For most of my career consulting, I worked for firms that delivered without a heavy on-site presence. Where most of our competitors establish relationships and maintain “stickiness” with their clients by being omni-present inside their clients’ organizations, we delivered solutions primarily from within our own offices. While this has a ton of upside to it, starting with the fact that we’re able to make an environment where great talent has the opportunity to really get things done, our delivery model comes with its own set of challenges. One of them is, we’re not as accessible to our clients on a daily basis, and they’re not as accessible to us. That meant we had to work harder at client-facing communications than a lot of our competitors, because we couldn’t rely on the “serendipitous collisions” that happen when you’re in the same office. One area where we had to be double alert, because of this model, is in handling escalations and misunderstandings.
(and of course, this all got even more complicated when COVID hit, because suddenly nobody was working in the same office anymore - internal, external, new to the client, new to the firm....complications abounded.)
We’ve all experienced the email chain that won’t die, or the Slack discussion that goes on for way too long. If you’ve ever dealt with a support team by email, you’ve seen this in action. You send in a perfectly reasonable request. You get back a link to a knowledge base article you’ve already read. You tell them that doesn’t work. They email back and ask you to try it again. You do. Still nothing. They’re stuck. They tell you to add some indexes to your database or something. You get frustrated, because you already know that’s not the root cause. You tell them. Now they’re frustrated because they’re trying to help you, and you won’t listen (in their view, anyway). On it goes.
This happens a lot in our industry when there’s a problem or issue to resolve. We have so many forms of communication available to us, and we all use them, knowingly or not, as a buffer. Email can shield us from uncomfortable situations. Instant messaging apps keeps us from having to confront a difficult employee performance issue because, hey, you‘re not going to write that in Slack!
When dealing with clients, though, sticking to one form of communication can be damaging. It can cause us to have too many delays in execution speed, and it can put us in a situation where we’ve unwittingly made the client believe we just don’t care. The back-and-forth can feel like progress, when really it’s just churn.
Here’s a simple rule to figure out how to handle an escalating issue:
Different communication forms have different levels of “immediacy” and “connectedness” to them. Of all the options available to us, from least to most connected, they run like this:
- Carrier Pigeon
- Postal Service
- Instant Messaging/SMS
- Phone Call
- Video Conference
- Face-to-Face meeting
We usually start, and get stuck, at 3— email, especially with clients, because they’re outside our organization. However, we all know from experience that a lot of what passes between people when communicating is non-verbal. It’s tone, pacing, inflection, and body language. The more context you can provide when trying to resolve an issue, the better.
So — try once, then escalate.
You’re trying to get a feature through QA. You email and let them know that everything’s ready. They email back and say there’s a bug. Your next step? PHONE CALL.
One of the best things you can do, to really master The Emotional Pendulum, is to escalate the communication form before the client does.
“Jami, I just saw your email and I figured it would be best to give you a quick call. (Insert up-front contract here). Let’s get to the bottom of this.”
Escalating communication indicates a sense of urgency and care on your side, because you’re moving the conversation to a more immediate, more connected channel.
There have been cases in some of my projects where this kind of escalation has gone from email to text to phone call to us getting on a plane in order to stay one step ahead of the client on perceived urgency. Avoiding that level of crisis is better than dealing with it, but when it happens…..you still have to deal with it.
Knowing what’s OK
A lot of clients are more willing to hear from you than you think — and often times it’s only our own “head trash” around communication that keeps us from escalating to more immediate, more connected forms of communication with them sooner. We justify it as “I don’t want to interrupt them” but really we’re just avoiding the discomfort that we anticipate from a more immediate, connected communication channel.
The best way to know what’s OK is just to ask — “Jami, this is my direct cell. You can call me any time. That said, I don’t want to bother you unnecessarily, but if I need to call you to deal with an issue on the project, what’s the best number and time to reach you?” Asking a simple question like that shows your interest and concern, and also validates that you’re not just making assumptions that you can ring them up any time.
To keep it simple, remember:
- Use the right communication channel based on the need for immediacy and connectivity.
- As soon as the channel doesn’t produce results, escalate to a more immediate, more connected channel.
- Escalate ahead of the client does to demonstrate urgency and concern.
Following these three guidelines will help you maintain high quality communication with your clients and your team, reduce misunderstandings, and help you drive issues to resolution faster.