Business communication guidelines [for freelancers]: Why they matter and how to set them

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Challenging relationships don’t just affect us in the personal sphere of life. They appear in business too. The problem is, if we have no tools for managing in either arena, things can very quickly turn south.

The best intentions for a project may falter.

Civility and respect can be forgotten.

Defences can quickly rise to Great Wall heights.

We’ve all seen it before. At project kick off, enthusiasm abounds. Then slowly, somehow, distrust and dissatisfaction seep in. Despite every effort to thwart their progress, it’s not long before behaviour on the project you couldn’t wait to start resembles a kindergarten playground. If only solving the problem was as simple as throwing your bucket and spade across the sandpit.

Like all people in business I’ve had my share of experiences on challenging projects. And while being in the thick of it hasn’t been easy, the lessons learned and adjustments made have been significant. Perhaps the most beneficial of these has been the establishment of guidelines – or boundaries – in my business communication.

For anyone interested in building their business communication muscle, read on.

What are business communication guidelines?

Business communication guidelines set the parameters for how you work together and communicate in a business relationship. Most freelancers (and business owners) don’t even think about this, however it’s my growing belief that guidelines of this nature are essential.

As the standard of business communication – and personal communication generally – has become truncated and careless, it seems that anything goes. Verbal abuse, misplaced anger, and outright disrespect are commonplace, or even normal. However normal does not always mean healthy or appropriate. In fact, in many instances normal is the least preferred option.

Complementing your commercial terms and conditions, business communication guidelines define what you will and won’t accept from the people you work with in terms of communication and behaviour. While it might apply predominantly to clients, these guidelines have relevance for other suppliers – or anyone – involved in a project. It’s also important to realise that some guidelines may be communicated in written form, while others might be communicated tacitly through physical posture or verbally in the tone and language used.

Written communication guidelines might include details around:

  • Reviews (turnaround times, completed properly)
  • Feedback (on what and how it’s delivered)
  • Timeliness and punctuality (expectations around meetings, whether they’re online or in person)
  • Communication (during projects and beyond)
  • Decision making (who is responsible on the client side and how decisions are communicated).

Having these details laid out transparently before work has even begun makes it very clear you’re serious about your business, and that it’s fair for your client to be too. Communication guidelines set the tone of the business relationship right from the start.

Why business communication guidelines matter

The idea for clear business communication guidelines came to me after working on a couple of difficult client projects.

As an interested observer of human behaviour, it was obvious to me that where no boundaries existed, I found myself struggling to communicate with posture. It was harder to demonstrate the value of my work too. In fact, more often than not, in circumstances where poor or no boundaries existed, my work wasn’t valued at all.

As I became more certain about the value I contributed to clients, businesses and books, I realised something needed to change. Me.

So I penned my Guidelines for Working Together. It includes guidance on the points I raised above, along with some other important elements relevant to business communication.

Before the project starts, I share these guidelines. In the past, I had an expectation that clients would read them, however experience very quickly showed that most people don’t take the time to do this. It’s a bit like the product disclosure statement you get with insurance. Sure, you saw it in the email, but read it? I don’t think so. I mean, you only need the PDS when you need it, right?

Recognising this limitation, now I take the time to go through the guidelines together. By doing this, there are no excuses for not understanding how we’ll work together. The bottom line is it sets boundaries for our working relationship and our communication, without which things can become very difficult.

How do you set business communication guidelines?

The first step towards setting business communication guidelines is to recognise they’re necessary. Without them, you can expect more of the same: difficulty, frustration, and confusion. And let’s face it, that’s not really the reason you went into business, is it?

Yes, it will take time to write your guidelines and then finesse them, but it’s worth it. Why? Because you gain more certainty about your value, you become more confident in your work, and you are helping your clients extract the maximum value from their project.

You can start the process for developing business communication guidelines by thinking about what has worked well on projects you’ve been involved in. Think about work that went smoothly and why. Perhaps the client was highly engaged and motivated. They might have placed a high value on creating conscious content that reflects their business. Maybe there was a good connection. Or everybody simply understood clearly what was going on.

Then consider the projects that didn’t go so well and think deeply about why they didn’t. Maybe the work scope wasn’t clear enough. Perhaps you took on more than you could manage. It’s possible that the client was difficult (no the customer is not always right, but we can communicate that respectfully too).

One thing I’ve learned is the best lessons rarely come wrapped in a big pink bow, as described by my long term client and friend, Roslyn Saunders, and author of Emotional Sobriety. Instead, as Roslyn suggests, they require that we work our way through a sieve to to integrate learnings, which in turn gives us what we need to fine tune our approach.

A final word

Strengthening our business communication is a work in progress. A bit like the pathway to enlightenment, you’re never quite done. Think about developing your own guidelines for working together with your clients, customers, or patients. People love to know where they stand. Directness that respects all parties involved sets a level playing field for more conscious communication in business – and that’s what we want.

Interested in communicating more consciously in business? Why not download a free guide to working consciously as a freelancer? You can access it here