Whether you’re talking to a colleague, a customer, or a companion, it’s not just what you say—it’s how you say it.
Recently, we shared insights from a Relativity Fest 2020 session on delivering exceptional client service. Our speakers had a treasure trove of tips to share on how to exceed the expectations of both external and internal clients.
A critical component of extraordinary service is effective communication. Our previous post went into some detail on this subject, but we wanted to take a deeper dive.
Especially amidst the business changes that have resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic, clear and thoughtful communication can make all the difference for your projects and your team culture. Take a look at the below tips on how to keep these crucial skills sharp, inspired by the Fest session and our own team.
Tip #1: Be transparent about your availability and response times—and respectful of others’.
With many colleagues and clients working from home while juggling other responsibilities—such as virtual learning and caregiving for other family members—scheduling has become rather thorny. And a lack of clarity on availability across your team can render your best efforts at communication moot.
What if your recipient won’t check their email until tomorrow? What if you give them a call when they really don’t want to be disturbed? What if their working hours don’t match up with yours, and they expect a response sooner than you can deliver one?
Fortunately, many professionals have found that their teams have become quite accommodating when it comes to timing complications like these. To contribute to this respectfulness, be proactive in understanding what time limitations apply, and remain accessible to the people who rely on you.
“Having to work within our own personal calendars has never been more true,” said Martha Louks, director of technology services at McDermott Will & Emery, during Fest. “Logistical challenges are real, and we need to be compassionate about how we’re sending information and how it’s going to be received.”
At the beginning of a project, outline your working hours for your client (and in what time zone), and explain how to contact you outside of that window if something urgent comes up. Ask for the same from them. Emphasize that you want to respect their scheduling needs, so the door for updates on those needs is always open.
You can also use the delayed send feature on your email client to ensure messages are delivered when they’re more likely to be helpful rather than burdensome.
For example, if you’re logging on at 11:00 p.m. to catch up after a busy afternoon of Zoom classes with your child, keep in mind that your recipient may not appreciate seeing an email notification so late.
The goal is to meet your client where they are, both because they deserve it and because a well-delivered communication is more likely to be received in a positive manner.
Tip #2: Prioritize balance in your delivery.
Speaking of delivery, as Martha told Fest attendees, “A lot of your professional reputation is based on your ability to clearly and effectively communicate.” This is particularly true of written communication.
It doesn’t matter if you’re sharing good or bad news, or simply a neutral update on a project’s progress. In all scenarios, effective communication in a professional setting is about balancing readability with the necessary level of detail for your audience.
Each member of a case team—lawyer, litigation support professional, IT expert, and everyone in between—brings unique expertise to the table. Your knowledge is above and beyond your colleagues’ and clients’ in many areas, and the reverse is true as well. Good communication—the first step in collaboration—hinges upon getting across potentially complex information in a way that’s understandable to your teammates.
Put simply: “Make the reader’s job easy,” Martha said.
This means understanding what your recipient needs to know, what they want to know, and what they don’t know they need to know. Being well-versed in project goals and individual roles will help you better grasp these nuances.
If a complex challenge emerges and you need to convey its nuances to your client, first consult with colleagues within and beyond your area of expertise. With their help, guided by your knowledge of the matter at hand and your client’s needs, you can work out an understandable way of explaining the problem and recommending solutions.
The trick here is to provide the detail your client is entitled to, without bogging them down with an overload of unhelpful information. You don’t want to come off as avoiding scrutiny or being evasive by not sharing enough, but neither do you want to overwhelm them with so much detail that they have trouble grasping the situation and selecting a path forward.
Having more than one perspective is key here, so tap into your colleagues to run through ideas and gather feedback before firing off an email or jumping on a call without a plan.
Tip #3: Scrutinize your writing more than anyone else’s.
Any business professional should have a good grasp of best practices for better writing. Things like proper spelling and punctuation, crisp and concise sentence structure, and short paragraphs will serve you well in your email exchanges with clients.
David Disch, a customer success manager at Relativity, advised listeners at Relativity Fest to be thorough in their self-review.
“Read your emails from the bottom to the top before you send them,” he said, emphasizing the importance of approaching a piece of written communication from several angles to ensure its clarity. “You can even use apps that read them aloud for you to ensure no words are missing.”
But there’s also a finesse to good writing that you can develop over time, and finetune according to your audience. To build this skill, you need to be a vigilant editor of your own work.
For example, Martha made a compositional suggestion for Relativity Fest attendees that went beyond simple language rules: “Lead with your conclusion, then support it. Don’t bury it at the end.”
In other words, you can make your written communications more effective by beginning with the most impactful thing you need to say, and then justifying that statement with your supporting arguments or perspectives.
Again, don’t hesitate to lean on your team when necessary. For especially lengthy, critical, or complex messages, you can ask your peers to provide feedback for an added layer of review.
This may seem like a lot of effort for a single email or report, but the harsh practice will help you get your messages across more clearly. Over time, you’ll strengthen your writing muscles and need to think about composition much less.
New or seasoned, though, make sure you aren’t entering any email addresses into the “Email To” field until you’re ready to send it. This way, no buttons will accidentally get pushed—by you or the rogue housecat that might wander across your keyboard—and deliver your message before you’ve had a chance to perfect it.
Tip #4: Know when to change the channel.
Email may be the most frequent mode of communication in your day-to-day interactions with clients, but it’s certainly not your only option. And sometimes, it’s not even a good option.
“If you’re getting three or four emails deep into a subject with a client, it’s helpful to pick up the phone and invite them to help you sort out the issue,” Martha said at Relativity Fest. “You can recap in an email—‘as we just discussed…’—so you have the written documentation, but by calling, you’ll smooth over confusion, express care, and provide up-leveled service.”
On the phone or in other verbal communication, make sure you practice active listening at least as much as you plan out what you want to say.
“Repeat back your understanding of what they’re telling you, so you can both be confident you have heard what they have to say,” Martha continued. “Make sure you’re responding in kind with their urgency and level of concern. This will help them relax and trust that you’re taking them seriously.”
Face-to-face video conferencing is another common communication platform in 2020, and it certainly has its benefits. But David reminded Relativity Fest attendees to keep its caveats in mind as well, and ensure this is a welcome channel for your clients before relying on it too heavily.
“As professionals, we’re now expected to be on camera. It’s really amazing how quickly this happened; conference calls were normal before COVID, but now, having your camera on is big. It’s considered a personal touch,” he said. “But respect video fatigue.” Not everyone has the energy or enthusiasm to be on camera for every conversation.
If this method is the most appropriate for a given discussion, don’t neglect best practices for Zoom, Teams, and similar conferencing tools: Be mindful of mute settings, be cautious about which screen you’re sharing, be professional about your appearance and that of the environment you’re showing to your clients.
Finally, remember that there are other options for firing off quick questions or simply connecting with your colleagues for a friendly touch-base once in a while.
“Thinking about internal clients, you can sometimes break down barriers by using a chat platform to ask quick questions and get fast responses,” Martha said. “It can foster camaraderie—especially when separated.”
After all, good relationships and good communication go hand in hand.
Sam Bock is a member of the marketing team at Relativity, and serves as editor of The Relativity Blog.