Preparing for your first client call — a quick guide
Of all the milestones a developer has over the course of their professional career, having that first discussion with a paying client may be one of the most intimidating. Being a fresh engineer and eager to prove yourself on your first project, you’re definitely concerned about making a first impression. But what if the client asks you a question you don’t know the answer to? Or maybe they don’t understand you because you’re still working on your English skills? There’s a lot to consider, and in our experience, most junior engineers dread that initial call with a client as they worry about every possible outcome of that initial contact.
However, we are here to assure you that your first client call shouldn’t be something to be scared of - in fact, it’s a great opportunity for you to gain confidence and show your talents and initiative to a client who is happy to see such qualities in their team. This article will review the key points you should keep in mind prior to and during that call, and will provide you the insight to make a lasting, positive impression on your future employer.
Why do we even need to have a call, anyway?
Believe it or not, I hear that line a lot - such is the fear that some developers have of talking with their clients, they feel it to be a step they can skip over entirely. That’s obviously not the case, of course! Part of what makes Binary Studio special is the close and transparent communication each of our engineers has with every member of the client’s team, which often includes daily standups or weekly sprint calls. So one way or another, you’re most likely going to have to have a live chat with them - there’s no avoiding it. :)
Besides, there are a lot of legit reasons to have that initial introductory call with a client:
Clients can see that you’re “real”
It may seem silly, but oftentimes, clients want to have that first call because they want to speak with you specifically - not the Binary Studio sales guy, not the CTO, but the actual person that will be working with their code. They want to know who they’re placing trust in to deliver the actual product they’re paying for.
Many more scrupulous IT companies have a purposefully obfuscated hierarchy in their teams, where clients only communicate with designated Team Leads/Project Managers, and never have contact with the actual engineers writing code. This is for a number of reasons, the primary ones being a means to cover up the engineer’s bad communication/English skills, or a way of throwing in an extra role into the team composition (which of course the dev company will make money on).
Therefore, many clients are suspicious when hiring an outsourcing firm, and want to make sure they are working directly with the guys bringing them true value by building their platforms. If this is a client’s primary concern, you’ll find the intro call to be quite easy - they’ll usually be satisfied with a quick introduction and then you’ll be off to work!
They want to test what it’ll be like working with you
More inquisitive clients will ask deeper questions to gauge what it’ll be like working with you on a daily basis. They may ask very general professional questions which are just a way of getting you to talk openly with them. The end goal of these inquiries is the same - they want to know if you’re the kind of person they’ll work well with over the course of the following months (or maybe even years).
What’s important to keep in mind in this case is this - try to imagine what sort of team member you’d like to be stuck with for several months, and emulate that during the call. Be friendly. Smile. Show a sense of humor. Be clear, don’t bullshit, and admit your weaknesses while being frank about your strengths. This is the so-called “human test” - it is more of a way to check your personality than it is to see if your technical expertise meets their expectations.
Do you know your stuff?
Finally, a client may throw out a few technical questions specific to their project. These tend to be related to pain points the client themselves felt - maybe they struggled with a particular technology/approach, or previously had a developer on the team who couldn’t cope with this particular issue.
These are actually the least difficult questions to answer, oddly enough. They won’t stretch your English skills that much (since they involve terms/phrases you’ve had plenty of practice with), and you’ll usually have plenty of advance warning about them so that you can prepare a reasonable answer. In the worst case scenario, if a client throws a difficult technical question at you, you can also give the tried and true reply:
“I don’t know the answer off the top of my head, but I’ll look into it and give you a proper answer after this call.”
Memorize that phrase, you’ll most likely use it more than once during your career!
How to prepare for the call
So you’ve been informed that there’s been a call scheduled between you and your first client - what can you do to be fully ready for the occasion? In short - do your homework.
Review the client, project, and its associated technologies as much as possible
Before ever communicating with a client, you’ll be given an opportunity to study all the information we can gather about the project - the tech stack, industry, what has been built, the team composition, and often enough, the actual existing codebase (if there is one). This is your best chance to thoroughly review every aspect of the project and prepare your answers (and questions!) for the client.
If there is a technology they’re using that you’ve never touched - you can look into it. If it’s an industry you’re unfamiliar with - you can learn about it. This is probably the most crucial step of preparation you can take, and one we’ll help you with to a great extent - don’t blow it off and wait to find out critical information about the project during the call!
Re-familiarize yourself with your own accomplishments and experience
This might seem a bit unnecessary, but believe me when I say - there is nothing more embarrassing than not being able to recall your own work when questioned about it during an interview. For example - let’s say you’re being tasked to work on a React JS project - but for the last 2-3 years you’ve mostly worked with Angular, and although you’ve kept up with React changes, the last time you actually built something with it was back in university.
If a client asks you about your React experience and you mention that project from university - can you remember what it was called? What other tools were used? What precisely you did on the project? And can you do all of this on the fly, in English? If not, you might find yourself stuttering through a very awkward description of your past deeds as you try to recall very basic details of that work, which certainly won’t inspire a lot of confidence in the client. We’ve seen it happen before, and it’s not pretty. Do yourself a favor and briefly go over your previous work prior to a call, especially if it is relevant to the project at hand. It’ll take 3-5 minutes and may save you a lot of embarrassment.
