“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”– The Captain, Cool Hand Luke.

That’s one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite films, Cool Hand Luke. Captain, the prison warden played by Strother Martin, delivers it to the beaten-down prisoner played by Paul Newman.

Newman’s character gets sent to “the box” repeatedly in the film due to these communication failures and after a decade or more in the freelance world, I’ve found that communication failures are the most common way to put my business and my client relationships on the rocks.

Further, the most common cause of bad communication is casual communication. We all want to develop friendly relationships with our clients so there aren’t any walls between us, but that same casual attitude can be the root of problems, so there’s a balancing act we need to play.

This also applies to clients working with freelancers, and, in fact, that’s the main point of view I’m going to relate here.

A ‘new’ misunderstanding

I have a fairly new client who has come back to me many times for additional work after I did my first writing project for him.

I love that. I love repeat clients. In fact, I’m not taking many new clients because I generally have enough work with my client base. However, I like to freshen it up occasionally, so from time to time I’ll work for someone new.

We were going back and forth a few weeks ago on several smaller jobs and on one of those he asked me to proof read his new website and he provided the IP address. I got around to the work a couple of days later, I went to his website, proofed it and sent him my corrections.

Unfortunately, I didn’t understand that he wanted me to go to his new unpublished website, so I proofed the wrong pages. Had I followed the IP address he sent me, I would have understood. From his point of view, he gave me the right information – and I accept that – so I quickly proofed the unpublished site and sent him what I found.

IMHO text messages were to blame

Our communication happened via short text messages…and text messages are by common practice very short and generally pass along little or no additional explanatory information. If we were in the same building or talking on the phone, I’m certain that I would have understood that the “new” site hadn’t yet been published.

With our dependence on text message communications and a general air of casualness in business today, it’s important that both freelancers and clients don’t allow those trends to impair passing along accurate instructions and the understanding of desired outcomes.

I admire freelancers and agencies that have created, for example, standard questions that apply to various kinds of jobs. I collect them when they come across my desk and adapt their best features into documents I often send to my clients when we’re starting a new project. Not only do they more accurately record expectations and conditions, they help me be more efficient in my communications. When I’m not working from a document like this, I find that I often have to go back and ask questions I should have asked during our first round of communications.

That’s a waste of time for me and my clients and makes me look a little less competent to my clients.

The bottom line is that while few of us want the business formality of the 1950s – after all “business casual” is not just for Fridays anymore – we can’t let accurate and complete communications be a casual victim.

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