3 Ways to Communicate Effectively with a Client

Communicating with a Potential Client

The other day, a new client wanted to have our first phone conversation, which I incorrectly assumed would include a bit of discovery (a process where you define, map and analyze an organization's existing processes or current state). Rather, it was just a formality to chat for about 10 minutes as an introduction to a future discovery meeting in the subsequent week. I assumed a few things when we booked the phone chat in under three days, which were they were in a rush and either the situation was urgent or they wanted to get this prospective consultant off their to-do list. I did my best to listen, ask good questions, focus on their interests and their needs and not mine.

Communication is the foundation of every relationship. It begins before you even realize it. We don't just have in-person conversations, but text, email or phone. Our assumptions can also cloud our perceptions (do they like me?). From what people want, what people speak, and how people earn trust. These all stem from relating to someone through verbal and non-verbal cues.

Did you know, there are four people present in a conversation between two people.

1) What I communicate;

2) How the other person perceives it;

3) What they communicate back, and

4) How I perceive that.

With four people in every conversation, there's a likely chance of misunderstanding. If the gap between perception and speech is big, then the greater the chances of miscommunication and conflict, regardless of intention. The role of consciousness is as gatekeeper and sense maker after the fact, research shares,  so this means that our unconsciousness is doing most of the driving (some research says as much as 95%, you know this when you don't have to think to eat or move your hand off something hot, or can't control your facial expression to something that was said). 

Generous listening, a term I coined as a facilitator, is a step better than traditional ‘active listening’ found in communication books. This is much harder than speaking. Generous listening requires intentional silence, or pauses, creating space for disagreement, and the fine dance in the art of conversation. You're not listening to speak; rather you are listening to understand. Generous listening includes empathy. See from their eyes and walk in their shoes. Opening the floor with strong open-ended questions and getting curious about what a person has to say and what is on their mind is at the heart of generous listening. As expected, this takes a certain level of confidence, practice and relational acumen.

You are not listening to speak; rather you are listening to understand.

If you focus on being curious, then your communication skills will be open and flexible. If you focus only on getting the last word in and getting your point across, chances are your communication style is more rigid and stubborn. In the latter, ask yourself, do you feel heard when you speak? Sometimes being assertive is necessary. If tension and stubbornness exist in the conversation - such as the client not relying on your expertise, or micro-managing, or overstepping your work schedule by demanding a quick turnaround, then first trying to understand where they're coming from so they're heard, which then flows into being listened to. Then you assert your business boundaries.

When building a clientele you have to start off on a date. You do that by showing respect, being timely and communicating accurate plans. These are essential, both to a first date and to a partnership. Here is how you listen to and communicate in a way that is trustworthy and credible.

3 Ways to Communicate Effectively

  1. Generous listening: only listen, don't speak and don't multitask. And don't think about dinner plans. Focus only on what the other person is saying, explicit words and implicit body language. In fact, empty your mind completely. This level of attention and empathy demonstrates you care, i.e. you're not a pushy salesperson.
  2. Paraphrase: repeat back exactly what you hear, this is not an easy task. Think about the last conversation you had and did you repeat back everything they said to truly understand what was said? What if the conversation was a disagreement? Chances are you didn't, and that’s because we have mental heuristics, or shortcuts that our brain takes under stress and we fall into habit. So if we are in disagreement with someone, we don't listen to understand, we listen to disagree and push our own interests. That's why this tip is very important, always repeat back what that person is saying. This works in many ways, not just with a prospect, but also in your market research, or emails. If you're not providing a service or product that clients are really voicing a need for, then you're not listening. Repeat back what you've heard to confirm and validate what they shared.
  3. Ask good questions: to understand someone's perceptions more clearly and deeply. Ask open-ended questions (and not 'yes' or 'no' ones). In the art of business, you're not debating your prospects or clients and you certainly don't want to disagree with them because that will push them away. You're trying to build trust and a mutual understanding of the benefits each party will receive. You're trying to better understand what their needs are, what the parameters or scope of the project is so you can have a good working relationship.

Build Trust through Practice

Similarly, apply these tips in the digital world. If a client is not listening to you – can you trust they will deliver their part? If a client takes weeks to respond, how will you ensure your payment is on time? The art of communication is like a first date. You're trying to woo and impress one another in genuine ways. Can you feel trust and respect?

In the future, practicing your communication skills and giving up some of your old habits can feel uncomfortable and risky. It might even feel like giving up some of your power at first. Every good salesperson (or negotiator) knows giving up power is the key to establishing trust and mutual respect.

Similarly, listening doesn't necessarily mean you agree with everything, or that you must take a specific set of actions. On the contrary, listening actually helps to clarify any incorrect actions or taking actions too soon. You don't want to act on little information only to find out that it is not what the client wanted to begin with. Or, if you're trying to identify what a client needs with their branding, or with their art commission. They're going to be looking for evidence that you generously listened to them and what they want before the project unfolds. Essentially, should they pay or hire you, or not? Notice your resistance to what a client or prospect is saying and how they're saying it and always put listening first.

In the end, take the time to generously listen before speaking. Always take the time to ask good questions, then follow up with your expertise. This will help build your social and emotional courage so you can build trust and in turn, secure a prospective customer or even a long-lasting relationship.