You’re going to have that done in three minutes, right?

Recently, I had a communication error with one of our valued clients and it became clear how expectations and communication are key, and refined business processes are the cure. We’re in the habit of taking responsibility at WMC, and a miscommunication about timeframes, expectations and milestones created an opportunity to expand our understanding of a client, inspect an internal vulnerability to the satisfaction of our clients, and to clarify our client’s understanding of what it is that we do behind the scenes. Here’s how we turned a negative into a positive.

Part One: The Communication problem

Setting expectations in detail is of utmost importance to avoid any communication problems with a client. Typically a client doesn’t know how to do what you offer – that’s why they’re coming to you. Even in cases where a client has done their homework to better understand what it is they’re contracting you for, their realm of experience does not contain the depth of expertise and repetitive involvement that you, the professional, have. Their expertise is in their own realm of business, and your realm of expertise resides within your own business. Sounds pretty basic, right? But even at this point in the game, boundaries are crossed and assumptions are made without a word ever being said.

I love working with members of the Armed Forces because they inadvertently train me to be a better professional while we do business together. The attention to detail, expectation of clarity and dedication to completing the mission are of paramount importance to professionals who have served in any branch of military. This makes me a better business person, having not experienced this level of refined training until well into my professional career. This also kindles a subconscious desire to do an excellent job for them. As you might already suspect, the communication error on my part came from a lack of detail, and on their part with assuming my processes were instantaneous because I failed to explain our process in detail.

This created an expectation not outlined in contract or even verbal communication. We’re starting a website project for this particular client with a three-week production timeframe. In the meantime, they requested a landing page while the rest of the site would be built on a staging instance. In a nonchalant and friendly manner, I ensured them a one-page simplistic layout was easy enough to produce and launch in the interim. On my end, it would take about one hour to produce and launch.

This is where the miscommunication happened. When I said one hour, the client expected it within the hour. I had failed to mention that initializing a new domain’s DNS settings may take some time to propagate, SSL certs would take some more time, and besides – I was handling some other projects first. I would produce this homepage in an hour but at a time more convenient to me. My client did not have this same expectation.

Part Two: The Difference Between Reaction and Response

I’ve had the unfortunate experience of dealing with a number of what is commonly referred to in the creative industry as “nightmare clients”. The subject of this article is not one of those, but I made the error of applying my past experience to this client. This was due to their immediate dissatisfaction with any timeframe outside of the one hour I mentioned in passing, and my immediate defensive reaction of recalling past “nightmare clients” who made it a habit to exert ongoing control and leverage over the progress of a creative project. Because of this stringent expectation, I reacted by informing the client that I could not stop my existing work to spend that hour on his landing page immediately. They responded by requesting that I deliver on my promises. I reacted again out of a deep seated passion for delivering exceptionally for my clients. (If you read that sentence again, you’ll see the connection between reaction and justification – I thought I was justified in reacting because of a strong belief that I deliver exceptionally.)

I was wrong. Not because I don’t deliver exceptionally, but because I reacted. Reaction is only effective in situations where defense is required, not in situations where clarity is needed. My client was able to easily put me on my heels because I did not clearly communicate expectations and timeframes, and instead of responding with explanation I reacted with a defensive posture.

Realizing the nonproductive nature of this exchange, I started to ask myself how I could learn from this, and the client immediately reoriented their position to say this is a defining moment for positive growth in how we plan and execute together. We quickly jumped on the phone, and as luck would have it our busy schedules allowed for a short face-to-face meeting.

Such is the primary difference between reaction and response: reaction comes from lack of preparation and consideration that causes a defensive posture, where response comes from a carefully considered and mutually beneficial mindset. Business relationships (and personal ones, or that matter) always prosper with appropriate response, but often break because of reaction.

Part Three: The Client becomes the Teacher

This particular client is an exceptional business person and a perceptive leader. They’ve built their company from nothing to over $30 million in revenue in only five years. Contrary to uninformed belief, this does not happen by luck or accident. It happens because there are certain distinctions and processes they have developed which work in their favor, coupled with the regular elimination of beliefs and habits which do not serve growth. This demonstrated success makes the case for an outstanding teacher, so the conversation started with where I went wrong and how I can do it better… two of the most important questions I know of that can make a huge difference in the trajectory of a a business’ growth.

As designers, it’s easy to want to chum up with clients – we’re an expressive and emotional breed of professionals, after all. It’s where our talent for creating things unseen and unheard of comes from. Since many business leaders tend to reside on the operational and tactical side of things, they need an exceptional creative team to balance out what would otherwise be stale and empirical communications lacking any personality or empathic pre-framing for their customers. Yet, for this same reason, we can often overlook important details and subtleties in business relationships. This is why account managers and sales professionals are important in any business – but especially an industry which deals so heavily with turning abstract thought into successful results.

So what came of our face-to-face? We outlined the difference between plans and suggestions. We got our conversation out of the world of texts and emails and into a real conversation. So much context can be lost in written word that can be resolved by a simple phone call or visit. We identified that my client’s style of communication, much shaped by his time in the Marines, involves an expectation that a target is identified, a response is confirmed and a result is expected. This is a far-cry from the artistic point of view that commonly is expressed as, “That’s a great idea! I’ll get on it when I sort through this huge pile of work on my desk and I’ll update you when I’ve had the time to get artsy with it!” This often doesn’t fly with people who are focused on creating a measurable and tangible result.

From this conversation, we were able to identify the problem and difference in communication style, determine a definite release date for all milestones, and I came away with a great set of internal business development goals which will aim to identify tasks, milestones, expectations, deadlines and delivery dates with precision.

The Result: elevated understanding, an internal development plan for WMC, a positive growth in our working relationship and the release of our client portal which gives customers unprecedented responsiveness to production goals

We’re not in the habit of only listening. When a client has expressed ways in which we can become a better service to them, we listen carefully and follow up with action. The incredibly valuable lesson our client taught us was to be impeccably defined with expectations, processes, timelines, goals and deadlines. Our response involves the refined development of our sales process, the addition of a new team member focused on account management (announcement coming soon!), and most importantly – the release of our WMC Client Portal.

When you become a WMC Client, you will now have an incredible amount of visibility into our processes, progress and project details. You’ll receive automatic email updates (based on your preferences) at all pertinent developments in the progress of a project. You’ll also be able to upload and download files to each project and approve or reject designs right there on the project page. Additionally, you can see the breakout of all tasks and milestones, with a front-and-center percentage based timeline indicator so you always know where you stand with your WMC creative projects.

WMC Client Portal

Talk is cheap, action is everything. We look forward to bringing you more awesome articles, features and next-generation ways of working with us to develop your company’s brand, web-based technologies and marketing effectiveness. Rate the article below, share it with all your friends and colleagues, and let us know what you think in the comments at the bottom of the page!