A Simple Guide on How to Effectively Talk to Clients

Mar 1 2008 by Jacob Gube | 58 Comments

talk_nerdy_to_me.jpgEveryone needs a website made, but not everyone can talk “tech” like we can. From the farm owner in Indiana to the brain surgeon in Malaysia, we quickly see that employers can come from all walks of life. Learning how to carry on a compelling conversation about web development is a paramount skill that all web developers should possess if you want to keep the checks coming in. Maintaining your audience’s interest and gaining an accurate picture of what they truly need to get done can prove to be a challenging part of any web development project, but here’s a few tips that might help a bit.

Get an estimate of their computing/technological expertise.

So that you know how in-depth you have to explain certain concepts or ideas, you should first try to determine the individual’s computing/technology knowledge. This can be accomplished indirectly with, what I’d like to call, fishing questions (similar to “fishing for compliments“).

For example, you can ask in passing, “Hey, what operating system do you have on your home computer?” or “What’s your preferred web browser?”. What you’re really trying to learn is: (1) if they know the basic terminologies like operating systems and web browsers, (2) if they have any experience with computers and the internet, (3) their tech savvy-ness, (4) how and why they use IT. A person using Linux probably knows a thing or two about computers and Mac’s are generally appealing to artists, designers, and musicians.

Other fishing questions are:

  • What do you already know about search engine optimization?
  • Do you use Adobe Photoshop (or a similar digital-image editing software)?
  • What are some websites you frequent on your spare time?
  • Do you subscribe to any RSS feeds?

Don’t underestimate a person’s knowledge.

You know that colleague who insists on explaining to you the difference between HTML and (X)HTML when you’ve just finished a strict-doctype XHTML website? Don’t be that guy. People don’t like to be treated like they’re stupid, and not being able to understand a person’s knowledge is a sure-fire way of landing yourself on his or her bad side. If you’re unsure of their grasp on a particular subject, don’t assume they don’t know anything, ask fishing questions and judge by their reactions whether or not you’ve explained enough.

Use actual examples.

When talking about a web project, it helps to have a computer with an internet connection nearby so that you can both communicate look at stuff that’s on the internet. For instance, if you’re trying to determine what look-and-feel a client wants for their website (i.e. “web 2.0″, dark, clean, etc.) you’d get a more precise answer if you were to show examples of websites that may have a similar theme that they described.

Keep an emphasis on the bottom-line.

People may not understand what SEO is, or how it’s accomplished, or why valid mark-up matters when trying to achieve a search engine optimized site, but if you talk in terms of results, they’ll be inclined to keep listening. For example, trying to describe the importance of standards-compliant XHTML, you can say: “standards-compliant XHTML ensures that the website’s mark-up is valid and supported by most modern web browsers which in the end means less maintenance and fewer customer support due to browser-rendering issues“.

Keep it simple.

Sometimes we have a tendency to overwhelm employers with technical jargon and over-explanation because we want to show them our knowledge and expertise. There’s no need to explain how you’re going to mock-up the web design in Photoshop (layer by layer, in excruciating detail). Most probably, they don’t care and you’ll only risk complicating things and adding to the client’s anxieties about a topic they’re not well-versed in.

Encourage questions.

It’s always good to figure out any questions or needs for clarification as early as you can to avoid dissatisfaction at the end. Give off the attitude that you’re always willing to answer questions and that no question is too simple or silly. If you have the luxury to meet with a client in person, you can do this by judging their facial reactions to the things you say. If they seem confused, ask: “should I explain further?”. If you’re meeting remotely (emails or phone calls), regularly say things like: “I’d be more than happy to answer any questions you may have”.

Talk using familiar analogies.

A great way to relate information to employers is by using scenarios and situations that are pertinent with their background. Be creative, make analogies funny, and most of all, use it to relay complex concepts. To illustrate with a satirical example: if you were talking to a basketball fan, you could say “using tables instead of div’s for page layout is as bad of a decision as picking Michael Olowokandi over Michael Jordan on your fantasy basketball roster because…“.

Be yourself.

Don’t pretend like you’ve worked on hundreds of websites and that you’ve been doing this for 15+ years… if you really haven’t. If you look uncomfortable or unsure of yourself, it gives off the impression that your trying too hard to impress or appear knowledgeable in the subject. A lot of web designers and developers nowadays don’t hide the fact that they are small, young, and playful. When working in an industry that’s complex and intimidating to outsiders, it’s a welcoming relief to find people that are normal. It can prove to be a plus when you don’t obfuscate the fact that you’re just starting out in the business. It’s easier to talk to a person who’s honest, sincere, and up-front then someone who appears to be B.S.’ing you all the time.

