I was recently interviewed for an article at Online Merchant Network about talking to developers. I recommend reading it—everyone quoted gives good advice.
Since the interview, I’ve thought a bit more about communication between web developers and their clients. We do come from different worlds, but with a common goal: a successful launch. Communication is one of the most important and most difficult parts of any project. It’s a skill I’m still working to improve, but I thought I would share a few things I’ve learned.
There’s a reason almost every website has a frequently asked questions (FAQ) list: In any business, you tend to get the same basic questions over and over. If you can compile those questions and provide the answers in one place you can save potential customers the trouble of asking.
In many ways, this blog is our FAQ. We try to address questions we hear often from clients. We also try to explain things we think our clients need to know to run an effective website.
A business looking to build a website can communicate preemptively as well. Before you start looking for a developer, make notes about what your website should accomplish. Try to dig deeper than “make money” or “drive traffic.” I recommend printing our Request for Proposal form and trying to answer as many of the questions as possible. Whether or not you end up working with us, it’s a useful exercise for understanding how a website fits into your business.
Have Something to Talk About
While you may have in your head a perfect picture of what your website should be like, it can be difficult to convey that to a developer. It’s usually easier to find examples that are similar to what you want. Obviously, you’re not going to find something that matches your vision perfectly, and your developer is not just going to copy someone else’s site. But, concrete examples can go a long way toward expressing your vision.
Similarly, when we build a site, we like to get as much information from the client as possible, then build a “first draft” example. Then we can go back and forth with the client to improve various aspects of the site. This gives us something real to test and discuss, rather than trying to get everything nailed down before we start. It’s much easier to perfect something real than something theoretical.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
For me, the best way to communicate is via email. I can ignore it when I’m working, and deal with it in batches when I’m ready. I also like having a written record I can refer back to when necessary. I think a lot of developers are like this.
In my experience, though, clients almost never prefer to communicate this way. They usually prefer phone calls or in-person meetings. And it makes sense. We don’t work with other technology companies, we work with companies that do business with a handshake and a smile. Typically, building a website is the biggest technological leap they’ve ever made.
In this clash, I think it’s important for both sides to give a little. Developers need to make the occasional phone call to give their clients the personal attention they need. It also helps the client feel like there is a real person behind the emails, one that cares about the success of the project. Clients need to make an effort to do some communication by email, and get comfortable using other online tools the developer may offer. Some or all of their business is now on the Web, and they are going to find more and more of their customers trying to reach them online. I particularly recommend this for clients who are not comfortable with email, IM, etc. Practice with your developer—they will be the most forgiving people you meet as you’re learning how to communicate effectively online.
Probably the most important advice I can give is to keep the conversation going. I know from personal experience how letting weeks go by without any discussion can really put a strain on a working relationship. It’s easy to get caught up in another project and forget to call, or feel like there’s nothing worth talking about. But regular communication, even if it’s just a weekly email, can go a long way toward keeping a project on track.
Have some advice on communicating? Let us know about it.