Tips for Managing Communication Overload
Good communication is one of the most important parts of building relationships with clients, but what happens when a client needs more contact than you are willing to give? A daily barrage of e-mails, phone calls, and meeting requests can kill your productivity and chip away at your sanity. But don’t end the relationship just yet; give these ideas a try before throwing in the towel.
Use E-mail Rules
When I start working with a new client, I know pretty quickly if they are heavily dependent on e-mail. I am very e-mail oriented, so in terms of maintaining communication with a client, this is great. But if the client sends a lot of messages, my inbox inevitably fills up, I feel like I need to read everything right away, and I start to get stressed. Not to mention it becomes a nightmare in terms of tracking requests, information and other details vital to the project.
One way I manage this is by setting up e-mail rules for clients who tend to send a lot of messages (and multiple rules for some clients). I usually have everything from that client go to one folder where I can see the unread message count, but the various messages are not in my inbox screaming at me to open them.
Set a Time for E-mail
All of my client messages are automatically sorted into their appropriate folders when they arrive. But I still need to read them, log the information, and act or schedule a time to act. Depending on the client, the project and the timeline, I try to handle all incoming messages in 2-3 sittings per day, especially if there are a handful of messages from one client on one issue. This does wonders for productivity because it eliminates the stop-and-go that comes from reading e-mail in general, and then getting pulled off course by an issue that could wait until later.
I admit, though, that I do take a peek at everything coming in before relegating it to the “later” folder in my mind. Thanks to Growl, I get a non-intrusive pop-up where I can get the gist of the message and make sure that it’s not an emergency I need to tend to right away.
I am not a fan of instant messaging. I go in cycles where I let myself think it might be a good way to facilitate communication with clients, and then in a matter of hours, I am shutting it down. Either a client abuses it — IMing constantly, even when my status is showing I’m not available. Or they misuse it — sending me very long, detailed messages that I need to act on immediately or copy over to my task list. Plus, I work some non-traditional hours and sometimes forget to log out. I really don’t want to chat in the wee hours of the morning, especially with clients who want a status update on their project.
Require Scheduling in Advance
Having live contact with clients is essential, whether face-to-face or via phone. For me, this usually means phone meetings, and I try to schedule them regularly with clients. I rarely take ad hoc calls because I require (yes, require) that all meetings are scheduled in advance. Even if it is only one day in advance, scheduling calls prevents other client work from being interrupted, gives me a chance to properly prepare for the meeting, and sets a start time and duration so it’s an efficient use of time.
Another way to manage clients who like to communicate frequently by phone is to create a set block of time, daily or a few times a week, as your phone conference time. Your clients can call you during that block of time and expect you to be available.
If all else fails, you may want to consider charging a premium for excessive contact requests by offering a phone/e-mail support plan as an add-on to your services. As left in a comment on another post, this is exactly what @realjustinlong does to manage phone call interruptions.
You can work each of these tips into your contract and refer to them as needed with clients. The main point is to set your boundaries and stick to them. Then, if the client still has trouble respecting your time, it may be time to move on.
How do you handle clients who seem to need an inordinate amount of your time, especially when it starts to disrupt your work?
Image credit: Marja Flick-Buijs