25 Tips for Avoiding Communication Problems

Miscommunication is a huge obstacle to building a successful relationship. And, since freelancer/client trust is based on relationship–miscommunication can be a huge problem for freelancers.

Nearly every freelancer eventually faces a communication problem with a client. Even those of us who specialize in clear communication sometimes have problems.

In this post, I’ll describe some steps that every freelancer can take to avoid miscommunication.

How to Avoid Communication Problems

Here are twenty-five ways that freelancers can dramatically reduce client communication problems:

  1. Be proactive–Research and learn everything you can about your client and your client’s business before you meet with them. Find out what some of the common problems are your client’s industry.
  2. Manage your expectations–Every client and every project is unique. While we can learn from past clients and projects, it’s important to understand that this client and this project may be different from what you’ve experienced in the past.
  3. Listen carefully–Pay close attention to what your client says. Take notes if you need to, especially during a long meeting or a confusing discussion.
  4. Pay attention to non-verbal signals like tone of voice or body language–Often words are not the only way that your client is communicating with you. Pay attention to their posture and facial expressions. If you are meeting by phone, listen carefully to your client’s voice for clues as to what they may be thinking.
  5. Ask questions–If you are unsure about something, ask. It is better to ask a question now than proceed based on an incorrect assumption.
  6. Repeat your understanding back to the client–It’s often a good idea to put what the client said into your own words and repeat it back to them. This can insure that you really understand what they mean.
  7. Don’t forget about cultural differences–Different cultures communicate differently and may have different ways of conducting business. If your client is from a culture that is different from your own, make sure that you learn about the cultural differences before you meet.
  8. Park your preconceptions at the door–It’s easy to jump to conclusions about a project or a person. Even if you suspect that this will be an easy project or this will be difficult person to work with, try to put those feelings aside until they can be confirmed. Preconceived notions can keep you from understanding what is really going on.
  9. Be open to new ideas–You’re probably an expert in your field. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be as successful in your field as you are. But even experts can sometimes learn from their clients. Make sure that you are willing to learn new things.
  10. Avoid emotional words–Being a freelancer is a lot like being a diplomat. Some words are just too emotionally charged to have any place in a business conversation. Avoid those words.
  11. Be understanding, not critical–As a professional, sooner or later you’ll probably be called in to fix somebody else’s mistake. Whether it be something the client did wrong or the mistake of a previous freelancer, don’t immediately start criticizing it. After all, anyone could make a mistake.
  12. Don’t communicate when you’re upset–If you’re angry or hurt, then now is not a good time to talk with a client or send an email. Many freelancers have fired off an angry email, only to regret it later.
  13. Check for typos and grammatical errors–Grammar and typos can cause your client to misunderstand you. If you do believe me consider that there’s a huge difference in agreeing to do a job for $10.00 and agreeing to do it for $1000. A misplaced period CAN make a difference.
  14. Pay attention to your tone (especially online)–There’s something peculiar to online writing. You can type one thing and your client can perceive something that you did not intend. That’s why it’s important to check all emails to make sure your tone is appropriate. The best way to do this is to get someone else to read them before you send them.
  15. Get it in writing–While this is true for all freelancing projects, getting something in writing is especially important for long projects. When a project drags out it’s just too easy for you or your client to forget the details of your agreement.
  16. Better yet, get a contract–A great means of avoiding misunderstanding with a client is to get a signed contract that outlines the details. A signed contract also gives you some legal advantages if you have serious problems later on.
  17. Get a partial payment upfront–A client who pays upfront is usually more committed to a project’s success than one who hasn’t invested anything yet. A client who doesn’t make an upfront payment may try to cancel before the project is finished, while the client who made the advance payment will want to recoup his or her initial investment.
  18. Keep good records–Some miscommunication is due to sloppy recordkeeping. Don’t let this happen to you. Make sure that you document everything including: client meetings, original project scope, scope changes, and any other factors that affect the project.
  19. Stay in touch–This is especially important if you are working on a long deadline. Don’t let too much time pass without touching base with your client. Often, just a short status to let them know that the project is on track is enough to keep them from worrying.
  20. Be reachable by email or phone–You can’t be communicated with if you can’t be reached. Make sure that your client has a working email address and/or phone number that they can use to reach you.
  21. Don’t make it personal–If your client criticizes your project or complains, remember that it’s not about you. Don’t take negative comments personally. Rather, try to find out if the situation can be resolved.
  22. Share problems you are having–Too many freelancers wait until the last minute to let a client know that they are struggling or having problems. However, clients don’t like last-minute notification of problems (especially if it means the project will be delayed).
  23. Ask for feedback–Your communication with the client is not over when the project ends. Instead, ask the client for feedback on your work and on the process. You may able to learn something from this project to help you with your next project.
  24. Keep your materials (such as your website and marketing literature) up to date–Out-of-date marketing materials can also create miscommunication. If you’ve changed anything about how you do business, such as the rate you charge or the type of work that you do, make sure that your materials reflect those changes.
  25. If necessary, find a mediator–In the most extreme situations, when a large sum of money is involved, you may need to turn to a professional mediator or arbitrar to resolve your differences.

What About You?

How do you avoid client communication problems?

Share your answers in the comments.

