04 Jan Challenges and solutions for communicating in a remote environment
by Christian Bondoc
Consultants must be able to effectively and efficiently communicate with their clients and co-workers in order to maximize their effective productive time and minimize instances of dead time, miscommunication, and rework. Successful consultants will identify which challenges are applicable to their particular situation, and apply techniques and strategies that work best for them. But there are some obstacles to address.
One of the most unique and challenging aspects of consulting is the opportunity to work in different client environments over a relatively short period of time. The consistent new exposure to various products, corporate processes, and team environments presents the consultant with tremendous opportunities for education and growth on a professional and personal level. However, this also presents significant challenges to the success of the project, not the least of which is the issue of communication between the client, the consultant, the consultancy team, and management.
These problems are compounded by the fact that consultants are increasingly engaged as off-site resources, and so they do not have the same opportunities for interacting with the client as a traditional, on-site employee. Even in the age of telepresence technology and 24-hour email access, the chances of miscommunication are high and carry consequences that can be measured in hours lost or dollars wasted. Successful consultants will take the time to understand their particular work environment and tailor their work strategies to maximize their chances for success.
This post examines three of the biggest challenges a consultant might encounter while on a project and presents a solution for dealing with each one.
Shorten the Feedback Loop
Challenge: Client-consultant feedback is slow, disorganized, or imprecise.
Whether you work from home, a shared workspace, or any other off-site location, one challenge to a successful consultancy project is being able to give and receive feedback between the client and consultancy team. Working in the close proximity with your coworkers in a traditional office has its advantages—delays in a communication loop can be closed simply by meeting the other person. For a remote consultant, this may not be possible, as clients and even team members may be separated by miles and time zones. Even when using email, instant messaging, or voice communication, feedback may be unclear or untimely, resulting in lost effort for the consultant and wasted dollars on the part of the client.
Solution: Active, persistent engagement with all members of the consultancy project.
One of the most effective strategies for a successful project is also one of the most overlooked: active participation in the decision-making process throughout the length of the project. It is imperative that the consultant be aware not only of the precise requirements of the project but also the intent behind the requirements. The consultant can then use their expertise to advise the client on potential expediencies or roadblocks, thus maximizing the effective productive time for all parties.
The second half of this strategy is persistence. By engaging the client early and often, the consultant minimizes the potential for wasted time and effort and provides flexibility for the client to make decisions, clarify requirements, and give feedback. Depending on the complexity of the project, this may require project status updates multiple times a week or even daily. Regardless of the formal update schedule, the consultant must also reach out to the client or team members whenever a question arises that would impact the project. It is up to the consultant to ensure that they have adequate and accurate information to execute a successful project, and for that, the consultant must be an active and aware participant in the project.
Get the Picture
Challenge: Teams and clients consistently encounter miscommunication issues when using text-based communication or even talking directly.
As with any discrete group of people, the client may already have corporate language habits in place that are vaguely related to—or in some cases directly conflict with—the technical language of the CPQ platform of the project. The consultant may also not be familiar with the terminology used by the client and misinterpret requirements set as spoken or written down, especially early in the project timeline. This causes an extra feedback loop where the consultant produces work that is not to requirement and must be revised. The result is lost time and effort across the entire project group.
Solution: Use consistent language and visual aids, like demos and screenshots, to aid in requirement building and to describe requirements and processes.
In cases where descriptive language is not sufficient to clarify requirements, consultants must use other resources and tools to gather information. The best way to ensure that the project is on target is to present demos and screenshots of in-progress work to the client. Teleconference applications like Skype or GoToMeeting allow for increased collaboration between remote resources and will go a long way towards ensuring the consultant and project are on track and progressing. By walking the client through the intended process or application, the consultant ensures each step in the process meets the client’s expectations, while the client can identify details in the platform that might not have been recognized in the planning or requirement building stage.
As explained above, it is essential that the consultancy team and client communicate effectively throughout the course of the project. However, in cases where the existing corporate language of the client conflicts with the technical language of the project, the consultant must take steps to establish a clear and concise language convention to avoid any miscommunication between the client and consultant team. It is generally advisable to use the technical language of the CPQ (or project) platform as the standard, as that is the primary work environment of the project, rather than translating the platform terminology to that of the client. Using clear, consistent language is especially useful when teleconference or real-time communication is not possible (email, voicemail, time zone difference, etc.) or when the client/consultant feedback loop contains a significant time delay. Establishing the language and terminology early in the project decreases the chances of miscommunication throughout the project timeline.
Take Advantage of Availabilities
Challenge: In the age of telecommuting, dispersed workforces, and offshore resourcing, the consultant will likely encounter unavoidable or inconvenient delays in communication simply due to the time zone of other resources. Additionally, clients and other consultancy team members will often have other responsibilities that require their attention away from the project. All of this takes time away from the consultant’s opportunities to collaborate and discuss the project in real time. In effect, this elongates the feedback loop and creates times where the consultant will have to work with incomplete information.
Solution: In cases where the consultant has a discrete opportunity to collaborate with the client, or when the time zone difference is such that normal working hours are not overlapping, maximizing those opportunities to meet with the client and other resources are essential. Even with offshore resources, establishing a reasonable time and frequency for the entire team to meet online, collaborate, and discuss in real time is a must for any successful project. The consultant must use this time to ask questions, present demonstrations, and gather as much information as possible to allow for progress up until the next meeting. Avoid missing these meetings, as not only is this the time for the consultant to present their work and progress, but the client may also present new requirements or other project-level details not previously visible to the consultant. This is also the best way to establish a good working relationship between the consultant, client, and other resources, all of which will make the project much more successful over the timeline.
In addition, there may be opportunities to travel and meet directly with the client or other resources, and the consultant should take these opportunities whenever they become available. Even face-to-face meetings with local members of the consultancy group will be beneficial when tackling particularly complex requirements or just to clarify progress. Successful consultants will create and use all of these opportunities to maximize their potential for project success.
Of course, every CPQ consulting project presents unique challenges to its members, only some of which might be described in this article or require solutions other than those presented here. Above all, the successful CPQ consultant remains adaptable and open-minded when evaluating strategies and solutions for completing the project. What does not change, however, is the fact that effective, efficient communication between the consultant, client, and consultancy team is essential to project success, and will go a long way to ensuring a smooth process towards completion.