Updated: Sep 23, 2020
You've been working with clients for a while now so you know that during the design phase and all the way up to the construction of your project you spend a lot of time communicating with the client.
This includes discussing the design, specifications, construction, material specifications and supply, contracts and many other issues that come up during the project.
Once the design goes into construction phrase it ads the other layer of now having to communicate with a contractor (but we'll talk about that in another article). During the project, many important decisions are made so it is absolutely necessary to have effective communication from both you and the client to avoid misunderstanding or disputes.
Misunderstandings can lead to hours of rework and in some cases contractual difficulties. So it's best to ensure communication is clear.
What if English is your second language, too? This is an even more challenging aspect of your job! I'm here to say, you're not alone because even professionals with many years experience have these challenges, too. The good news is, just by reading this article you're already showing that you're dedicated to improving.
My tips for you are the tips I've always tried to follow in my career but I've adapted them to take into consideration some of the frustrations you might have as a person who speaks English as a second language.
Here are some of my tips to remember while effectively communicating with the clients. I highly recommend Episode 15 of Presentation Skills for Design students by Christina Canters. In this episode Christina talks to Bryan Miller and Nicole Hardman about their advice for talking to clients.
Things you should do:
Keep your message very simple and clear. Don't try to use big or fancy words to impress the client. You'll be making it too complicated for yourself and them. Clients like things to be clear. So the good news for you is that means you need to use clear and simple language and shorter sentences. Keep written sentences short if you need and use dot points where you can. When I first started working I used The Little Black Book of Business Writing by Mark Tredinnick. I loved it because it was small and concise but packed full of good examples.
If some things are more challenging to communicate with words, try and communicate through drawing. When the client is focused on your drawing rather than looking at your face, it can give you the time to think about what you need to say in fewer words. Infographics are also useful for both you and the client to make sure 'you're on the same page' (everyone is in agreement).
Ask your client to give you feedback or repeat what you have said or done. Say things like 'does that make sense to you? Do you have any questions about this in particular?' Also keep in mind that sometimes they might be scared to ask particular questions and can sometimes write you emails after design presentations once they have had time to think about it.
Write down everything and always follow up important emails where decisions were made with an email to confirm what was said. This helps them to be able to clear up any miscommunications or misconceptions. Ask them 'Is there anything I have left off or forgotten? eg. Thanks for our meeting today. As we discussed I will complete the following:
- Task 1
- Task 2
- Task 3
Let me know if there is anything else I have missed.
Very often in American and Australian culture, if a client writes an email to ask a question or with concern but you don't have the time to respond or you won't be able to confirm for a few days, it's common practice to send them an email to confirm you have received their email and that you will attend to it (by this date or as soon as you can). It's courteous and makes the client feel like you have heard them. Clients expect that their concerns and questions are addressed as soon as possible. So doing this shows them that you understand what is important to them but also shows them you don't have the time right now.
Listen to everything your client says carefully and try to avoid interrupting them while they are talking, even when you disagree with them.
If you disagree with what they are saying, but you want the client to feel as though you're listening to them, start your next sentence with: "I can hear what you're saying, however, I believe it would be better if . . ."
If you agree with them you can also use it too: " I hear you, I agree."
Observe body language and listen to non-verbal signals from your client.
Lastly, if you want to build rapport with your client, try to include some small talk at the start of your meetings. You will get to know your clients better and it will help with your confidence during a meeting. When it starts off more relaxed it can help you relax for the more challenging parts of the conversation. If you're stuck here are some examples for small talk.
Things you should try to avoid:
There is no need to impress the client by using technical and complicated language. As we said before, try to use simple language.
If you don't have the vocabulary to resolve something in the meeting or you're not sure how to answer a tricky question, let the client know. Don't avoid the question and move on because you're afraid you'll get it wrong. The client will appreciate you taking the time to resolve something. They are more likely see it as you giving the dedication and time that they believe their project deserves rather than you being incompetent at your job. Don't be afraid to tell them things like: "I'd really like to give this more thought." "I want to explore this option a little more before giving you an answer" These sorts of things can also work when working with other professions also. The client doesn't need to know that you spend time after trying to determine how you would answer their question.
Don’t take simple or silly questions from your clients personally. Often, they don’t understand the technical implications of construction the way you do.
In summary, effective communication needs a good understanding of how people behave and feel. The good news is that with practice this can be learnt. Any communication with your clients is never one way, it's always a two-way process. Speaking is equally as important as listening. Still, want more advice and resources?
Tips to Build and Maintain Trust in an Architect-Client Relationship
Communication skills for Architects
Soft Skills (personality and conversation skills) for Engineers and Designers
We'll talk more about how you can be a good active listener in our next article.