Do you remember that Clients 101 course you took in school?
Neither do we. Sure, there are plenty of best practices and mountains of case studies thrown around. But no one ever teaches you how to work with clients. Which is unfortunate, because clients can be tricky.
Before we wrote a single line of code for our project management software, we were a web design firm with clients. Lots of clients. And if there’s one thing we learned, it’s that communication is the key ingredient for happy client relationships.
Here at Basecamp, we’re known for breaking the rules of internal communication. But when it comes to clients, the rules change. Because communicating with a client is so much more than words. It’s an experience. One that either delivers value for your client, or takes it away.
Where Most People Get Client Communication Wrong
The single most chronic challenge for communicating with clients is under communicating. You might have all the systems in place: an email strategy, regular status meetings, and even a liaison to update them when things are moving along. But the truth is that you always underestimate what your clients know about your process.
Here’s why that matters:
- A potential client approaches you with certain needs
- You confirm that you can indeed do what they want
- Now your client, they ask for something specific
- You once again confirm that you can do that, and give them expectations for when you can complete it
- You send them an update on your progress and they’re now upset. “This isn’t what we asked for,” they say, despite you delivering exactly what they asked for
Somewhere along the way between “yes we can do that” and “here’s your work,” there’s a breakdown in communication.
The problem here is that you know more than they do. You know the process, how much feedback you need from them, and a timeline that’s realistic. All they know is what they asked for and what you deliver. If there are no expectations set or clarifying questions asked when communicating with your client, they’ll walk away with only what they envision.
You always want to take control of your clients expectations and that requires improving your client communication.
5 Principles for Building an Excellent Client Communication Strategy:
1. When In Doubt, Be Transparent
There’s nothing worse than delivering a project to spec, only to have it ripped to shreds. Confusion. Ambiguity. Miscommunication. It doesn’t matter how you got here. If your client’s not happy, no one is.
While it’s tempting to search for that one root cause of the problem, most failed projects are the result of many little missteps. As James Clear explains in Atomic Habits, a plane leaving Los Angeles and heading for New York — if shifted a few slight degrees at takeoff — will end up landing in Washington D.C.
Small mistakes compound into big failures. Your job is to stop them before they ever begin.
The best way to avoid unsavory client outcomes is to be transparent in your communication. Questions. Comments. Change Requests. Approvals. When everyone involved in the project has easy access to every decision and deliverable, there are no surprises.
Transparency can be challenging. Especially when clients fragment feedback across meetings, emails, and more. Your best option is to find a tool that makes it easy to compile client feedback and approvals in one single place.
This is actually the origin story for Basecamp’s project management tool. We wanted more transparency with our own web design clients, so we built software to compile everything into one place. No more confusion or ambiguity. Just a clean, digital paper trail of our work.
Now everyone involved in the project sees the same things. Who requested what. Which deliverable was approved and when. There’s a flight log showing us how we reached our destination.
Goodbye surprises, hello happy clients.
2. Privacy is Paramount
While transparency is vital, clients don’t need to see everything.
In most cases, there’s a lot your client shouldn’t see. But when you’re in the project trenches, it can be difficult to keep track of what’s landing in your client’s inbox.
You’ve heard the horror stories. You might even have a few of your own. A client copied on an email they shouldn’t have seen. Someone on the team sharing a deliverable before it’s ready. A comment meant for “internal eyes only”.
At best, these situations are annoying for your client. At worst, they can kill a relationship. Which is why privacy is a core principle of any sound client communication plan.
Your team must be 100% clear on what your clients can see in your shared project folders. If you’re using a tool like Google Drive, you need to understand how the permissions hierarchy works. Open the “Share” option to add or remove clients, as well as set their individual permission level.
Word of caution: If you have more than a file or two, permissions can get very confusing. If a colleague adds a document to a shared folder, or adjusts client permissions without letting you know, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.
To mitigate, find a way to track exactly what your clients can see. At Basecamp, we use a permissions badge. Every piece of the project the client can see is clearly labeled.
Switching permissions is as simple as toggling a button. Meaning clients only see what you want them to see.
3. Limit Client Meetings
A one-hour meeting is never a one-hour meeting.
Three clients and three team members? That’s a six-hour meeting. And an expensive one too. Especially if its only purpose is to rattle off a list of updates.
Yes, there are times when client meetings are necessary (project kick-off, major change in scope, etc.). But most projects should abstain from scheduling that weekly check-in. It rarely accomplishes anything. And your team will spend more time preparing for these meetings than working on the project.
Instead, create asynchronous methods of providing updates and answering questions for your clients. In Basecamp, we prompt your team members to provide regular updates on their pieces of the project.
We then compile these updates into one dashboard that your client can browse as needed:
It’s amazing how quickly the need for that weekly meeting goes away when your client can check in on the project. So go ahead… take your calendar back!
Psst… want to see this in action? Take 30 seconds and sign up for Basecamp right now (free to get started; no credit card required)
4. More ≠ Better
There is such a thing as over-communicating with your clients. They hired you to reduce their workload, not add to it. While they may ask to be “kept in the loop on everything,” the last thing your client wants is more pointless emails, pings, calls, and other requests.
Don’t interrupt your clients every time you need something. Instead, find ways to organize requests so your client may respond when it’s convenient for them.
Depending on the scope of the project, simple spreadsheets can work. But beware, you’ll still need to manually track, update, and remind clients as things come due. It might be easier to use project management software that allows you to organize and assign tasks to your clients. The good ones will even follow-up with them to ensure things get done on time.
When clients are clear on what you need to get the job done, the constant back and forth disappears like magic.
5. Meet Clients Where They Live
Communication plans and project management software aren’t very helpful if clients won’t use them.
If your client has no interest in your project management tool, don’t force it! Meet them where they live instead. Use software that incorporates email, allowing clients to be an active part of the project without the need for yet another login.
Below shows how we handle this with Basecamp’s project management tool. When a client receives an update from a project, they can respond directly to that email. This response is then added to the appropriate place right inside Basecamp.
Client emails you directly? No problem! Forward the email to Basecamp, and now your entire team will have access.
Everything you need, all in one place.
How to Build a Client Communication Plan
Communicating with your clients can be challenging work. But it doesn’t have to be.
The secret lies in how you communicate.
It’s tempting to think that constant meetings, calls, and emails show your client how hard you’re working on their project. But are these really helping you get the job done?
Less is more when it comes to clients. Create a system that lets them keep an eye on what’s happening, provide feedback as needed, and contribute on their timeline, not yours.
Then, get out of the way, and let everyone get to work.