As an IT professional, when you tell people what you do for a living, you probably get two responses: either their eyes glaze over, or they ask if you can fix their printer. The second you start talking about programming, software testing, or other technical stuff, many people just stop listening.
While you're probably used to this response, it points out a difficulty many IT professionals have: it can be hard to communicate the nature of your projects in layman's terms.
And clients can be among your most challenging audiences. They might want a project finished, but don't care to know any of the technical "mumbo-jumbo" of how it works. This can make things difficult when you have to explain why a project could be delayed or why the software they want doesn't work exactly as they imagined.
So what can you do about this failure to communicate? Keep reading for one easy way to improve communications with clients.
IT Communications Tip: Turn News Stories into Teaching Points
In our yearend IT roundup, we pointed out that two of the biggest new stories of the year – Edward Snowden and HealthCare.gov – involved IT contractors. In many ways, 2013 was the year of the IT contractor, with news channels discussing cyber security and risk management issues along with weather forecasts and political events.
All these news stories might have one unexpected benefit for IT professionals: they can help you explain to clients the risks involved in your work.
One software-testing expert at Network World suggests that IT pros should use these news stories as common points of reference to help confused clients understand the risks associated with IT projects. The stories around the launch (and difficulties) of HealthCare.gov alone offer plenty of fertile examples to help explain your work to the people you serve.
Software Risk Management Tip: Use HealthCare.gov's Struggles to Educate Clients
The struggles of HealthCare.gov might actually make it easier for you to explain certain aspects of your work while you negotiate a contract with a client or explain what you need to do to fix a problem with their software. For instance, you might use any of the following examples in your discussions with clients:
- Coordinating between contractors. This was, in many ways, the main problem that plagued HealthCare.gov. Multiple contractors worked on the same project, but it wasn't always clear who was in charge. Problems synthesizing the code of so many different authors caused much of the site's malfunction. If necessary, ask clients for the hierarchy if you’re working with other contractors (i.e., ask whom you should report to and whom you should be supervising). If your client isn’t sure how to answer, offer to outline a coordination plan that makes sense based on the various tasks everyone’s responsible for.
- Not enough time spent testing software. During the congressional hearings over HealthCare.gov, IT contractors claimed they weren't given enough time to adequately test their individual projects or how well various projects functioned together. Clients might not be familiar with the importance of software testing, but more thorough testing could have prevented many of HealthCare.gov's problems.
- The dangers of rushing projects. In the hurry to have HealthCare.gov operational by October 1st, contractors hurried their work, which resulted in problems integrating the different parts of the site. If you have any disputes about a work schedule, tactfully remind your clients about the danger of rushing work. If you're afraid a project is behind schedule, tell your clients early on to prepare them for the delay.
- Front-end vs. back-end software problems. Small IT businesses can use the health care site to explain the difference between front-end and back-end issues. The site had obvious front-end issues: problematic coding slowed page load times and inadequate bandwidth caused outages. On the backend, the website sent incorrect data to insurance companies. Understanding these differences can be helpful for clients who don't understand why their software seems to work, but is having problems with data on the back-end.
- Data security issues. As the target of almost two dozen cyber attacks the first days it was live, HealthCare.gov provides an important reminder that cyber risk is everywhere. Clients might not "see" cyber risk, but after these failed attacks and other high-profile hacks (like the ones that hit Target and Adobe), they should be more aware of the dangers posed by data breaches. The prevalence of these attacks is also an important reminder for IT professionals to cover their cyber liabilities with E&O insurance.
- Website struggles = negative marketing. Websites that don't work lose customers. HealthCare.gov is currently 1 million users behind schedule. Government leaders had hoped to have 3 million users signed up by the New Year, but only had 2 million. For web developers, one important takeaway is that for every minute, hour, and day a website is down, it's bad for business. And when sites are down, IT contractors can be sued for a client's lost profits.
Despite learning more about IT risks, clients still aren't going to be experts in cyber security or software testing. But after hearing these news stories, they'll probably have a baseline understanding.
A Last Word On Client Education: How to Protect Yourself from Lawsuits
Becoming a better communicator is a smart way to prevent E and O lawsuits. Clients can sue over disagreements about contracts, the results of your work, professional negligence, mistakes, and miscommunications.
But educating clients, explaining why you shouldn't rush a project, and having an easy-to-understand example of any technical problem you might encounter can help clients see things from an IT perspective. This can prevent misunderstandings and frustrations from boiling over and becoming fodder for an E&O lawsuit.
To learn more about protecting your IT firm with small business insurance, you can look over these sample insurance quotes for small businesses, or fill out our online insurance application form and receive free quotes tailored to your business.