Did you know that the overwhelming majority of time spent working on website projects is taken up with communication between the project manager and the client? It’s possible to read this statistic as an indication that project managers and website developers are aware of the importance of communicating with their clients, carefully listening to their needs, and taking the time to explain the process of website development.
In reality, however, this statistic represents the inefficiency of much client communication – instead of indicating the importance that website developers place on communications, it indicates the frustration that many of us feel when trying to talk to clients. Some of this frustration is unavoidable, particularly if you see yourself as an antisocial developer who is paid to code, not talk. But it’s also possible to make client communication a whole lot easier via some pretty simple techniques.
Previously, we’ve shown you how to follow up with clients, and tactics for success when communicating with clients. In this article, we’ll go further, and show you how to craft a client communication plan that will cover (almost) every type of communication you should have with your clients.
What should a client communication plan include?
It’s important to understand that a client communication plan is far more than a note on your desk that says “email client every Monday.” A thorough client communication plan will define, at the very minimum, every type of communication you will have with all the key stakeholders for your website project, and spell out exactly when (or at what interval) this communication will occur.
It’s possible to take this approach even further, and to use your client communication plan as a roadmap for the entire website project. Because the communication plan will include schedules for when you will communicate key project deliverables, in many cases it makes sense to tie your development schedule to your communication plan, rather than vice versa.
An example of this is building online stores that sell to customers everyday. There are many important factors that you will need to communicate with your clients before the website development process can begin, including product trends, your targeted customer demographics, and which companies you’ll be competing with directly. Each of these elements are vital for you to know before you can begin developing an appropriate site.
The best place to start is with a general outline where you sketch out the key elements that should be included in any client communication plan. At the broadest level, this plan should include:
- The purpose and approach of the plan itself: think of this as a meta-description of the entire plan.
- A set of key goals and objectives: in this section, you should explicitly set out what the plan is designed to achieve, and how you will measure this.
- A list of key stakeholders, their contact information, and a description of the information they need to receive and when.
- A well-defined list of the tools you will use for communication: this will include email and telephone communication, but also any workplace productivity software you will be using as well.
Alongside including all of these elements, you will also need to consider a number of high-level questions before you start to design your plan. One of these is simply what time period the plan will cover. For one-off website projects, this question is simple enough to answer – the plan will end when the website is completed.
Similarly, make sure that your plan includes internal communications alongside those with external stakeholders. The security of internal communications is often overlooked even in the best client communication plans, but including these details will greatly improve the efficacy of your own teams.
The benefits of a client communication plan
There are a number of key benefits to crafting client communication plans. At the most fundamental level, client communication plans will keep your team on track as they develop large website projects, and ensure that both this team and your client are on the same page. However, there are also a number of less obvious benefits to creating a client communication plan:
- Client communication plans encourage client buy-in, and therefore lead to higher satisfaction ratings. By setting out how, where, and when you will communicate with your client, you allow yourself the opportunity to set expectations, and to manage these more carefully than working without a plan. This means, in essence, that you give yourself the ability to “under-promise and over-deliver,” as the old saying goes.
- This ability to manage client communications can also lead to a much better relationship with your clients. It might seem counterintuitive that a rigid communication plan would encourage friendly, informal chats, but in reality this is what will happen. Building this kind of relationship, while sometimes difficult for focused developers, is also important for securing more contracts in the future, which is crucial at a time when there are 1.3 million website development jobs available in the US, and with very high levels of competition.
- Ultimately, the relationships you build with your clients will go a long way toward building a strong community around your brand. While it might sound strange to link the public perception of your brand to how often you email your clients, in reality this kind of frequent, open communication is key to building a lasting set of contacts and potential clients.
Creating a client communication plan
By now, I hope I’ve convinced you that you need a client communication plan, at least for your larger projects. That’s great. You should recognize, however, that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating such a plan – every project and client is different, and each will require a similarly unique approach.
That said, there are a few key principles that apply to any effective client communication plan. Here they are:
Define, define, define
One of the most important tasks in a client communication plan, and one that often takes up more than half of the entire document, is the job of defining how, when, and where communications will occur.
At the broadest level, the plan should start with a description – preferably accompanied by a visual representation – of all the teams and stakeholders involved in the website project. This will include your development team, and your client, but should also include any press or marketing teams who will eventually work with the website, and anyone else who will have any involvement with is whatsoever.
From this list of stakeholders, you can build a communications strategy by asking yourself five questions for each group:
- What needs to be communicated to them?
- When should this be communicated?
- Where should it be communicated?
- Why is communicating this to them important for the success of the project?
- How is this going to be communicated? Which system will you use to do so?
Gather communication preferences
In working through these questions, you will necessarily come up against the central question of any client communication plan – how much information should you give your client about exactly how well (or slowly) your development process is progressing?
This is a question that haunts many website developers, and especially those working on larger scale website projects especially. Most websites cost upwards of $10,000 to build and are no small investment for your clients. This is one reason why most clients will be very eager or even demanding to hear how their new site is coming along.
This is also a question, however, that is much more easily approached through the lens of a client communication plan. Here’s why. At this point in the planning process, you will start to collect information on your clients’ communication preferences – how they want to be contacted, but also (and more importantly) when.
Many developers will be in for a shock. Contrary to the popular belief that clients want to be updated every time you write a line of code, you’ll likely find that most clients will prefer to just be told when project milestones are reached. By carefully designing these milestones, giving yourself enough time to meet them, and agreeing this with your client up front, it becomes much easier to manage their expectations.
Milestones and schedules
While, therefore, the most important parts of your client communication plan will refer to key project milestones, it’s also important not to forget about regular communications. As many companies have found during the pandemic, there is a real value to keeping communications flexible enough – or at least regular enough – to account for emerging events and crises before they have a major impact on your project timescales.
As such, you should also define how frequently you will communicate with each stakeholder in a project, and how you will do this. These meetings will be a mixture of regular, scheduled meetings, and those convened because a development milestone has been reached.
The bottom line
As we’ve seen, a client communication plan is a crucial way of ensuring success when working on large website projects. It allows you to carefully define how, where, and when you will communicate with your clients, manage their expectations of how quickly the project will proceed, and seek clients’ buy-in to this timescale.
And while it might seem like overkill to carefully design a document that details exactly when you will email your clients, in reality this process will be invaluable as you scale your business. A client communication plan is typically the first step toward building an effective communication strategy: one that will provide clarity and guidance long into the future, and ultimately generate you more clients and commissions.