Digital agency people live in a bubble. We throw around terms like vector, wireframe, and cache like they’re part of humanity’s common lexicon. We let out a sigh/eyeroll (a sighroll, if you will) when clients say module when they really mean page. We often use Google to problem solve and get frustrated when clients don’t do the same. We forget that what we churn out in a day’s work is unfathomable wizardry to a lot of people. We’re great at empathizing with users, but we have forgotten how to truly empathize with our clients, and that is a huge failing in our industry.
In Mike Monteiro’s talk, “What Clients Don’t Know (…And Why It’s Your Fault)”, he discusses this issue in relation to designers, but it’s a universal issue in the digital agency environment. We expect our clients to understand everything, and get frustrated when they don’t — forgetting that we are the experts hired to help them understand in the first place. We should be taking our expertise and extending it out to our clients, helping them to feel smarter and more empowered in their decisions and discussions on the project. Switching gears between communicating with coworkers and communicating with clients needs to be conscious and considered. This can be a lot harder than it sounds.
Full disclosure: when I started the client service side of my position duties, I had no clue of what I was doing. I read articles and blogs voraciously, dutifully studying the dos and don’ts of various Industry Royalty, trying to find some kind of golden rule for how someone should conduct themselves during every interaction with a client. At the time, I misunderstood the whole point of my position; I was more focused on crafting meticulously-worded Basecamp messages than I was with ensuring the client even really understood the words used within them. I was looking for what to say, rather than how to say it.
A few months in, I was gearing up to show a client their staging site when… the site broke. While our developers did have it under control, they needed a couple of extra hours to get things back online. I asked the developer to explain what had happened, so I could then relay this technical information to the client. This should have been my first red flag: if you don’t understand what’s going on, your client definitely won’t. In an attempt to reassure the client with my technical know-how, intending to emphasize that everything was under control, I had in reality alienated the client, made them nervous, and (most likely) reduced their confidence in me, my team, and the project. The staging site got back online within half an hour, the client loved it, and eventually the site launched to internal and external acclaim, but it felt like a hollow victory. I had gotten so wrapped up in the Agency Bubble that I had forgotten our clients exist outside of it, with their own intricate professional specialities and knowledge bases. I had forgotten to empathize.
Although it’s easy to forget, it’s vital to remind yourself to (as Monteiro so flatteringly puts it) “put yourself in your clients’ less stylish shoes”. You don’t have to patronize to inform (unless your client is Michael Scott). Ensure your clients are being made to feel knowledgable and empowered throughout the project. Explain key terms and don’t rest until you’re sure the client is comfortable with them. Consider your words before throwing out unnecessary tech terms. Are you showing off? Stop that! Be an approachable resource to your clients. You’re on their side, after all; make sure you communicate it effectively.