Communicating with Cheese

For six years I worked at an ad agency. There is so much I miss about those days: the creative collaboration, the fun environment, the health insurance…. Today I’m self employed and run my own design studio. Another big change from my agency days is that I don’t have any sales folks acting as middle men between me and the clients. I deal with everybody directly, including the big cheese.

The sales people at the agency would regale us with stories of their meetings and calls with clients. They would also deal with the poor communication that inevitably happens, especially when dealing directly with the CEO or owner of a company. These folks are busy. They have a lot on their plate. And now that I’m the one dealing with them, I’m learning that as much as they may value me and my services, they really don’t have time for me. Email replies are brief and vague. They simply want jobs done. They do want the job done right, but they want to invest as little of their own time as possible. That’s not a criticism. That’s the reality of their world.

Consider a fictitious business owner named Mr. Gouda. He falls into many of the typical communication pitfalls that you and I need to deal with. Below I’ve compiled a short list of these items along with practical communication tips I’ve learned over the last ten years of self employment.

1. He loves the telephone. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. But he’s calling you in the hope that he can quickly turn a task over to you and have it off his plate. He’s not great with a keyboard. Typing up an email simply takes too long. The problem for you is there will be no record of the details of the conversation. He’s not going to remember exactly what he told you. He’s simply going to evaluate what you provide him against what he’s envisioning in his head. Here are three things you can do to prevent a future fallout:

Be prepared. Always have pencil and paper ready to take notes. Write down as many details as possible and type them up for yourself immediately after the call, as you will get foggy on details if you wait and come back to it later.

Reiterate the main points. Before hanging up, recite back to Mr. Gouda the main points of the conversation. This allows him an opportunity to clarify and it makes it more likely that he’ll remember what was discussed when there’s an issue down the road.

Follow up with an email. He may not be big on email communication, but you are. Send him an email telling him that based on your conversation, here are the steps you’re going to take. There is now a record you can go back to in case he questions why you did or didn’t do something.

2. He’s not going to read your entire email. And even if he does, he’s going to skim. Keep it simple and deal with the most important issue first. If you have multiple issues that are crucial, consider multiple emails. Make it blatantly clear exactly what you need from him.

3. He’s not going to answer all your questions. If you stick multiple questions in the same paragraph, the chance of him addressing all of them is slim. Format your questions in a numbered list. If you take nothing else away from this post, this is the one simple, practical tip you should remember. As with most things, communication comes down to design. This even applies to email. By separating your questions into a numbered list, it will make it visually clear to Mr. Gouda that he has multiple issues to address.

4. He’s going to be vague in what he’s requesting. Don’t get too frustrated by this and don’t reply in an offensive manner. I’ve found that my value to my clients comes from my ability to take the little input they give me and run with it. Embrace this as a challenge. Put yourself in their shoes and try to understand what they’re requesting. That being said, sometimes what you’re given is simply not enough. It’s OK to ask for clarification (and if this is a large, involved project, it’s crucial). But do so keeping points #2 and #3 in mind.

5. He’s not very patient. So don’t keep going back to him asking for clarification over and over. Sometimes he doesn’t give you solid direction because he doesn’t have one. That’s why he’s paying you. If you’re up against a communication brick wall, you need to make decisions based on what you know and present them boldly. The sad reality is that often the client will not have solid direction for you until you show them an idea that they hate. Only then will they get back to you with what they’re envisioning. That’s the reality of the design business, but don’t let it stop you from proceeding down the path you choose with confidence.

6. He needs emails threads. I realize that his original subject line of “Getting back to you” no longer applies to the project being discussed. But by starting a new thread, you may be losing a lot of archival direction about the project that will now be more difficult for you to reference. You may be keeping separate notes with all feedback that came in about the project, but he’s not. Email threads provide an automatic archive that can back you up if things go south.

Hopefully you find some of these tips helpful when communicating with the big cheeses in your professional life. Design is all about communication, so anything you can do to foster healthy communication behind the scenes will only add to the success of the project.

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