Image by Clemson

Comments

  1. says

    Nice post Laura,
    I usually get most of the details via phone or Skype calls and I note all the points and then email them to the client for confirmation and ask them to confirm if everything is covered as discussed. This way I can refer them back to the email in case of any dispute. In many cases I ask them to email me their detailed requirements so that they know what they want and I confirm back.

  2. says

    This isn’t isn’t a comment but if I was to give you on I would comment on the old fashion dial type telephone you showed in you photograph. Very efficient office you have.

  3. says

    Contracts are a great way to avoid disputes with your clients! They might not always get the job done, but important housekeeping things such as payments are better resolved with a contract.

    As much as I advocate for contracts, however, your clients needs might change and it is always good to be flexible and work with it.

    For example, I recently worked with a client on content for her new handcrafting site. We inched closer and closer to the right wording, but just couldn’t get her About page to sound right. We ended the first project and are now refocusing on just the About page with interview-style questions to get the content the way she wants it. Semper Gumby!

  4. crazywabbit says

    Very good article, enjoyed reading it unlike the sleezey ads (hot girls) appearing now above the articles on this and many other of your articles? What’s up with that?

  5. says

    colorado business law–It sounds like you have a good method going.

    Gold, That’s not my office, but I love the vintage looking stuff. :)

    MeganWrites Media–Thanks for sharing. That sounds like a good real life story and flexbility is always an idea.

    crazywabbit, Thanks for your comment. I’m not in charge of ads, but I’m also not seeing the ones you’re talking about. The ad I’m seeing above this post is for a tech career hub.

  6. crazywabbit says

    Apparently it is googles way of targeting people. I was at a dating site and now the ads come up on just about any site that posts google ads.

  7. HAF says

    I’m having a very serious problem with one of my largest clients, and it stems 100% from the fact that the editor NEVER responds to emails, which is the only way to get in touch with them. When issues come up with the work, we as contractors never know anything about it until checks come (or not) and work shows up (or not) in the publication. When I wrote a very professional email expressing this fact to said editor, they flipped out, insulted me, and promptly declared that I obviously had no idea what I was doing in the industry.

    Am I nuts, or is the communication supposed to run TWO ways?

  8. says

    I’ll have to consider some of your tips here, lately I have problems with one of my clients, communication wise… You see, I’m not a native English speaker but this client has some many typos and so bad explanations in his emails I barely understand what he wants…

    Oh and he is a native speaker if I forgot to mention :) It’s a nightmare indeed….

  9. says

    HAF–I can’t address your specific situation, because I don’t know all the details. It could be that you are dealing with a client that just isn’t being reasonable. Or, it could be that the client prefers a different form of communication.

    Thanks Melanie and Evan!

    Sasha, I believe this is a very real problem. I’m sorry you’re having to deal with it. If you find that language differences are causing too many problems, you may wish to consider a translator for your most important transactions (contract documents, invoices, and other types of agreements).

  10. says

    Laura thanks for your comment, it’s not that I don’t understand English, the problem is that a client, born and raised in the States, doesn’t know how to use keyboard apparently and lacks basic skills when describing problems. I could say that he doesn’t speak English very well :)

    S.

  11. says

    This is a great set of pointers Laura. I remember this situation once whereby there was this client who would constantly call almost every 15 mins and ask for changes verbally, no matter how many times we asked them to write us an email. Emails are so much more concrete and serves as some sort of an instructional guide.

    Anyways, so we’re halfway through and then they call back changing it all over again back to square one. The cycle went on for months. In the end, it became totally messy, no focus, no direction. It was terrible, the communication was all over the place. We learnt from that day on, we needed to get certain rules down in writing and made sure the client read, understood and signed off on it before proceeding with the project.

  12. says

    Pedantic, but: (from #13) If you do believe me consider that there’s a huge difference in agreeing to do a job for $10.00 and agreeing to do it for $1000. A misplaced period CAN make a difference.

    Probably should be: “If you _don’t_ believe me…”

  13. says

    What’s Happening i’m new to this, I stumbled upon this I have discovered It positively useful and it has aided me out loads. I hope to contribute & help different users like its aided me. Good job.

  14. says

    There couple of fascinating points with time in this post
    then again I don’t recognize if these center to heart.
    There’s some validity however I am going to take hold opinion
    until I explore it further. First-rate article , thanks and we want more!
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  15. says

    Hi,

    I think this is especially relevant to a graduate starting a new job. I think communication is key when you are starting a job and this is even more the case when it is a graduate one. Talking to your manager about your career goals and how you can get there is essential and these tips will really help with this. I have put together some more information on graduate jobs here: How to Get a Graduate Job

Trackbacks

  1. [...] On the other hand, the “go-ahead” has the potential to save an Elance freelancer money by protecting his or her earnings. This is because each time freelancers send clients work to “OK,” they are documenting the fact that they, as contractors, are upholding their responsibilities and seeking clients’ approval on projects. If a dispute should arise between client and contractor, the freelancer has the “go-ahead” communications to present to Elance mediators (provided they are written communications). This helps an Elance freelance contractor avoid losing wages and receiving negative reviews (http://freelancefolder.com/25-tips-for-avoiding-communication-problems/). [...]

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