Do you have your own tips on how to effectively communicate with your clients? Share them by leaving a comment!

58 Comments

Hannes

March 3rd, 2008

Great article. I struggle to talk to clients, as I always tend to forget that they are not in the same industry as myself. This article has opened my eyes and has given me quite a few useful tips on how to convey ideas to a client.

Thanks

Jimmy Vu

March 4th, 2008

Thanks for very insightful info; dealing with non tech-savvy clients is always a difficult job.

BTW, @Sue’s comment is spam.

Jacob Gube

March 4th, 2008

Jimmy, thanks for the encouraging words and the head’s up on the comment spam. It looked legit to me, but the spam plug-in marked it as spam.

Tony P

March 4th, 2008

I’d like to add: know when to keep your mouth shut. Knowing what to say is often less important than knowing when to say something.

Jonathan Solichin

March 4th, 2008

insightful indeed. Why, I’m young and playful. Turning 15 soon to be exact. I guess that’s not what you mean, haha.

deveman

March 4th, 2008

Great Article.
I got here from Digg.
Your point about mock-up Photoshop images is very pertinent. It just adds another layer of an onion. Don’t keep peeling more of these layers- else, both you and the customer will come out in tears.
Promise them the bare minimum. Just try to understand what their REAL needs are. Many of them will keep adding requirements as the project develops. It will complicate things for both.
And target to get it done waaaay before time, but deliver only on the announced date, or maybe just a little earlier. Murphy’s law:
The last 10% of the work takes 90% of the time.

mark

March 4th, 2008

Very good advice. It’s something developers really need to know.

Marty Focazio

March 4th, 2008

Excellent advice, and I’d like to add a few others.

Don’t assume your client even CARES about technology, or even likes it. For them, technology is just something that is there, they don’t like to twiddle the knobs or change the settings – but they will listen – and closely – if you make a business case (as in the above examples) and really know how and why a particular technology will make business sense, they will listen and learn and act accordingly.

For example – we re-did some email messages for a client – the coding and layout of the message needed some subtle but important changes. But we said that they would lower the cost of customer acquisition a bit – more than enough to justify the cost of the program. Refactoring code suddenly made sense – and when the campaigns ran, sure enough, a 14% improvement in cost savings.

So keep their bottom line in mind and yours will improve.

Jimmy L

March 4th, 2008

Some of this is pretty logical. But, I still found value in it, so kudos to you. The fishing questions, for example, is a neat trick – works in other situations too… Good job!

Josh Holat

March 4th, 2008

Thanks for the advice, I’m sure it will help me a lot in the future haha

David

March 4th, 2008

Great article! And, not just for clients, try explaining the next great step to your senior VPs!

Michael Ott

March 5th, 2008

Not too shabby. There’s a fine between making them feel dumb and making yourself look like an uncaring techno-phile.

I actually encourage my clients to learn more about the web dev process and implore they never be intimidated by we say or do, and I get them to stop me if I say something that doesn’t make sense.

ender46

March 5th, 2008

Excellent article, I have encountered this problem myself, and it can be really frustrating. Thanks for the insite!

Dave

March 5th, 2008

Forgive me for being out of the Web Design loop for the past few years; but why aren’t Developers using Tables anymore?

Ryan Edgell

March 5th, 2008

Great article! It’s sometimes easy to forget that the client may not be that tech savvy. Spending some extra time explaining things usually leads to a much smoother project and even more repeat business.

Ashwin

March 5th, 2008

Hello,

Nice article , It will be great if you can also write an article on how to start a web development firm , i know many people who are interested in starting their own web development firm but are not confident enough or rather you can say don’t have enough knowledge including me for this.

Thanks.

Web Design Discussion Forum

March 5th, 2008

I agree with most of your points, however, I only started trading at the end of last year and it’s very difficult to prove your ‘portfolio’ without actually having one.
In order to sell your services, you have to be convincing when explaining ‘what you can do’ rather than ‘what you have donw’, which is what most customers, or potential customers want to see.
Sometimes, bending the rules a bit is a must, although not nice.

fiona

March 5th, 2008

A lovely refresher, thanks :) Really the idea of using fishing questions to get a sense of how pointy-head (or not) the client is! I’ll def. try that out :)

One of my biggest weaknesses is explaining the relative COST and VALUE of different options. I struggle with explaining why a compliant template is more valuable than a ready made template; AND why it costs more than the 12 year old next door would build using Frontpage!

