Top engineers are among the most valuable assets that a company can have. They’re logical, highly intelligent people. They’re technical experts. They’re efficient problem solvers who can be counted on to get things done.
And, far more often than should be the case, they’re distrusted by clients.
It’s a puzzling paradox for those who are involved with technical teams. What is the cause of the discrepancy between engineering ability and client trust? Why does an engineer who is so proficient in project execution elicit so much skepticism from clients? And, of course: what can be done about it?
The problem, as you may have guessed, often boils down to a lack of communication skills.
This isn’t to suggest that all engineers are poor communicators, and it certainly isn’t to imply that engineers can’t learn to communicate well. It is, though, an honest acknowledgement: people who come from technical backgrounds often share communication issues that hinder their abilities to earn client trust.
The good news is that these issues can, with training and practice, be mastered.
Do your clients seem to hate your best engineer? Let’s take a look at a few common communication issues that may be the cause – and then discuss how these issues can be overcome.
Issue 1: Providing Too Much Information in the Wrong Context
Engineers value comprehensive information. Having a thorough understanding of projects and situations is what allows them to nail the details that are necessary for great execution. Sometimes, though, this method of thinking leads them to provide a glut of information in communication contexts where doing so isn’t necessary.
Context is important, and the fact is that a client should not have access to all project information.
Imagine if, when you ordered a product online, you were made aware of every piece of information that the delivery process would entail.
“We stock your item in Section 159 of our warehouse in Missouri. The order will be put on hold for two days while we restock the item in that facility. We will ship the item in a 12” x 12” x 16” package made of recycled cardboard materials. The item will be transported in a 2006 Volvo semi-trailer that will need to make three refueling stops…” etc.
Obviously, that would be an awful experience. As a customer, you want to know when the package will be delivered and if it will arrive in good condition. You may track major status updates throughout the process, but too much information just induces anxiety.
Context is key. As your top engineers communicate with clients, it’s important they understand that, while major status updates are helpful, the ins and outs of a project may not be.
Communicating in excruciating detail can hurt client trust.
Issue 2: Speculating on Possibilities
Along similar lines, engineers often speculate on possibilities that aren’t likely to occur – and when they’re communicating with clients, that speculation brings anxiety.
Again, the thought process is understandable. Engineers are used to thinking through potential problems before they arise, and that ability helps them to prepare robust solutions that hold up to changing situations.
Speculating does not help clients to trust that a project will succeed, though.
One engineer we worked with learned this through experience. During a conversation with a client, the track of the engineer’s conversation led him into a discussion about what would happen to the project in a worst-case scenario, during which he began problem solving out loud. He speculated that, if a series of events were to unfold, his team would likely need to add more workers or increase the budget of the project.
The client, understandably, was upset. What the engineer had intended as open and honest communication to solve a potential problem had backfired, and it caused the client to lose trust. Although the project ended up finishing within budget and on time, the client remained skeptical of the engineer’s competence.
Instead of speculating, communication should focus on the relevant information that is known.
Issue 3: Not Focusing on the Purpose of Communication
Speculating on unlikely possibilities and providing too much information in the wrong context are, like many communication issues, symptoms of a deeper problem: an unclear idea of the communication’s purpose.
Before any communication, we teach our clients to ask these four questions:
- Who is my audience and what matters to them?
- What is my goal in speaking with this audience?
- Based on the above, what message will have impact?
- How much time do I have?
When well-meaning engineers begin to problem solve out loud or provide an excess of information that isn’t necessary, it’s likely because they haven’t considered these questions.
For engineers who are communicating with clients, the purpose of most communication is to build client trust and facilitate the completion of the project. With that knowledge, techniques like bridging (acknowledging a difficult statement but redirecting the conversation to a purposeful message) become easier to implement. A few examples:
“Yes, we have hit some bumps along the way, but I’m still confident that we can finish on time.”
“There may be a need for more contract workers at some point, but if that were to happen, I would sit down with you and go over all anticipated expenses and what we may need from your staff. You will not be blindsided.”
In both of these examples, difficulty is acknowledged, but focus is brought back toward the things that inspire confidence. If the purpose of the communication were to problem solve project obstacles instead of to inspire confidence, these statements would be very different.
Understanding the purpose of communication is fundamental to communicating well.
What Can Be Done
Hopefully, an understanding of these three common issues is beneficial in helping your engineers to earn client trust. Sometimes, though, a basic understanding of general principles isn’t enough.
Your engineers may understand that they shouldn’t provide too much information; they may agree that speculation induces anxiety; they may even seek to understand the purpose of their communication before a call with a client. The truth is that sometimes more is needed.
What else can be done?
We’ve found that the best way to improve communication skills is through coaching.
As valuable as the training is that we provide in our classes, we’ve seen amazing results when we’ve had the opportunity to work with individuals over a period of time. Learning how a general principle works is effective; learning how that principle applies to the conversation an engineer will be having with a client next Thursday is invaluable. Our coaching service allows for unique, tailored instruction over a period of time, and our framework makes it affordable, too. We firmly believe that anyone can learn the skills and techniques that are necessary to communicate well. Coaching is the most efficient way for that learning to take place.
Are you tired of your clients hating your best engineer? Are you ready for your clients to trust your best engineer the way you do?
Get in touch with us to find out more about our coaching services, and help your engineers learn to communicate well.