Communication: The Undervalued Essential
Part Four of a Four-Part Series

Quick Reference Guide for Better Client Communication

Communication: The Undervalued Essential a Four-Part Serives

By Sean Moseley, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and co-author of The Engineering Communication Manual.

What’s the best way to deal with a client who is extremely detail oriented? Or the best communication strategy for a project with only a slight chance of success?

We conclude our series with an easy-to-use reference guide created to help novice engineers discover the best-possible communication and project management strategies for any project—based on the combined characteristics of the client and the project itself. This guide breaks down a holistic analysis of the situation into a series of easily identifiable low/high characteristics.

The strategies presented here make visible the hard-earned knowledge of experienced project managers, based on six months of observing engineer-client interactions at Ventures. Following these suggestions should improve the utility of new hires, minimize training time, and may even help seasoned project managers by suggesting new ways to talk about communication with their teams. Best of all, asking these questions helps engineers internalize the importance of understanding their audience for any communication situation, making a positive outcome much more likely.

Table 1. Rate your client and project as low or high in these characteristics.


CLIENT Characteristics

Low or High?

 

PROJECT Characteristics

Low or High?

INVOLVEMENT of client in project details

 

 

Overall PRESSURE on the budget and schedule

 

Client’s tolerance for RISK

 

 

Current PROBABILITY of project success

 

FORMALITY of client’s business culture

 

 

CLARITY of project development path

 

Client’s TRUST in the work of your company

 

 

SIZE of project scope

 

Client’s actual subject-matter EXPERTISE

 

 

NUMBER of people at client contributing to the project

 

Client’s EXPERIENCE in the business or market

 

 

VISIBILITY of project within client’s organization

 

FRIENDLINESS of client

 

 

 

 

Table 2. Choose an effective strategy based on your rating of the client.


Client characteristic

Strategies for a LOW rating

Strategies for a HIGH rating

INVOLVEMENT of client in project details

Expect infrequent communication; Updates focus on big picture & low detail

Expect frequent updates with moderate details; Follow-up calls with email summaries

Client’s tolerance for RISK

Established techniques will likely be preferred; Look for the sure thing over the gamble

Look for new approaches; Honestly assess pros/cons of possible paths

FORMALITY of client’s business culture

Document decisions in writing even when reporting verbally; Approvals likely quicker

Give updates in discrete documents with effective summaries; Expect managers to get reports

Client’s TRUST in the work of your company

Watch your tone—be competent and not defensive; Highlight any positive results

Keep client informed; Document and justify your work just in case

Client’s actual subject-matter EXPERTISE

Summarize to client without condescension; Help client decide how to achieve their claims and goals

Be prepared to learn from client; Rely on their skills as needed

Client’s EXPERIENCE in the business or market

Understand what’s unique to the client’s approach

Appreciate the client’s current position and market knowledge

FRIENDLINESS of client

Expect phone calls to get right to business; All written communication will tend towards formality

Calls can begin with casual small-talk; Keep written updates relatively formal; Maintain professionalism

Table 3. Choose an effective strategy based on your rating of the project.


Project characteristic

Strategies for a LOW rating

Strategies for a HIGH rating

Overall PRESSURE on the budget and schedule

Consider pursuing interesting ideas or changing paths; Keep client aware of budget & schedule even if on-track

Keep on the main path; Stay focused; Frequently update the client about the budget & schedule, with context

Current PROBABILITY of project success

Record and share lessons learned and possible paths; Take ownership of failures

Move continuously towards goals but watch out for roadblocks; Consider what extras you can identify

CLARITY of project development path

Share lessons learned as path is uncovered; Frequent checks that path still makes sense

Foreground unexpected results or delayed progress even when things are going smoothly

SIZE of project scope

While ad-hoc organization may be sufficient right now, organize project info for later

Time spent organizing documents will pay off in the short and long term

NUMBER of people at client contributing to the project

Urgent needs might be dealt with by a phone call

Understand the roles of each person; Write as if the entire client team will read it

VISIBILITY of project within client’s organization

Documents unlikely to be shared beyond client team; Formal updates less frequent

High risk/high reward situation; Expect more frequent formal updates, likely shared beyond client team