Scott

March 5th, 2008

I think that what you have here is an excellent start; I often employ analogies and find that they work very well. I’d like to add one thing – CLARIFY everything!

I have experienced times when the client and I both agree that we are harmoniously talking about the same thing, only to discover later that some of the terms we’ve agreed on may be more ambiguous than we realized. A blog is a good example.

I know what a bog is, you know what a blog is and your client knows what a blog is–just make damn sure that everyone has defined and agreed upon exactly what their idea of a blog is and how should work. This saves a great deal of pain later on when you’ve built the blog and your client says – that’s not what I had in mind.

Chris @ MicroAngelo Web Development

March 5th, 2008

Good article, Jacob! Balancing the technical vs. user-centric details is a hard job!

Remember that with larger companies your Proposal will most likely be seen by more than one person. Often the task of sending out an RFP will be handed down from upper management to the most techy person in the company, who will then pass them “back up” with their recommendations. But the final decision remains with upper management: make sure they can understand the document too!

Jon

March 5th, 2008

Thanks for the article. My customers are all tech-savvy like me, but this gives me insight on how to answer when my wife or my mom say “so, what did you do at work today?”

Andreas

March 5th, 2008

When explaining things to clients sometimes you have to make it as clear and simple as you would have explained it to a 5 year old…

Denver Web Design by Shycon

March 5th, 2008

Good post. You can’t be condescending to the people you’re going to be working with. Always know what you’re doing, but don’t go over a clients head to try to impress them.

Jacob Gube

March 5th, 2008

Thank you all for your wonderful comments. I’d like to address some of them.

Marty: Excellent input and example! It’s exactly what I mean by “Keep an emphasis on the bottom-line“. Most clients/employers don’t care about how clean/well-written your code is (your colleagues on the other hand…) but if you mention the benefits of investing time in these things (i.e. focus on the “14% cost savings” part), they’ll be more inclined to listen to you.

Micheal Ott: I was inspired to write this post from a magazine article I read about “dealing with life’s unsavory characters: the IT guy”. I know that web development is vastly different from being “the IT guy” (a term I don’t like… but that story’s for another day) associated primarily towards technology support staff. I began to wonder… maybe web developers and programmers can be viewed the same way (i.e. the “uncaring techno-phile”) just because we work with computers.

I’ve seen some developers talk tech jargon to people who can barely send out e-mails, and I realized how that might make your conversation partner uncomfortable and less likely to listen to what you really have to say. Maybe we want to appear to have a vast amount of knowledge to impress our client — but if they don’t understand half the things you say — then all your effort is lost.

Dave: Hope that’s a joke :). If not, here’s the Google search results for “using tables for layout” which I link to whenever I get that question. I’d love to chat about this topic in greater detail, so if you’re interested, send me an email via the “Contact” page and we can talk about it some more.

Ashwin: I always welcome post suggestions… I want to write about things people are interested in reading. I’ll keep your suggestion in mind.

Web Design Discussion Forum: I can kind of see where you’re coming from… although I’ve seen new, small development firms garner big contracts because they’re unique and open about what they know and what they won’t. A trend I see is that they’re very personable and charismatic, showing clients that they’re “normal people” too, and not the “uncaring techno-phile” that Micheal Ott refers to.

Think of your doctor and how you hate it when he tries to explain what’s wrong with you using unfamiliar “Med school” terms… but if he pulls out a book with diagrams and talks in “plain english”, he accomplishes his task of explaining and communicating with the patient more effectively.

Fiona: We all know this dilemma, I personally struggle with this as well. You can create two identical-looking web pages but one is poorly-coded and one is so “clean” that you can eat off it.

But some of the selling points I typically use are:
(1) Easier maintenance and retrofitting code.
(2) Valid code ensures the highest probability of cross-browser and non-traditional browser compatibility.
(3) Potential that the website will be featured on gallery sites such as TheBestDesigns.com and unmatched style which equates to awards you can show-off to customers and increased traffic (poorly-written websites rarely get into these design-aggregate sites)
(4) Typically, faster load times . *You can use resources that explain how slower load times equates to poor user experience. Check out one of Jakob Nielsen’s articles: “The Need for Speed“.

Side note: you will all eventually see that I’m a big Jakob Nielsen fan.

