Eight steps to handle communication breakdowns like a pro

The ability to converse intelligibly is the most important of all employee skills and attributes, according to the Job Outlook 2016 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

On a scale of 0 to 5, NACE business members ranked verbal communications skills at 4.63, ahead even of the ability to analyze quantitative data (4.21) and job-related technical knowledge (3.99).

Despite these survey results, too many business teams regard verbal communications as “touchy-feely” and impossible to manage since there is no metric for the spoken word. They forge ahead, assuming everything is going great.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the client phones and chews out the project leader or sends out a harsh email complaint to the entire team.

Wow. We didn’t see that coming.

Contributing to the breakdown may be that the team and the client are stuck in a communications rut. They use email primarily, or instant messaging, or a cloud-based document management system, or a channel combination app like Slack.

All of these ways to exchange information and ideas have their strengths, such as the ability to convey a lot of details at once. But they also have the weakness of not providing the nuance and context of hearing a person’s tone of voice over the phone and seeing body language during an in-person meeting.

One way to kick-start a better relationship is going to a different communications medium. Try a phone call instead of an email or instant message. Make the effort to hold that face-to-face talk. Clients who sound rude in text are often lovely over the phone or in person.

Hearing and/or seeing the client changes how the team will interpret the client’s written words in the future.

Of course there are difficult clients. Those who will not sign off on a project, or participate in a helpful way, or who want to micromanage everything. All of these annoying behaviors are signs of a lack of trust and confidence. It may be that the client brings a lack of trust to the project.

Or it could be that the team has said or done something to reduce the client’s level of trust. It’s best not to assume but to ask. “What can we do to build your trust?” Clarifying the client’s expectations at the outset helps set a foundation of good communications, making it easier for the client to believe that the team will deliver as promised.

On occasion, there is a poor fit between the client and the product manager. The person to rectify the situation must then be someone else from the organization, who steps in to straighten things out and restore client confidence.

Absent a solid communications foundation, the noisy client meltdown ensues. Now it’s up to the team to own the problem, find out what went awry, and fix it. Here are eight steps to defuse the crisis, make sure it doesn’t happen again, and improve the way the organization does business.

Step 1: Mentally take responsibility

The onus for project success is on the team. Even if you feel the client is being unreasonable, it’s best to put your emotions aside and take responsibility for the both the communication breakdown.

By definition you’ve messed up if it got to that point – either by taking on a bad client, setting expectations poorly, or not living up to your promises. Whatever the case, take ownership and focus on the solution, not who’s to blame.

The “But I’m right” mentality is childish and profoundly unproductive. De-escalate so you focus on the solution and end goal.

Step 2: Listen

Make the client feel heard. Listen while the client vents. Try not to take it personally because it may simply be a bad day for the client that has little, if anything, to do with the team’s performance. The only way to know is to pay close attention. Take notes if that is helpful but not at the expense of paying complete attention.

Step 3: Reassure the client

Repeat the client’s words to make clear that you have listened and understood the client’s concerns. Take the onus off the client to flesh out the scope of the issue and possible causes and really hear the client’s perspective on what has gone awry.

Simply feeling understood and heard will fundamentally change the tone of the interaction. When a client feels you aren’t listening or you don’t understand they’ll feel as though it’s an “us” and “them” relationship. Once they feel heard, it’ll start to feel like you’re on the same team again.

Step 4: Lay out a plan to fix things

The issue may or may not be the team’s mistake. But for now, let the client know that you feel bad that you’re in this situation and that it’s not acceptable to you either.

Make it plain the client’s concerns are top priority, and that you will investigate and resolve the matter. “I’ll look into this immediately and have the first progress report to you by X.”

Step 5: Keep the client informed

Set daily tasks and goals and tell the client what they are. Check in with the client with a progress report at least once a day at least once a day even if you feel there isn’t any development to report. Just letting the client know it’s top of mind for you and that you’re on it is tremendously reassuring.

If the client works in a big company, this also helps the client solve another problem – manager check-ins. This way if the client’s boss asks for a status update on the project, the client can report: “I checked with them today and we’re still at X stage, they’re reporting on progress every day until Y is resolved.”

That keeps the client looking good in the eyes of the client’s manager. Also, silence creates frustration over the lack of visibility. A lack of visibility creates an environment that readily breeds paranoia and distrust.

Step 6: Investigate

Do the legwork to figure out what went wrong. Poll each member of the team individually (if possible) for his or her comments on possible causes.

Again, listen actively and reassure the person the goal is not to assess blame, but to uncover any glitches and develop ways to correct them. Get their suggestions for ways to improve both communications and procedures.

Step 7: Take decisive action

Draw up a plan for moving forward. Plan your transition for returning to the normal client check-in schedule. Keep the team informed of developments and decisions, too. Good communications go in all directions.

Step 8: Learn

Use this glitch to assess the overall process and how it can be improved. The goal is to make sure that whatever went wrong doesn’t happen again, whether it was a process error or lack of accountability for timely communications.

Sometimes, teams are doing things right but not updating the client regularly. Other times the team is simply under-performing. Whatever the case, it’s important to improve the client experience continuously.