3 Things I Wish Developers Understood About Communicating with Clients

Before joining Atomic Object as a Delivery Lead, I spent over a decade in software product management. I worked for a small non-profit that relied heavily on contracts with outside consultants for software design and engineering services. One of my primary responsibilities was to manage these partners through the discovery, design, and implementation phases. I was considered the client or customer in this business arrangement.

Now I’m on the other side of things, working as a consultant at Atomic. Most of my time is spent with clients trying to move projects forward. That involves facilitating effective communication between clients and the development team. Having been the client before, I have a few thoughts that I’d like to share with developers from my vantage point. Hopefully, sharing some of these client realities will help inform how developers communicate with their clients.

1. Clients Don’t Have All of the Answers

I’m starting with this point because it’s probably the most obvious one on the list. And yet, I think it’s the one forgotten most often.

On a project team at Atomic Object, it’s common for us to interact with one primary client within an organization. Therefore, it can be easy for us to assume that this person is the decision-maker. In reality, clients serve various stakeholders within their own organizations. Depending on where a client sits in their organization, they might have multiple stakeholders who are responsible for many aspects of the business — marketing, help center, finance, sales, etc. It’s these stakeholders’ business interests that our client is trying to represent, plus the interests of external clients (if they exist).

No matter how enabled or empowered a client is, there will be gaps in their knowledge. Some things will be undefined. A client appreciates when their development team can move forward in the midst of uncertainty.

2. Clients Need to Know the Why & How

Throughout the project, it’s important to continually share news and information that will reassure the client. Clients take a chance when hiring an outside team. No matter how confidently a client may justify their decision internally, there will be some uncertainty. 

You can diminish a client’s uncertainty by communicating with a purpose.

Clients Want to Understand the Context (Why)

Essentially, the client wants to hear why the thing you’re trying to tell them is important. For example, if something in the backlog ends up taking longer than estimated, explain why (“iOS 14 is about to be released, and we needed to code for that”). This context is useful because it allows the client to more knowledgeably represent the project to the rest of their management team.

Clients Want a Plan (How)

As a client, I immediately felt more confident in teams that I hired when I heard how something was decided or how it was going to get done. I’ve seen helpful things like a set of steps for sequencing development work in sensible ways and a schedule for scaling end-user traffic up or down.

3. The Client’s Budget Circumstances Matter

Budget circumstances inside a company can affect the project. Below are some common budget scenarios I’ve encountered on the client side.

  • Use it or lose it. – The client has a bucket of money to spend on a certain project. If they don’t spend all of the allocated money, it goes away. It’s not necessarily a good thing to have money left over. Therefore, the client may want to draw out an engagement only to burn through the entire budget.
  • The client went out on a limb to get the budget. – The decision to spend the money is not widely supported within the client’s organization.
  • The budget changes. – A budget is not necessarily static. It can be increased, decreased, or frozen depending on conditions in the market and inside of the client’s organization. 

Developers need to understand which scenario their client is operating in and adjust their expectations accordingly.

In my experience, great client-consultant relationships require clear communication. I hope that by sharing some of my reflections here, you might gain some useful insight that will better inform your communication.