Thank you all for the positive responses and enjoy the rest of the website!

- Jacob G.

sean

March 5th, 2008

you’re not dumbing it down enough when you say:

“standards-compliant XHTML ensures that the website’s mark-up is valid and supported by most modern web browsers which in the end means less maintenance and fewer customer support due to browser-rendering issues“.

…i would say:

“I will optimize the code so that you will get the best google rankings possible, and so that your site is viewable for as long as possible into the future, by the widest possible array of devices. My patented XML-based SEO markup will be easy to update in the future, keeping your update costs down, even if you want to use another (inferior) coder”

Markus Diersbock

March 5th, 2008

Great article, but the “div over table” comments are so tired.

It reminds me of the old joke about the “Wise Bull”.

When speaking with a client, use the angle that the technology will be a profit center for the business, rather than just a cost of doing business, and you’ll have better results.

Suits like making money, and hate to spend it.

Felipe Giotto

March 5th, 2008

Great post!

Many of us have already lived these situations, both in the client and in the vendor side. Vendors thinking we’re stupids, or trying to look like they’re more intelligent, these things drives me crazy! These are nice tips we all should follow!

Best regards!

Felipe Giotto ;-)

Lukas

March 5th, 2008

Very true article… thanks for this. You got my bookmark!

JesseJ

March 5th, 2008

When you have an idea that contradicts your clients, tell them that it was their idea, or that you were inspired of something they mentioned earlier (you can even say you forgot exactly what they said).

Still the client will propably agree on whatever, because it was “their idea”.

Jeremy Lim

March 5th, 2008

Kudos for the great piece! I come from a marketing background, and I used to work with a technology company.

I have some minor programming chops, but the majority of the time, my co-workers say things that would shoot way over my head and wouldn’t mean anything to me.

Sometimes, I would get flustered and ask, “… so, you just told me how we might be able do it, but do we have the time and resources to do it? Is it even possible?”

Features, advantages, and BENEFITS! Always drill down to the benefits!

When explaining the importance of proper markup, it might even be better to say, “I can help create a system where there’s less maintenance and less need for customer support if … How does that sound to you?”

Another great point in this article is that clarifying is important. Don’t assume. Relinquish control, and take the process one step at a time with the client.

Dave C

March 6th, 2008

I find the most important part of talking to clients is managing expectations. Its important to be realistic about what you can acheive within the time / budget constraints as well as keeping the client in the loop with what you are doing, especially if the project has hit some snags.

You’ll find alot of the business side of things will want to arrange things like daily status meetings when a project is having problems. Its easy to dismiss this, after all wasting time on a call with various project management teams and clients is jsut time not spent coding, testing or bug fixing. However it is important to remember that these people have a strong vested interest in the outcome, as well as a high level of ownership in the final deliverable. They may need to plan other areas of their business around your deliverable so it is important to keep them in the loop as much as possible.

peter

March 6th, 2008

I have always prided myself on being able to communicate technical concepts to the laymen.

This is a very important article. It important for clients to understand what they are paying for to avoid conflict on the future.

Russell Fair

March 21st, 2008

Right On. One thing I have found, is that asking more questions and listening carefully is a lot more important than what I say. I have been “selling” websites for a long time, upwards to 6 years, and it was always a struggle. About a year ago I got my hands on some good sales training, and learned that simply shutting up was always a good sales technique.

I meet with a client last month, and I just asked a few open ended questions like: how is this development project going to help you accomplish your goals, and can you describe the ideal end result of this project… and just sat back and listened. so when the meeting felt over, they looked at me and said, “so can you do this?” and I just said “yea, no problem” and that was that.

Vaibhav

April 29th, 2008

Great stuff.. Right on target. You are on my reader now.
Cheers
Vaibhav

Catherine Lockey

May 23rd, 2008

I try to keep in mind that most business owners (my demographic) do not really understand even a hint of my jargon. Everything I say in a meeting is in layman’s terms. Just to give you an example, I have worked with a few clients who did not know where to type a URL into their browser. These were very successful business owners and I was grateful to have the opportunity to work with them. You can be sure if I had not spoken their language they would not have worked with me.

Russell Fair

June 5th, 2008

As someone who has sold web development for a long time, I really do appreciate this article. I wrote something similar on my website, Basically some additional pointers and tips when presenting and speaking with customers.

http://rfwebstudio.com/rf-web-studio-news/strategies-for-effective-website-sales-%e2%80%93-a-guide-for-professionals-who-sell-web-development-services/

Enjoy!

