At your service, master!

One of the most important lessons that I had to learn in my job is that you have to be aware of the client. As a service provider, it is my duty to satisfy my client’s needs – and without knowing him, I will not be able to succeed. In this blog post I describe some insights that helped me to gain a better understanding of my clients.

The main connection between the service provider and his client is the communication between them. In an ideal world, the two parties would be able to understand each other perfectly, however, humans and their language are fallible and to me, this seems to be the root of most problems. Of course, both parties are responsible, nevertheless, the service provider should not only deal with his own defeciencies, but also with his client’s, in order to attract and keep clients. Next, I will list five instructions that can reduce or sometimes even prevent the incomprehension in the communication.

Be prepared

This is maybe the clearest rule: Before meeting a client, you should know the basics of the domain he is working in and of the problem he wants to solve. It is not the client’s job to explain his request, but rather the service provider’s job to comprehend it. Besides, if a client feels understood, he will also feel that you can solve his problem – and at that stage this matters more than whether you can actually solve his problem.

Be attentive

You and your client are different persons and, as a result, have a different understanding of the same things. Your client might quickly slur over some little details in a software he wants, so you could assume that they are of no importance – but you will be unpleasantly surprised when it turns out to be a critical aspect of the program. And this is not necessarily a flaw in the customer’s communication: Maybe to a domain expert – and your customer might be one – the importance of these details is totally obvious.

Furthermore, sometimes even language will lead you nowhere. For example, people do not always realize why a system is hard to use or where they make mistakes and hence cannot tell you about it, but by watching them you might find the problems. In such a situation, it is crucial to grasp not only the words the client is saying, but also other signals he is emitting.

Be without bias

As soon as I start listening to a client’s problem, sometimes I can literally watch myself constructing a solution in my head. I create a mental model composed of the components the customer is talking about, think about their relationships – and suddenly, I find myself thrown a curve because the client added a thought that objects my conception.

Of course, a model can improve the understanding of a client’s demands, however, one has to constantly question the validity of the model and – in case it is disproved – one must drop it without hesitation. Do not become attached to a model just because it is so elegant – in most cases, you will be betrayed. In contrast, it will probably become easier to adapt your mental models if you stay open-minded.

And even if your view seems to suit the customer’s requirements perfectly, you should hesitate to present it to him, you should not ask for confirmation early on. In fact, the better the concept seems, the more careful you should be: You might lead your client into thinking that it is a adequate solution, and by focusing on the conformity between the concept and his problem, you and your client may fail to see flaws.

Instead, you should try to ditch your assumptions, try to listen without bias. You still have to prepare yourself before you meet your client, but you should be willing to scrutinize your knowledge and to discard incorrect information.

Be concrete

The human language is a wonderful medium, but unfortunately terribly inaccurate. If, instead of writing, you can talk with your customer, you should usually choose the latter. Even better, if you can meet him in person, do it – there are so many more options to communicate if you are in one room that you will almost surely benefit from it.

For instance, if your client wishes a feature with some user interface, you can sketch it or build a paper prototype; you could even prepare a real prototype consisting only of the user interface. This allows your customer to play with it and facilitates the communication. And do not be abstract, do not fill your widgets with texts as “Lorem ipsum” – it does not matter if the content is made-up, but it should be realistic.

User interface design is a neat example since it is graphical, nevertheless, you can apply this principle to other tasks. It does not matter if you talk about a processes, some architecture, domain models or other structures: Even though most of them have no inherent graphical representation, it is usually easier to describe them graphically then by using text.

Seek for the why, not the what

Often, I tend to ask my clients about the problem they wish to solve – I ask what they wish to solve, not why. Usually, this is sufficient; he knows his situation and is able to express his needs. Unfortunately, it also happens that albeit the customer’s problem is solved according to his description, his wants are not satisfied – and the reason for this is that even he did not know what he actually needed. Even worse, sometimes I get caught by the “how”, that is, I quickly find a nice solution for some parts of a client’s problem, so I stick to it, maybe even implement it – and in the end I realize that it actually prevents me from solving the complete problem.

Hence, it is not only important to find out what your client wants to achieve, but also why he wants to achieve it, you have to understand his motivation. This can enable you to correct your client’s mistakes and to lead him to the question he actually wants to answer. Furthermore, this is a great handle to control the effort of a project: It becomes easier to identify indispensable core functionality and to find features whose usefulness is questionable, and hence, one can communicate with the client if some of the latters might be dropped. Simon Sinek gave an interesting TED talk to a similar topic found here.

Conclusion

Understanding your customers is difficult, but not impossible. I think that actively directing the attention at your counterpart, being open for input and questioning your assumptions and knowledge can strongly improve the communication with your clients.

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