10 Mistakes Engineers Should Avoid When Building Client Relationships

As an engineer, if you put as much energy into cultivating client relationships as you do into your projects, success awaits.
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As an engineer devoted to your career, you shrug your shoulders in disbelief when you encounter projects that leave the credibility of those claiming to be engineers in doubt!

You take pride in your accomplishments. Contribute to your profession. And if you put as much energy into cultivating client relationships as you do into your projects, success awaits. Consider the following wisdom to build strong client relationships from the get-go. Most of these are so easy to follow—even an engineer can become a quasi-expert on the art of client pampering. 

1. Speak the language of the client. Avoid industry speak that's perfectly acceptable over a beer with hard-hat buddies that leave clients clueless about what you're talking about. Clients don't always articulate the fact that they don't understand what you're saying; some quietly switch to an engineer able to talk technicalities in the simplest terms. 

2. Pay attention to the way you position your body to be open and approachable when you and your client are in contact. Entrepreneur magazine writer Allen Duet says signals sent to clients can be easily misinterpreted. Crossing your arms or legs and/or avoiding eye contact can send a signal that you’d rather be anywhere else than in their company. 

3. Don’t dismiss the power of recall. Literally. Call clients by their names and try to recall something personal shared with you so they know that while they may not have a clue about the technicalities you are spouting, you are paying attention to what they have to say and how they say it. Being a great listener can overcome many of the conflicts engineers and clients encounter.

4. Meeting deadlines can make or break an engineer-client relationship, but hitting that date isn’t necessarily the be-all and end-all that proves to be a relationship breaker. Having an open relationship means that if a project suffers setbacks (delayed raw material deliveries, labor problems or extended waits for permits and licenses), project managers and clients can ride out storms based on a healthy relationship. 

5. Over-communicate, say “Forbes” magazine contributors when listing ways to cement relationships between clients and contractual employees. Clients love being informed, even if your only message happens to be “We’re still on track.” Your communication skills can extend to serving as a resource if the news you deliver sets up a new set of problems. Offer solutions every time you present problems.

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6. Master clear writing skills, say Colorado State Engineering School faculty members who admit that “engineering writing is rather dry”.

Don’t be afraid to use anecdotes and metaphors to help clients understand draft progress reports and other communications. Sure, you may prefer to dump the data and run, but since you’re in the business of nurturing client relationships, getting creative may prove to be fun.

7. Sometimes pictures are better than words when engineers and clients meet. Engineers are trained to think spatially so that “one picture is worth a thousand words” cliché is true, according to Robert Gillen, PE (https://fastlane-mep.org/communicate-with-engineers/. Use pictures to communicate. Renderings. Schematics. Blueprints. Aerial photos. Clients love to be shown not told, so use that truth to your advantage. 

8. Respect personality differences, Microsoft reminded employees in a manifesto that remains so popular, it's still being reprinted.

Engineers, concluded Microsoft, tend to be introverted, and while we can’t put an extrovert label on all clients, it’s important to be aware of the differences each personality type brings to a business relationship. 

 9. Try collaborating with clients the same way you collaborate with colleagues to improve working relationships. Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management synthesized 20 million scholarly papers to prove what most engineers already know: teams always work better than individual efforts.

It's smart to look upon your client as a member of the team in order to enhance your working relationship.


10. Who’s the boss? You are, clever engineer. But unless you’re underwriting a project, there’s someone else holding the wallet. This is where your ability to exercise leadership comes in handy. The National Society of Professional Engineers produced an excellent statement on the importance of the power of leadership skills. Make time to read it. Beneath the surface, it’s all about trust between client and engineer. Create that bond and you'll both be the boss. 

But, what about clients you don’t like or those who are impossible to deal with?

The American Psychological Association addressed this issue in 2009 but their sage advice is as valuable now as it was then. Here are additional tips for dealing with particularly difficult clients:

1. Identify with the client by agreeing that he or she may have a point, even if you don’t concur. Sometimes, difficult clients just need someone to acknowledge that they’re being listened to. 

2. Don’t let misunderstandings linger until they boil over. It’s okay to say, “You seem adamant about your point, can you explain it to me so I understand?”

3. Talk to other members of your team—especially those who appear to get along with the irascible client. They may know something you don’t that can help you move forward. 

4. Protect yourself. Yes, you value all clients, but if you remain at loggerheads with one and things can’t be repaired, you may wish to part ways. This isn’t a failure. It’s the best way to save your reputation and your sanity.

About the Author: Levy Williamson is a former programmer who works now as an IT consultant in Chicago. Besides his daytime job, he is the co-founder of Itinterviewguide, a website which tries to provide full guidance for those who are in need of help to nail their job interview.

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