Miscommunications can cause problems

The Greatest Sources of Miscommunication in Client Relationships

When I ask skilled technical and service professionals and leaders what their single biggest challenge is, I almost always get the same response:

“My clients.”

For more than 25 years, I’ve been asking top-notch leaders, managers and professionals from all around the world this same question. Whether they see themselves on the technology, marketing, consulting, sales, or management side, they all say the same thing.

When we delve deeper by asking: “What is at the root of your client problems?” – the answer they give is also the same:

“My clients don’t communicate clearly.”

Regardless of their experience, expertise, or expectations, even top professionals often fail to communicate effectively – or even recognize that miscommunication is happening.

This has a harmful and detrimental impact on both sides of the client relationship.

Clients have repeatedly found that an understanding of fundamental human dynamics is valuable in transforming this situation.

This approach illuminates the principles of why exactly people do what they do, and how that influences communication, decision-making, relationship-building, service delivery, and even leadership.

If you are committed to maximizing your success with your clients (and colleagues), a strong understanding of the principles and driving forces of communication will serve you well.

At the foundation level, I have identified three sources of miscommunication. Do you know what these universal driving forces of success – or failure – in your relationships are?

When you understand these universal principles, you will be much better able to handle any client relationship miscommunication or problem.

As is often said: awareness, especially of the principles that drive effectiveness in an area, is the first step in transforming your results.

Source of Miscommunication Number One

What do you believe the first source of miscommunication is?

Let’s use your own analysis and numbers for validation of the source. Answer this specific question: “What percentage of the time are you a highly effective communicator?”

Having worked with thousands of people from more than 40 countries around the world, I have asked top professionals from every continent (well, except Antarctica) this question.

And all over the world, the responses are consistently the same.

The overwhelming majority of answers range between 60 and 80 percent of the time, or an average of 70 percent among top professionals. What is your percentage?

The key consideration to focus on here is: What is the obvious implication of these – and your own – numbers? It establishes the claim that thirty percent of the time, when miscommunication happens, YOU are the source.

The first source of miscommunication is YOU.

Source of Miscommunication Number Two

The next telling question that I pose to my top professional clients to identity the next source of miscommunication is this:

“What percentage of the time is the initial request you receive from a client exactly what is ultimately most important, critical, and valuable to them?”

What is your answer to this dynamically important question?

Whatever your percentage, the percentage of time they fail to tell you what is most important to them is not because they’re hiding information from you.

However, it is critically relevant to what can go wrong when you get incorrect, unimportant, or unfocused requests from clients.

Do you know what the average is from thousands of respondents?

Almost every group comes in between 10 and 20 percent of the time that their initial request gives you exactly what is most important and valuable to your clients!

That means 80 to 90 percent of the time, your clients are not telling you what is most critical and most important to them.

Perhaps they haven’t thought it through well, or are just not focused on what would really be valuable and worthwhile in the midst of their scurrying around.

Regardless of how intensely they demand a response to their request, unless it is highly meaningful, strategic and valuable, you could end up in trouble simply by doing what they asked you to do.

This means that even if you are doing exactly what they asked you to do, you are unlikely to be successful with them, as it won’t deliver a valuable result 80 to 90 percent of the time.

When a project you’ve completed for your client doesn’t deliver a valuable result, who is the client going to blame?

You may say, “I did exactly what you asked me to do, on time, on budget, and according to all the specifications.”

To which the client will likely respond, “But that’s not what I really needed. What did I hire you for anyway? You’re supposed to be the expert – and you didn’t get me what I really needed.”

Their lack of clarity around what is most important to them means you run the risk of doing immense amounts of work that ultimately won’t matter – and you will blamed for its failure.

The second source of miscommunication is THEM.

Source of Miscommunication Number Three

This third source of miscommunication is best illustrated by a small group exercise – which I strongly suggest you do with a team of yours.

In my seminars, I set up groups of five people who are used to working together. I then give them a word they all use every day.

  • In technology, I might use the word “technology” or “software”
  • For professional services providers, I often use the words “client” or “consulting”
  • For executive teams, I would use the word “leadership” or “vision”
  • With a healthcare or pharma group, I give them the word “patient”

Then I ask, “What are the first five words that come to mind when I say (using that group’s relevant word)?” Everyone writes down the first five things that come to mind about that word.

Now we look to see how well these people who work together all the time understand each other.

We want to find out how many of these critical terms they hold in common.

It works like this: A group has a match when all five people have exactly the same word on their list. They can have as many as five matches if all five people have the same five words on their lists.

Having done this exercise with well more than 1,500 groups, do you know how many times we’ve had five matches?


Four matches?


Three matches?

You can probably see the trend emerging here…it is also zero.

Remember, these are people who already know each other and work together, dealing with this very basic word that’s key to their business every day and week.

Having done this with professionals in all sorts of industries – all over the world – and out of over 1,500 groups, do you know how many times we have had even two matches?

Exactly twice.

Out of all those groups, all five people have matched one word a total of fourteen times.

Fourteen times, out of more than 1,500.

That means not a single match was present in 1,484 of the 1,500 groups.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, teammates don’t share the same understand of a very basic word they do their business around with each other everyday.

People obviously know what the word means – to themselves. They just don’t know what it means to the people they work with everyday.

Which do you think is most important and matters most?

The third source of miscommunication is YOU and THEM TOGETHER!

Why Do the Three Sources of Miscommunication Matter?

With these points in mind, imagine how out of tune we are with clients and colleagues who are asking us to do something faster, better, or cheaper.

How often are you using your definition of “faster,” “better,” or “cheaper” instead of understanding what they really mean?

Given there is little understanding of the meanings of common words among those who work together regularly, you can imagine the possibilities for miscommunication among people who don’t yet know each other well.

You, as the professional services provider or leader, operate from your world view and understanding, while the client is in their world.

Together you are searching to find that understanding and place where you can come together, connect, get agreement, and build an outstanding relationship.

Given an understanding of the Three Sources of Miscommunication, you must do this by entering the client’s world and facilitating with them in reaching clarity, understanding, and agreement around what is truly valuable to them.

Your ability to help them clarify their priorities, and elevate their requests to the level of meaningful outcomes dramatically repositions you, creates a strong relationship of mutual trust and respect, and differentiates you dramatically from your competitors.

It also helps avoid and even overcome the greatest challenge with clients: lack of clear communication.

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