As a consultant and having worked with many clients over the years, I often look forward to rolling up my sleeves and diving into a new project. I’m all set to meet the client and any team members I might be working with. I happily set up meet-and-greet meetings to introduce myself and come prepared with a list of questions to learn more about my role and project goals, scope, and timeline. It wasn’t until a year or two before COVID times, though, that I gave much thought about how I might best communicate with my client. I was comfortable with current productivity tools—feeling pretty masterful at creating well-formatted emails using different fonts to convey key items. Admittedly, though, I still like the practice of highlighting questions or key points that might be further down an email thread.
Then, along came communication platforms and services allowing for a multitude of ways to communicate and collaborate on projects through chat, video conferencing or phone calls, and allowing for separate channels for separate projects. With that came its own challenges – suddenly you’d find yourself a member of a myriad of different subjects; oftentimes, with similar names as they relate to the same team or project you’re working on. This set of challenges, though, is a topic for a different day. While the new breed of communication platforms brought better targeted ways of communicating with team members, I know I found myself wondering when it’s best to send email vs. chat vs. video conferencing or a phone call. This can be most challenging when you find yourself working in a fast-paced environment with barely any time for ramping up on the project and inner workings of the team.
Over the past year, I found myself consulting on four different projects with their own set of team members (not simultaneously!). Oftentimes, I wasn’t the only consultant and found myself working with consultants from various companies who usually didn’t have the same access to client resources as I had. Additionally, while I may be using a single tool/platform to connect with people, I might have one platform connected to my consulting company and another instance connected to my client company. Thank goodness for multiple monitors so I could have both instances open in case someone was trying to reach me while I was working on something else. But I digress. This blog covers the first two projects, and then the next blog I’ll cover the other two.
Scenario #1: Left at the airport
My client and her team were deep in planning for the next fiscal year and things were moving FAST. You know the cliché, “building the plane while you’re flying it”? I felt like I was left at the departure airport. My client preferred communicating via “shorthand” chat (think of your teenager texting you using only acronyms) where, after realizing something wasn’t a typo, I clued in that it was actually shorthand for something she wanted me to do. Her next preferred way of communicating was through quick, unscheduled phone calls. I didn’t mind the phone calls so much because I could ask clarifying questions on the spot. I learned to make quick notes or highlight where I’d left off on something as I picked up a call because it would often interrupt my train of thought or shoot me over to another task.
- Because things were moving so fast and I was trying to quickly come up to speed, I became really good at being prescriptive in follow-up emails and chat, “this is what I heard” or, “this is the direction I’m going, if this is incorrect, I need to know.” I asked for more context when instructions were truncated or unclear.
- I became meticulous at keeping notes about who I was meeting, their role, and links to various helpful resources. I found a couple mentors on the team and neighboring team who I could go to with big-picture questions. Scheduling regular time with them helped me keep my head above water.
- I scheduled regular 1:1s with my client, although, they were often canceled due to meeting conflicts. When this happened, I sent a quick status, typically via email, stating what my priorities were for the week.
Scenario #2: We’re launching a new program!
My client was evangelizing the launch of a new program in 14 regions across the globe. This client was in Australia, 17 hours ahead of me, which meant few opportunities to catch him to ask questions or collaborate in real time. Most days we would jump on a quick call when I came online in the morning. We could talk about priorities for the day and status for what I’d been working on the day or two prior. I only found out after being there a couple weeks that I would need to attend and facilitate meetings before/after typical work hours in other time zones. Additionally, I was working with multiple other consultants from other companies who were each responsible for specific areas of the workstream that I was helping manage.
- When I started working with teams in multiple time zones, I identified a representative from each area who would be my main point of contact and who could help disseminate information about the new program to the appropriate stakeholders. While it was easy for me to adopt my primary client’s preferred method of communicating (touching base most mornings when I came online), for the representatives in other time zones, it was only necessary to meet once or twice a week. Sometimes working different time zones work in both party’s favor – while one is closing out their day, the other is just starting so you can get a nice volley of back-and-forth work done.
- When disseminating information globally, it made sense to use email and to use chat for quick back and forth conversations that didn’t involve everyone.
- Working with global teams, it was imperative I keep my calendar up to date and to show my working hours. I told area leads I was working with that I would own scheduling the regular meetings so I could have better control over my calendar and how meetings would appear. That way I didn’t have multiple meetings scheduled with similar subjects, which can make it challenging to glance at your calendar and know what’s coming up without having to open the meeting invitation.
With both projects, I learned not to make some basic assumptions. You could be coming onto a project after it’s well underway and running at a frenetic pace. If that’s the case, take a deep breath and figure out who could be your ally—a go-to person to ask questions or get more context about the project. Be prescriptive about your work and don’t be shy about asking clarifying questions. I also learned not to assume a general M-F, 8-5 work cadence. With lots of people still working remote and companies allowing for flexible work hours, it’s become the norm to find people working odd hours. Be up front during the interview and ask if you’ll be working with teams in different time zones and expectations of your time.
Read Part 2 of this blog, coming soon, where I’ll share a couple more scenarios and best practices for communicating with your client (and vice versa!).