Many articles about effective communication with clients have two things in common: they have great stock images and don't show you how to overcome real challenges. We're moving away from both here.
Communication is key to creating great relationships with clients. They are the heart and soul of many businesses like Pixelmatters, and we love ours. Some have worked with us for almost half a decade now, and we speak with them almost every day.
In the Product team, we've seen how important communication is during such a long time, going through the best milestones and the toughest decisions together — and we have a few tips to share on how Science has been playing a key role in this process.
Many may argue that communication is quite simple. Depending on what the client is asking for, you simply tell them where things stand. It seems rational. But the beauty of great communication is that it is complex thanks to emotions.
Following Daniel Kahneman's research that culminated in his famous book "Thinking Fast and Slow,” our brains have two systems: S1 is quick to act, kicks in automatically, and is effortless. S2 is way slower, a great diagnostician, and requires effort to activate it.
But why is this important? Because both systems are essential. If someone throws a rock at you, S1 will make you move out of the way quickly. If you had chosen S2, you would probably get hurt before you could calculate how Newton's gravity law affects the rock's trajectory into your head.
But if you're negotiating the resolution of a serious bug on a website with a client, you better use S2 to find what's the best alternative at hand instead of entering survival mode with S1, risking yourself releasing the first solution that came up with no tests. We all know where this ends — a new bug has been created by the hotfix... yay! The funny thing is that S1 influences S2, and that's where cognitive biases come into play.
Emotions influence our decisions. The client's interpretation of a message you sent differs depending on how you built the message — how you chose to frame it, what you decided to highlight, the context in which the client is reading the message. Here are a few biases we've seen taking action and some tips to help you through them.
We couldn't speak about science without mentioning numbers. They have a great influence on our decision-making by acting as anchors. Here's an example.
Think about picking a new SaaS software to automate a critical area of your business. You find Product A first, and it costs 99$/month. But then you find a competitor, Product B, that costs 169$/month. Even though Product B has more features and is easier to set up, it sounds expensive.
But that happens because you're hooked to Product A 99$/month. Isn't the automation of a critical area of your business worth 60$/month? Probably so — this is the rational question we should be asking to understand the real value, the one we should pursue with clients. Still, when comparing both, Product B sounded immediately expensive because we first saw Product's A price.
There are the optimistic and pessimistic. And people usually skew to the optimistic (even though they want to know the worst-case scenario!).
Think about this. You've just released a fix to a bug introduced in a large feature release that affected a few hundred customers. A couple of days later, the team meets to discuss the occurrence.
One approach is to highlight how much revenue was potentially lost and how hard it will be to recover the product's reputation. The second option is to mention how the bug affected the business and highlight what we've learned from it and what we are doing to prevent further occurrences.
Both options refer to the same bug, but the second option sounds more productive and enlightening. Even though it's important to know why something went off-track, a long-term relationship demands positivity to prosper.
Ever wondered why losing sounds more impactful than winning? The reason why is that people experience losses asymmetrically more severely than equivalent gains. Money is the easiest example of them all.
If you're deciding between safely winning 900$ or a 90% chance of winning 1000$ and a 10% chance of losing it all, winning 900$ is often picked.
This is why many commerce websites use scarcity to push customers through the checkout funnel. The "just 2 items in stock, don't lose your chance of buying Product A!" is not there by coincidence.
The way coupons work is also intentional — it's more common to see "save 5$" (i.e., you won't be losing 5$) than "win 5$".
Knowing that a single word can make the difference, what can someone do to take advantage of these biases when communicating with a client?
#1 Look up ways of activating the loss aversion bias if you're running out of time
Let's imagine you're asking a client to provide feedback on a design presentation made a couple of days ago and that if the client doesn't deliver the feedback by tonight, the team will be blocked tomorrow.
Look at your message and find opportunities to share that the team will be blocked if no feedback is provided by adding words that can trigger a loss feeling.
As an example, replace this:
"We need your feedback until tomorrow morning to keep working on page X. Otherwise, we’ll need to allocate the designer to a different project."
By the following:
"We need your feedback until tomorrow morning; otherwise, we'll need to allocate the designer to a different project and lose at least a day of work on page X."
All words matter when building your message.
