Whether you’re concerned with getting new customers, keeping your existing customers, attracting and retaining top quality employees, or getting the best deals from the vendors you work with, effective communication is the key to success for MSPs of any size. Even though you may provide business-to-business (B2B) services, ultimately you’re dealing with people, and clear communication is vital to making any human relationship work. But good communication doesn’t necessarily come naturally, so how can you improve the communication channels within your company, and between your organization and its customers, partners and vendors?
Communication takes a number of different forms, which can be roughly divided into three categories: written, verbal, and wordless (communicating by actions, gestures, facial expression, body language and so on). Another way to categorize communications is by whether we’re communicating “in person” (in physical proximity) or “long distance.” Yet another differentiator is whether we’re communicating person-to-person or “multi-casting” to a group.
In-person communications can include written words (for example, when we give a slideshow presentation or illustrate our points on a chalk board) but usually consist mostly of verbal and bodily communications. Although the Mehrabian formula (which says that more than half of our in-person communications (55%) are visual, consisting of such things as eye contact, body language, another 38% is said to be done through voice tone, pitch, etc. and only about 7% of our messages are actually communicated through the words we use) has been widely disputed, there is no doubt that the same words take on different meaning when said in different ways, or that a person’s body language is an important factor in communication.
In-person communications have the potential to be the most effective, because we have all of the communications methods at our disposal. In person, it’s important to be aware of the messages we’re sending with our facial expressions and body language. In business, you usually want to project a strong, assertive (but not aggressive) persona. Eye contact, posture, and a strong voice all help to communicate competence and self-assurance – all of which are assets in most business interactions.
Real-time communications over a distance (whether down the hall or across the globe) can be accomplished via telephone/audio call, videoconference, or instant messaging/texting. When typing text, all of the non-verbal cues (smiles, frowns, voice hesitancy or questioning tone, body indicators such as crossed arms or nervous fidgeting) are missing. This makes the words that you choose extremely important. Sarcasm, teasing, or any kind of humor or subtle underlying message may fall flat or be misinterpreted in text-only communications. Emoticons or insertions such as <grin> can be helpful but don’t fully take the place of the non-verbal cues that we provide in person, some of which we aren’t even aware.
With any real-time communications, in person or otherwise, you have less time to consider your choices before communicating. However, the caveat to “think before you speak” still applies – you just have to think fast. Don’t blurt out the first thing that comes to mind, especially in sensitive or emotional situations such as contract negotiations, employee disciplinary situations, or dealing with customer complaints. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to understand how you would feel in his/her place, then respond as you would want the other party to. Of course that doesn’t mean giving in to every demand; it does mean communicating in a professional and sympathetic manner even when you have to deliver news that the other won’t like.
Really listen to the other person (or with texting communications, really read – and reread – what the other said) before responding. Make sure you understand what was intended, and if you don’t understand, ask rather than guess and react. One way to facilitate real listening is to let go of multitasking when you’re communicating with another person in real time. Don’t be reading your email or watching a video or thinking about the next meeting – give the communications session at hand your full attention.
One-to-one vs. group communications
Your communications methods may need to be adjusted based on whether you’re communicating with an individual, having a meeting with a group where everyone participates, or are giving a formal presentation to a room full of people. In all cases, it’s important to learn to “read” your audience, to detect whether they’re involved with what you’re saying, indifferent, hostile, etc. and adjust accordingly, rather than just going off on a set course that you have in your head.
In group communications, it’s easy to become focused on one or two members of the group (the most vocal, or the ones who seem most attentive) to the exclusion of the others. That can be a big mistake, as you leave some people (sometimes the ones who are most important to the decision-making process or to your future success) feeling left out. To establish yourself as a leader, you should make the effort to draw everyone in – without pressuring anyone to participate more than they wish. In a group conversation, make sure everyone at least has the opportunity to participate. In a presentation, don’t just talk to the front row or a familiar face – make it a point to make brief eye contact with as many audience members as possible.
It’s important to recognize that communications components such as personal space/distance and eye contract vary from one locale/culture to another, and to be sensitive to and respect those differences. If the person with whom you’re interacting seems to be made uncomfortable by how close you’re standing, for instance, back up and give him/her some room, even if it feels unnatural to you. On the other hand, if the other person is getting too close for your comfort, realize that doesn’t necessarily indicate aggression or inappropriate intimacy, just different learned habits, and don’t be offended or become defensive in response.
One of the most important but most often overlooked steps in effective communications, regardless of the situation, is the follow-up. A written follow-up after a meeting or telephone conversation, summarizing key points and reiterating your position or providing additional information that you didn’t have at hand can play a key role in creating a positive outcome. Following up with a simple “thank you” note or email after a successful in-person communication or phone call can make a big impression.