Practice makes perfect
The very best way to get comfortable for the call is to do it - by rehearsing! Our Binary Studio management team is always willing to help you do some test runs and provide feedback and advice to help you prepare for any difficult questions, and you can practice some prepared answers until you can say them without much thought. This is especially helpful if you’re concerned about your English ability - not only can we correct any mistakes, you can also practice any tricky words/phrases that you might stumble on during the actual call.
Come up with questions of your own
It’s easy to forget that the introduction call is sort of an interview - for you, and for the client. It’s important to remember that this is your opportunity to ask your own questions and dive deeper into the project before starting work. Don’t simply sit there and wait for the client to ask all the questions - take initiative and throw out some inquiries of your own!
This tactic has two major benefits: one, it will demonstrate to the client that you are proactive and interested in learning about their project and being an active team member. Any product owner worth their salt will appreciate someone who asks questions early and often in order to avoid miscommunication and wasted time/effort/resources down the line.
Secondly - it is much easier to carry a conversation in a foreign language when you’re the one steering it. By waiting for the client to ask all the questions, you’ll constantly be “on the defensive” and forced to react to any possible inquiry they throw at you. By asking your own questions, you can control the flow of the conversation and ask detailed, well-spoken questions (which you rehearsed, remember? :) and give a much more overall confidence impression to the client.
Never forget - work through your technical difficulties before the call
Besides forgetting your own accomplishments, the second most embarrassing thing you can have happen to you during your initial client call is running into technical problems with your headset/microphone/internet connection. Desperately fumbling with the sound settings on your laptop while the client blankly stares at you through their webcam is a discomforting experience, especially if you’re already nervous about the call. Do yourself a favor and do a test run well before the actual call and make sure everything is working accordingly.
4 ways to really screw up a client call
Here’s a brief list of some of the most common blunders an engineer can make on that introduction call with a client:
Speak too fast - Probably the most typical issue new developers have on a client call - they speak too quickly. Combined with a bad connection/strong accent, this can cause some miscommunication. This is also compounded by the potential desire to “fill the empty space” and dominate a conversation (to prevent the client from speaking and therefore, having to answer a difficult question - see above). Therefore, take it slow, breathe, and don’t be afraid to pause a few seconds to address a question - it’s not a race!
Speak like a robot - It is unfortunate cultural difference of Eastern Europeans that we tend to be a little bit less expressive than our Western compatriots. While it may seem that Americans pointlessly smile like idiots all the time (Editor’s Note: I’m an American, I’m allowed to make fun of my fellow countrymen!), it really is expected of folks to display a bit of emotion, even in regards to business. Clients are looking for team members - people who get along with their company culture, not mindless automatons who simply carry out their bidding. Thus it’s important to gauge the formality of your client and try to match them in their approach to communication - if they have a sense of humor, try to play along. If they like small talk, come up with some questions/comments of your own to share. Open up - it won’t hurt, we promise!
List off every technology you’ve ever used and project you’ve ever worked on - Although the intro call can be somewhat of an interview, it is important to remember that clients for the most part are already aware of your basic background, and are probably not super keen on hearing a list of every single tool/framework you’ve used (especially if it doesn’t pertain to their project). Just mentioning the most relevant ones will be more than enough.
Tell a lie/bullshit - Probably the fastest way to completely bomb an interview (and potentially screw up the whole collaboration) is to straight up lie to the client. There is nothing worse than being called out on something that you clearly don’t know anything about, and the client will lose all confidence in your abilities from that moment onward. Never, ever pretend to know something that you actually don’t - there is absolutely no harm in admitting ignorance as long as you show you’re willing to learn about something right away.
The goal of the call
Above all, you should remember the desired goal of having the call - to start becoming a real member of the team and getting development started off on the right foot. This is your time to learn about what you’ll be doing in the coming months, and whom you’ll be working with on regular basis. Ask questions, make suggestions - enjoy the process! Client calls shouldn’t be something you dread having - its the lack of communication with a client that tends to be the root of so many problems in a project, after all!
Beyond this, giving a genuine, positive first impression is going to give you a lot of room to breathe, and help identify potential issues before they become real problems. Being passive and quiet in the eyes of the client has a tendency to get them assuming the worst, which they absolutely will start doing if you avoid every possible opportunity to speak with them. On the other hand, if you go out of your way to engage them, you will avoid this issue entirely and have a much easier time onboarding.
Direct, clear engagement between engineers and clients is a hallmark of Binary Studio’s approach to establishing top-tier development processes and producing stellar products. As a professional, getting used to these types of calls and learning how to establish a rapport with a client will mean the difference between working on a “slave-galley”-like team or a supportive, energetic crew who values your input and treats you as an equal member of the group. So don’t fear the client call - embrace it, and take the opportunity to use it to your (and the project’s) advantage - this is the essence of product ownership and showing your willingness to produce world-class software.