For better or for worse, we are living in a hyper-connected world. Which means that whether we are always reachable, the person on the other end of the email or phone believes us to be. None of us is ever really “away.” (And we can debate the necessity and impact of that another time).

When it comes to managing your business relationships, a lack of communication can have a huge detrimental effect. Where you might be assuming that “no news is good news,” your client or other business relationship may be left feeling anxious about the status of your last conversation and wondering whether it’s even still on your radar. I’ve had contrasting incidences of this recently, which have illustrated some important lessons for me about managing expectations in all of my business relationships. 

  • After scheduling a refrigerator repair online, I received no updates about the status of the repair window. I was tied to my home during the four hour time slot, and as I was trying, in vain, to find an update online about the repair at the end of the four hours, I received an automated call asking me to call another number to reschedule my canceled appointment. It took several minutes of dealing with a second automated system to get through to a live representative, and only an unsatisfactory solution was reached.
  • Working with a local planner in another jurisdiction, with a significant time difference, I had cleared my schedule on a weekend evening to wait for an update that had been promised, so that I could deal with it immediately. We had had previous communication about the time pressures of getting things planned and needing to make decisions, so I fully expected the update. When none was forthcoming, it took three phone calls and three emails to find out that they weren’t going to be able to get me the update until the following day, and by that time it was quite late.
  • I scheduled delivery and assembly of a new treadmill through Amazon for this week. With a huge storm coming through last week, I received several update emails that allowed me to track online any potential delays to the delivery, and to reschedule my assembly window if necessary. The delivery was made on time, and the assembly team called the evening before to confirm the shipment had arrived, and twice subsequently to confirm the window of when they would arrive, and then the exact time.

Two of those instances aren’t related to the business of law, but they have a lot to do with client service, and managing expectations, which are both essential to the business of law. What did I takeaway from these?

  • Communication is key: We say it a lot here at Zen, but it’s because it’s true – communication is the key. And particularly in a hyper-connected world. When you have a device in your pocket that allows you to be connected to anyone at any time, there’s little excuse not to update people. Yes, we all need an appropriate balance in our lives. But it’s important to prioritize checking in with the people that you’re working with, even sometimes when there’s nothing to report. Circling back to someone to say “there’s no news, but I’m still working on this, and will get you an update at x time,” is hugely reassuring, and makes each person feel as though they’re the most important. There are some times where I’m not as easy to reach, so I’ll make sure that I have an out of office up that allows people to know how to either reach me directly more easily, or to access someone who can help them immediately. And I work hard at trying to answer all of my emails within 24 hours, even if I’m just telling someone that I received their message, and I’m working on getting back to them with a more comprehensive response. I also endeavor to provide people with as much information as they’ll need to move forward as well – it’s easy to forget when we’re in the weeds of our own work that not everyone is thinking about something in the same way that we are, or has access to the same information that we do (like the automated call coming through and not giving me the chance to grab a pen to write down the number). So providing the other person with the full picture that they need – not in a way that inundates them, but in a way that informs them  – in a timely manner, is both reassuring and essential to the relationship.
  • Know your audience: At the same time, know your audience and the individual situation. There may be some clients and relationships that don’t want to hear from you unless you have something to tell them. You’ve already agreed with them that unless there is news, you won’t contact them because you’re all too busy otherwise. And that’s fine too, as long as you’re entirely confident in each situation what the needs of the other person are. Which clients and relationships need more hand-holding and which may want more distance? In the early stages of a relationship, you can be candid about setting these boundaries to ensure that everyone is happy. During my delivery calls from Amazon about the treadmill, they offered me the option to receive the same information that they had provided over the phone via text message, or to be contacted further if that’s what I wanted. They were allowing me to dictate the terms of our communication.
  • Under-promise and over-deliver: We’ve all heard this one ad nauseum, but it’s because it’s an effective tool. When I tell someone that I’m going to get back to them by a certain date or time, I make sure to meet that deadline, or reach out to them to let them know that I’m delayed, but that I’m still going to get back to them. Keeping items like this in either my desk calendar or Outlook calendar keeps me on task and allows me to stay on top of managing expectations with the people I need to communicate with. Things come up; we’re all busy and we understand that deadlines can be missed or other people are involved and not everything can be accomplished the way that we want. But I know that I’m more understanding when someone reaches out to me and says “This is going to take another day and I appreciate your patience,” before I have to track them down to find out why I didn’t get the expected update. Over-deliver on your communications and deadlines, and your connections will appreciate not having to do the work of reaching out, which has already put the relationships on an unequal footing.
  • Be available during times of need: There are always those instances when someone needs more from you – a deal is closing or a client just got bad news or, in my case, usually when we’re at a conference or a firm is new to the Network. I try to find multiple ways to make myself available to the people that might need me – my mobile phone, checking email, using our conference app, Facebook messenger, answering my hotel phone when it rings. However my clients or connections want or need to get in touch with me when I know that they may be feeling more anxious, I accept the connection so that I can help them with the answers that they need. I can’t be everywhere at once and it’s impractical to do this all the time, but I can recognize those moments when they happen, and work to be present for them.
  • No one is a number: I highly doubt that any one of us has just a single client. We’re all dealing with multiple people and multiple projects on a given day. They range in size and priority, and shift from moment to moment. But the goal is always to make the person that we’re talking to feel as if they are the most important person we know in that moment. Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because you never know who could potentially give you more business (the majority of clients will test out a firm with small pieces of work first before giving them larger matters), who might refer you to friends who could become large clients, and who might be watching.

So today, ask yourself – who do I need to check in with? If it’s not an immediate need for a check in, schedule it so that you don’t forget. Taking that step to check in with a client or other business relationship before they have to do the work of reaching out to you has a huge impact on the quality of your relationships.