, but venting my frustration with funny/sarcastic quotes on my cube wall. Last year during a particularly frustrating few months I would alternate between “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” and “I volunteer to be the sacraficial chicken”. Only one person got the joke, but I thought they were funny. My own little “protest.”

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