Saturday, October 18, 2008

Speak Your Client's Language

Effectively Communicating with Business And Technical People

To be a good consultant, you have to learn how to effectively communicate. At most client engagements you will likely need to communicate with both business and technical people.

Business people and technical people are pretty much the same on the outside: 2 arms, 2 legs, etc. But they think, speak, and act differently. The only way you can discover whether someone is business-oriented or technically-oriented is to talk to them, listen to them, and find out what they do.

Business people and technical people live in very different worlds. Business people are focused on the business. They easily relate to profit/loss, sales, marketing, customers, risk, productivity / efficiency, agility / time to market, competitive advantage. Business people have a hard time understanding technical people--they seem to be of a different culture and speak a different language.

Technical people are passionate about technology. They easily relate to design, engineering, hardware / software, creating things, and find solutions to interesting technical problems. Technical people have a hard time understanding business people--they seem to speak a very ambiguous and imprecise language.

It might seem like the "right" way to address this problem is to get both sides to reach out to each other: business people should learn more about technology, and technologists should learn more about business. For a consultant, this is not the correct answer, for two reasons.

  1. First off, it's not the customer's job to bridge the gap, it's the consultant's job. Even if most of your work is technical, interacting with business and technical people is something a consultant should always be prepared to do. The consultant has to bridge the gap, not the customer. Always remember, a consultant is more than a developer.
  2. Secondly, the purpose of I.T. is to further the business's objectives. No matter how technical your work is, you should be able to relate your project to how it furthers the business strategy. Your work is part of a cycle where a business strategy is formed, departments (both technical and non-technical) execute on the strategy, and results are produced and measured. Every consultant should learn on Day 1 of a project how their work relates to the business objectives.
So just how do you bridge the gap between business and technical people?

First off, identify your audience. If you're at a meeting, who are all those people at the conference table? They're just question marks until you find out who they are and what they do. Once you know you're addressing a VP of Marketing or a salesperson, switch to business speak. When you're talking to a development manager or I.T. administrator, switch to techno-speak.

When speaking to business people, use terms they can appreciate. For example:

  • Strategy. Every business runs on a plan.
  • Agility. An agile, more nimble business is not mired down and can turn on a dime in response to executive direction.
  • Productivity. A more productive business creates products or delivers services faster and cheaper.
  • Customers. Customers are the engine that keeps a business running.
  • Industry terms. Learn something about the industry your client is in and get acquainted with the industry-specific terms.
Let's talk about some skills to develop:

  1. Listening. This is the most important skill of all.
  2. Speaking plainly. A great example of this was during the congressional investigation of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. After mounds of incomprehensible techno-babble from engineers, Feynman lifted some o-ring material out of his icewater and snapped it like a twig. Something even an 8-year old could understand.
  3. Relevance. Is what you are saying relevant to the other party? Is how you are saying it understandable to the other party?
  4. Make it Clear. It takes work to say things clearly and simply. "If I'd had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter."
All right, but if we're addressing a mixed audience? What good is it to know how to speak your client's language if you're in a room full of business and technical people?

There are ways. You can find things that are of interest to everyone (when somone yells "fire" in a crowded room, every person is interested regardless of their background). For example:

"These proposed changes will improve security?"

Everyone views security as important.

You can also sprinkle in something of interest to the technical people and something of interest to the business people in what you say. For example:

"This more efficient arrangement will improve the bottom line by processing orders faster."

Something for everybody. Technical people will like the efficient arrangement part, while business people will respond to improving the bottom line.

Non-ideal for a mixed audience:
"In the next spring we want to enable SSL and implement authentication/authorization using a custom membership provider."

"The next round of changes we are proposing will increase security of the web site, including tracking who does what."

Visual explanations are often helpful in getting things across to a mixed audience. A simple chart can link technical projects to business impact without being overwhelming.

You should never be afraid to ask "what do you mean?" (in a respectful way, of course). It's better to get clarity on what someone is telling you, right up front. By the same token, if you're presenting and some asks you "what do you mean?", realize you probably need to adjust what you're saying to better reach that person.

The better you know your audience, the more effectively you can communicate with them.

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