Kyria

October 22nd, 2008

Keep up the good work.

Sean Nieuwoudt

December 4th, 2008

thanks for the read! :)

very important not to under estimate your clients intelligence (or anyone for that matter) as they always know more than you think.

Stephen Hart

December 5th, 2008

The most effective way to communicate is to use their own language – i.e. give examples from their world and show that the results that will happen with stories they can relate to.

So for a farmer use farming stories and for a financial chap use money related examples etc.

Stephen
http://www.edenchanges.com

Mokokoma Mokhonoana

December 10th, 2008

Good advice, I think it’s a good idea to find out how much web savvy the clients is. As it will dictate the way you should speak to the client and the language (jargon) you communicate with etc.

billy vandory

December 17th, 2008

oh, maybe that’s why i lost the contract: i shouldn’t have explained how i was going to reroute the hysenburg compensator through uniary adjunct of sub zero tertiary layer 5

John

January 2nd, 2009

One rule we have at our web design & development agency is that we never allow the clients to use their imagination went we present an idea. It is always best to have the idea comped up in photoshop so they can see exactly what you are envisioning. Otherwise, ideas become utterly lost in translation.

bar rafaeli

May 3rd, 2009

Don’t assume your client even CARES about technology, or even likes it. For them, technology is just something that is there, they don’t like to twiddle the knobs or change the settings – but they will listen – and closely – if you make a business case (as in the above examples) and really know how and why a particular technology will make business sense, they will listen and learn and act accordingly.

gazeteler

May 12th, 2009

I’d like to add: know when to keep your mouth shut. Knowing what to say is often less important than knowing when to say something.

ekolhoca

June 10th, 2009

oh, maybe that’s why i lost the contract: i shouldn’t have explained how i was going to reroute the hysenburg compensator through uniary adjunct of sub zero tertiary layer 5

Emmanuel Aboagye

June 15th, 2009

I don’t get the be yourself part of your script. Sometimes the clients must be convinced based on experience, the idea is that you can work and satisfy him or her, not necessarily talking about your working experience, even though its essential it can also be crucial.

suriya

June 16th, 2009

really great. though i am new to this field,it helped me mammoth

Terrintokyo

June 18th, 2009

Excellent article, and I’ll be passing it on to my ubergeek friends as well as using your tips myself.
thanks.

Dwight

June 22nd, 2009

I’m not a web developer but this article hits it right on the dot! Great point on assessing their knowledge first before offering something that will make them look stupid! :P

hari babu

August 26th, 2009

good article , will share with my friend too

Chotrul

December 22nd, 2009

I think you are absolutely spot on starting from here: Get an estimate of their computing/technological expertise. It’s so very easy to make wrong assumptions about this … and then expectations can go very awry. Many thanks for the useful article ….

Bathroom Glasgow

January 15th, 2010

Many of us have already lived these situations, both in the client and in the vendor side. Vendors thinking we’re stupids, or trying to look like they’re more intelligent, these things drives me crazy! These are nice tips we all should follow!

Best regards!

Felipe Giotto ;-)

Balazs

March 11th, 2010

Great article!
I think its really important to use actual examples,
Be yourself!

Apie

January 11th, 2011

to some people its shyness.. which can actually disgrace the fellow in front of the prospect. So i would advise that young designers who maybe are going to meet a prospect/client for the first time should take their time, don’t think about it for too long and be confident with yourself.

Me Decor Psybrary

February 22nd, 2011

Very enriching article. Thanks

In addition to what has been mentioned above,
(and perhaps to reiterate)
good to know who is/was involved with client prior to you.
Does client have username / passwords for “their” own web site? If they arent designing it themselves then ther eis a good chance that they .. well, maybe YOU, will have to retrieve these details somehow from their previous web service provider. That can be a bit daunting or delaying, depending on the situation. Sure, its just as easy to reinvent the wheel and redesign however that bodes ill when all you are being paid for is updates to an existing site.
Hmmm.

Racheal O. Mack

September 3rd, 2011

Great advice! Thanks!

Matt Sise

September 21st, 2011

Greetings from Florida! I’m bored at work so I decided to check out your website on my iphone during lunch break. I love the information you present here and can’t wait to take a look when I get home. I’m surprised at how quick your blog loaded on my phone .. I’m not even using WIFI, just 3G .. Anyhow, wonderful site! Kudos!

mahadvan

October 9th, 2012

really it was helpful for me to proceed with my new clients

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