Merchants working directly with developers can cut out the “middleman” and avoid hiring an agency, but without some coaching and instruction (and sometimes quite a bit of luck), some merchants and developers are going to find themselves incompatible. And this situation has nothing to do with their technical skills or abilities, but rather their communication skills. To have a pleasant experience, the merchant will either need to find a developer that fits their communication style, find a project manager to act as a filter/translator or learn on their own how to adapt their communication style to be understood by the developer.
As a quick example of the way that developers might communicate with the merchant, imagine a merchant sent this email to the developer:
Subject: Urgent Checkout Isn’t Working!!!
Body: Customer service just got a call, and a customer reported the checkout isn’t working. Help!!
This is the response the merchant receives an hour later:
Subject: Re: Urgent Checkout Isn’t Working!!!
I checked the site and everything seems fine.
Ten years ago, this could have been my response. Factually, it might be correct, because the checkout was actually working fine overall, but there’s a very specific issue that the customer is encountering. From a communication/empathy perspective, this is a terrible response, because it makes the merchant feel like you’re not taking their issue seriously. By the “urgent” subject line and amount of exclamation points, it seems the merchant is very concerned, and instead of listening to their concerns, you’re invalidating their feelings and basically saying, “Calm down. Nothing is wrong.”
Instead of answering in this cold, tone-deaf way, try to immediately respond with “I’m on it!” so they know you’re looking at the issue and they’re not just sitting there, freaking out and wondering if you’re even at the computer or taking a nap. The merchant is probably thinking: “Oh my gosh. This person can't check out. Can nobody check out? How many sales are we missing because of this, and how much I pay in marketing? How much money are we actively losing because of this?"
After you’ve been able to investigate the issue, here’s a better response:
I just did a test order on the checkout, and it went through (see screenshot), so there doesn’t seem to be a global issue, but there may be a customer-specific issue that they’re running into. Would it be possible to get a bit more detail or a screenshot from customer service so I can try to reproduce it? As soon as I’m able to reproduce it, I’ll be able to dig into it a bit more and get to the bottom of it!
This response can be broken down into a simple formula with the catchy acronym, ARVAR:
- Acknowledge – As soon as possible, let the merchant know you’re looking into it.
- Reproduce – Try to reproduce the issue with the information you’re given (which might not be very much).
- Validate – If you’re able to reproduce the issue, confirm with the client that you’re seeing the same problem. If you can’t reproduce it, acknowledge that there might still be an issue and provide some proof like a screenshot or order number that you completed a test successfully.
- Ask – If you’re not able to reproduce the issue, ask for more details that you think will help you reproduce it. This also helps train clients in the future to give you better information upfront, reducing the back and forth, and ultimately being able to solve the issue quicker.
- Reassure – Sandwich your response with some reassurance that you’re taking the issue seriously. Especially if you’re not able to reproduce it because otherwise, it can seem like a denial that there’s even a problem.
Email is one of the most common communication methods nowadays, but as everyone knows, there are many different ways to communicate at work. Here are some tips for different types of communication.
In-person communication is great for making a connection with people and talking high-level strategy. Especially if you’re a developer, it’s valuable to make the merchant know that you’re a real human being, not just a robot or a code monkey.
I don’t recommend relying on in-person communication for project-related conversations, because it tends to slow down the process, as it’s harder to make schedules align for in-person meetings. That’s not to say you shouldn’t talk about project-related matters in person — you definitely should — but I don’t recommend it being a requirement, as it slows down the process and puts a lot of pressure on the in-person meetings.
As an example, I was recently in Sweden for an entire week of onboarding with a new client, and while I didn’t produce a single line of code the entire week for that client, I think the time I spent with their team connecting and strategizing was invaluable, and it’ll pay dividends throughout the course of the multi-year project.
The advantage of phone communication is that you can have some of the connection of an in-person meeting, but you don’t have to waste time traveling to a physical location. Video chatting can also bring in more nonverbal communication to your conversation. The only problem is if you work from home like me, you might have to put on pants or brush your hair.
I’ve experienced that many merchants prefer phone communication, but if you do, I’d urge you to consider whether it’s truly the best method for ongoing communication. Phone calls over fairly insignificant things can damage the productivity and flow with the people you’re working with, and interruptions can negatively impact your developer’s efficiency.
Slack introduced and normalized texting/chatting to the workplace, but Slack also brings with it some complexities in the expectations of communication. Part of the problem is that the expectations on the response time of a slack message are very undefined, and communication often gets siloed if people use direct messaging too much. And this means that that other team members can’t jump in when the point person may be out of office Losing valuable time getting up to speed with the background information instead of acting as a pool, where the first one that that’s ready dives into helping you with a solution.
I had a large client where I joined their slack channel temporarily, but I discussed it up front with the e-commerce team’s VP that Slack was only to be used for time-sensitive and emergency issues. Almost every organization uses Slack differently, and setting those expectations up front will reduce potential tension later on.
And finally, my preferred method: email.
I think the reason I prefer email as the default mode of communication is that it’s a lot easier to build systems to manage that communication. It also allows you to think about what you say a little bit more.
As a developer, when you start working with more clients, it’s very important to stay on top of communications. Inbox zero is one system that helps immensely with this. I recommend trying to prioritize responding to incoming communications quickly and then get any action items or follow up in the email into some sort of project management software like Asana, Jira or Basecamp.
The main downside of email is that you have to work harder to convey emotion and tone. That’s where your communication style is important.
A few communication style tips I’ve learned over the years:
Build a Bridge of Connection
If a call or email comes in on Monday, you can ask, “How was your weekend?” Or if it’s on a Friday, “Got any plans for the weekend?” This offers up an opportunity to make a bridge of connection. They might say something that you have an interest yourself in, and you can bond a little over some common interest. And something I learned, too, is to prepare to answer that question yourself on calls! I went through years of stumbling to answer that question as my mind went totally blank and the most interesting thing I could come up with was my list of Saturday chores.
I know this stuff comes naturally for a lot of people, especially people who are more used to doing sales, and for other people it might feel a bit fake at first. But just making a little effort to connect with the people you’re working with goes a long way in improving communication long term and, honestly, it’s just more fun to work with people you have a bit more of a personal connection with.
It’s a fairly recent phenomenon, but I’ve been doing my part to make emojis in work emails commonplace. You probably shouldn’t go all out with a bunch of eggplants and poop emojis, but I think it’s useful to sprinkle in a few smiley faces or a tongue sticking out. Especially since the tone of written email can be easily misinterpreted, it goes a long way to lightening up the conversation. This is fairly generational as well because if you’re working with someone who’s older they may not reciprocate, but I’ve found it’s usually not a detractor and developers are seen as quirky enough to sprinkle some emojis here and there safely. I’m a little old school and prefer text emojis to actual emoji pictures because I feel like it probably shows up in more email clients.
The next level of millennial and Gen Z communication after emojis is GIFs. This is even more generational, but if you’re working with someone you have a good connection with, you think they might use GIFs, and you’re a GIF’er yourself, I don’t see why you need to hold back in business communication. Try to read the room, though. The 45-year old CEO of a Fortune 500 company isn’t likely to appreciate GIFs, but as more of millennials and Gen Z are getting into positions of leadership, that’s changing.
So much of communication is subjective, and it takes a lot of time just getting comfortable with it.
Try to infuse as much fun and personality as possible. After all, you’re spending 40 hours a week working with these people; having a little fun can make all the difference in the world.
But the thing I can’t stress the most is just to try to put yourselves in the shoes of whoever you’re working with and treat them with as much as compassion and empathy possible. We’re all humans, dealing with human feelings and problems, even at work.