Deafening Silence

Series: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that silence is not always golden. I’m specifically referring to long periods of silence between a client and contractor in the middle of a project. A former boss once told me he treats client interaction like a tennis game. Just always hit the ball back into their court, he said. Respond promptly to their requests and don’t keep them waiting, even if you can’t provide the solution right away. This is very good advice, people don’t want to wonder if they’ve been forgotten about. And on larger projects where both sides have project managers pushing timelines, meetings and schedules, this system works perfectly fine.

But what about when the line goes dead? What if you, the client, don’t have time to focus on the project you’ve hired us for? Maybe you’re too busy tending to your own clients’ needs or other obligations, or maybe the project just isn’t a big priority. Whatever the case, it’s been my experience that long periods of silence can be extremely detrimental to a project, even if everything else seems fine. Or to use the tennis analogy, you might hit the ball back and not get a response because your client has found a new tennis partner.

Your words, not mine.

Another funny thing happens with memory of conversations over time. We apply our own filters and hear things differently. We sometimes turn implied assumptions into explicit promises, or we omit statements from memory. A confirmation email is a good basic step to solidify a conversation, but they invariably still leave out details and you just feel icky having to dig through your old emails to set the record straight with a client once a misperception has had too long to incubate.

I once called a client to discuss a delicate matter that I didn’t think could be properly conveyed through an email. The call went well then there was an 8 or 9 month period where they didn’t contact us. We were midway through their site, waiting on content. Then we got an email out of the blue that our client wanted to go with another firm. They had completely forgotten that we were waiting on them. I called to repair the damage but it was too late. Time had skewed the memory of the original conversation. “I remember you said word for word, ‘bla bla bla’ “, the client reamed. I had a completely different memory of the conversation and I could see that the client had completely altered the intent of my original call to fit what was in their mind.

Whose turn is it?

One problem with the “only respond to an email” approach is that people forget you’re waiting on them. This often happens for us right after we send a website design to a client for approval. No matter how clear we try to make it that nothing more will happen until the design is signed off, it sometimes fails to register. We may get a non committed answer or no answer at all for months at a time. This happened with a previous client. After waiting several months and making several attempts to get sign off, we received an email asking if the site was finished.

What? The whole site? Finished? We had received no design approval, no content, not even a site map. We restated that we had been waiting on sign off for months. The client stated that they had approved the design long ago and were very upset with the lack of progress. This time we had our paper trail of emails corroborating our story, but at that point it didn’t much matter. You say the design was approved? Fine. Send along the content and we’ll build your site.

Going in a different direction.

The worst case result of time is that the rest of the world has moved on while you were waiting. I’ve experienced some of the greatest hits: Company shut down, changing business plan, funding dried up, a competitor beat us to the punch, etc. See my post on The Perfection Trap for a list of reasons that these cases can happen. The point is that when it takes several people working together to get something done, you have to push full steam ahead while the project is on their front burner.

Squeaky Wheel.

Every project is important to us, but there’s simply no avoiding the fact that a responsive, involved client will get more attention than one who’s wandered off into the wilderness. Of course there is the other extreme. I remember a particularly pushy client who called my Chief Technical Officer’s (CTO’s) house at 4:00 am to report a bug he found on a prototype demo. 4:00 am. Because it was that important.

Anyway, the point is that for a project to be successful, a client needs to be involved. Not as involved as the crazy guy in my last story, but you have to be involved. You can’t pass off your idea and expect it to come to fruition on its own. You have to cultivate the seed to grow into a crop. We are merely a tool to help facilitate the process. A hoe will not grow a garden alone. You must use the hoe. Let us be your hoe.

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One Response to Deafening Silence

  1. Loved this posting too! It is a very useful reminder of the importance of communicating regularly as a project moves forward and clarifying expectations/requests along the way.

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