This is also helpful whenever you find yourself dealing with a question around time, even though you think a discussion around quality has greater value.
If a client asks if a deployment is possible within a given date that your Engineering team is not comfortable with, a good way of triggering the loss aversion bias is to mention things such as "losing quality" and "deploying bugs can harm the users' experience, making them quit the product".
#2 Use ranges as anchors at your service proactively
As we've seen, numbers work as anchors. They define an expectation, and when you work with clients, they have expectations. If you expect to deliver a presentation in 2 days, proactively reach the client and say that the delivery will probably happen in 2 or 3 days.
If you run into something unexpected and need an extra day, you're still within the range. If you deliver in 2 days, perfect. But it's not only the range that works in your favor here. Proactivity is key. If the client gets to ask you whenever a delivery is happening in 2 days first, you're the one running into an anchoring bias.
Anchors are also a great way of removing subjectivity from a discussion. Let's say you're discussing how good a website's performance will be after deploying into new infrastructure. What is exactly "good performance"? A client should have a number in mind. The best option is for you to proactively share what your team understands as good performance, setting a new anchor that both can agree on.
#3 Summarize for the best
While the loss aversion and anchoring biases are often used at the start or in the middle of a negotiation, the framing bias works best at the end. Summaries are a great way to close a conversation in the best way possible after all. Even when things don't go as planned.
Imagine that you've been working on a new website infrastructure that should increase its performance significantly, allowing users to load pages under 150ms.
As the team tests the latest version, the time to load stays at ~200ms. Even though this is not the 150ms mark that the client expected, it's perfectly fine to question how big of a difference those 50ms would make if the 200ms already provide a great improvement. Instead of picturing this as a failure:
"We are not getting into the 300ms, it seems like the 400ms is, unfortunately, the best we can do.”
Make it a success:
"Even though the latest tests are showing us that the time to load new pages will stay at ~398ms, not 300ms, we're speaking about ~48% improvement in page speed compared to the current version on production".
This is one example of a scenario that was indeed a success, but that could harm a relationship with the wrong framing.
#4 Be aware of biases and slow them down when needed
If you're negotiating with a client — scope, deadline, or other — always look for words that can put you under a bias. For example, if a client says something like: "Can you compromise with a deploy on Wednesday?" the words "compromise" and "Wednesday" should stand out immediately. Wednesday is working as an anchor, and compromise is a strong word — it sounds like there's a strong expectation already.
When this is the case, slow it down. Ask for a few hours to speak with your team and come up with an answer to give yourself some time to derisk the situation. Let's imagine Wednesday is not possible. What happens now?
Work in new anchors — the dates your team feels comfortable with — and stress the points your team is the most concerned about by using triggers to other biases like the loss aversion bias.
Also, the best way to go through this is to work with the client on a solution by asking an open question like "How does this sound to you?" instead of "Do you agree?".
Bonus Tips 🍰
We couldn't let you go before giving you a little bonus for going through the whole article!
#1 Save clients time whenever you can
Saving clients time wins you credibility — after all, you're making your clients' life easier! Here are a few things you can do:
- Add a link whenever you're referencing a document or something hosted on a different platform.
- Use a numbered list if you're making multiple questions so that clients can answer using the numbers' reference.
- If you're mentioning something said on a different day, make sure you provide a screenshot or a link to the message that you're referring to provide some context beforehand.
#2 Make use of the law of precise numbers
A non-rounded number has a powerful impact. It seems the result of a robust and complex process.
Imagine a scenario where you're sharing with a client the performance of a given page after a deployment. What option seems a result of a more thorough process — ~300ms or ~298ms? Probably the latter, right? That's because people look at precise numbers with special attention. Make use of it.
#3 Bring enthusiasm to the table
Are you more willing to buy a product from a salesperson who seems unhappy, stressed, and doesn't smile at all, or to buy a product from someone happy, relaxed, and emphatic? Displaying enthusiasm can go a long way in relationships that last for years!
Cognitive biases trick us all — being aware and using them at the right timing is just another tool in great Product people's toolkit. Still, the most important skill you should look for is the capability to establish an authentic relationship with your clients. Biases are occasional; great relationships are forever. 🚀