5 Communication Tips For Introvert Engineers in facing their Clients
As an engineer in a startup, or in a company providing ‘professional services’ to a client, it is very likely that you will need to engage with clients on a regular basis. As engineers, we are often an introverted type of person, meaning we prefer a quiet environment and tend to leave the ‘chit chat’ to marketing and sales. Nevertheless, we have the technical knowledge that is needed to fix and investigate technical software issues, and often have to work with the client to solve a problem, or to define new requirements. Sometimes, we need to help sales and marketing pitch technical features with accuracy, to avoid promising something that cannot be delivered. All of these activities require a degree of communication that engineers may not be entirely comfortable with. After writing several hundred lines of code, it is difficult to switch gears and jump into a conversation with an entirely different context.
In the following article, I hope to provide a few tips that will make dialogue with your client more efficient and effective. The client’s experience and image of your company will never be solely based on the features and usability of your product, but rather by how you engage and communicate with the client. So whatever we can do to improve the customer experience is something we should strive for.
- Who is the person?
Before meeting an individual it is important to learn a bit about the person and the situation. An engineer is rarely brought in on an initial consultation, but rather when a project requires some technical help. This means that others in your organization have likely already met the client, and have an idea of how he/she operated. If someone within your company delegated an issue to you, ask your colleague a few questions about the individual. For example, knowing ‘how technical the person is’ will help you to adjust your language and gear your explanations to the audience, avoiding confusion and a long list of follow-up questions.
2) Avoid long email chains
Communicating electronically is second-nature to engineers. Before you realize it, you might be writing in a long email chain, sending emails back and forth. If the client has an issue and within 3–4 email attempts it isn’t resolved, I recommend suggesting a time for a screenshare call. You might be surprised how effective such a call can be, not only in resolving the issue, but also in preventing the client from churning, and potentially giving up on an important topic.
3) Update your client about progress
In many cases, engineers want to be seen as Scotty from Star Trek. Towards clients, we are hesitant in communicating if something doesn’t work as expected, but furthermore updating the client if our process to resolve takes longer than expected. As with many technical topics, unforeseen circumstances and issues that we haven’t anticipated can delay our initial estimate. Avoiding that communication can be severely detrimental to client relations. If you can’t solve a problem right away and are actively engaged in further investigations, you must let the client know about it. I cannot count the number of times that individuals have spent a fair amount of work investigating an issue, and suddenly receive an email from a frustrated client stating “I’ve asked about the issue, and it seems noone is looking into it.” How does the client know that you are going the extra mile in finding the root cause for an issue if you don’t tell him? Just sending one email, stating “We are looking into it” is not enough, especially if it’s a bigger topic. Don’t let it get to that point. If an issue is becoming complex, I recommend creating a shared google doc, and updating your investigation process on a daily basis. By providing this to the client, the client can see how much love and energy you are putting into solving the issue. Not to mention, the exercise may help you to avoid avenues you have already tried, or help you see something you may have missed.
4) Be friendly: A little small talk goes a long way
Much like any social interaction, communications by email are more likely to be well-received if prefaced by a friendly greeting. I recommend, when communicating with the client by email for the first time, to begin with an introduction such as:
“My name is XYZ and I’m a XXX engineer with company ZZZ’. You can improve this further by showing interest in the client (“How was your weekend?”), or by commiserating on the issue they are facing(“My apologies that you’re having trouble with X…let’s see what we can to do fix that for you.”). If you are a big fan of the app and a regular customer, why not mention it with a “‘P.S’ or ‘By the way…’”
5) Give reasons if you need further info, and help them gather it.
Lastly, as an engineer, you will almost always need more info from a client to resolve an issue. Remember though, that the client does not necessarily know what information you need, or where to find it. They also don’t know why you need it. You may think you are being efficient by requesting the information in an abrupt, to the point manner. Your client might see it as curt, or rude. If you need further data from the client, you should always explain (in layman’s terms) why you need the data, how it will help with the issue you are resolving, and if the client is not technical, tell them where to get it. By providing reasons, the other person will be further motivated to help by providing the information. By providing the means to obtain the information, he will be able to gather it all the quicker.
“Could you send me some more info about your system setup such as your installed xcode version and installed ruby gems (execute ‘gem list’ in terminal), I’d like to compare it with our setup here and see where the differences are. You can find that information by opening the command prompt and typing the following…”