When Small Business Communication Goes Wrong

You’re in business for yourself and it’s supposed to mean freedom. But sometimes it feels like you traded one boss for hundreds of them, because in a way, you work for each client. Without a plan for how to handle this workload, it can be impossible at worst and overwhelming at best.

So what happens when you find yourself in the role of the Irritated Consultant or the Frustrated Executive?

As a small business owner, it’s easy to be on either side of that coin. On any given day we are both paying for services and providing them. Think about it: You’ve paid someone to design your brochure; it doesn’t come back when you wanted; and you slip into the Frustrated Executive role, replaying in your mind everything that you told them and wondering how they managed to mess it up. On the flip side, someone pays you to set up their website, and 15 edits later you’re the Irritated Consultant, trying to figure out why your clients are taking advantage of you.  Ultimately, both situations boil down to a communication issue.

Business Miscommunication

Are you communicating with such clarity that it’s virtually impossible for them to mess it up? Are you delivering the message that you intended to send?

When small business communication goes wrong, we’re not powerless. In fact, such situations can be an excellent opportunity to perfect some things that we only fix when we have to. Well, we have to. Because confusing communication costs time, money and sometimes clients, contacts and peace of mind.

The average human being is motivated by pain, pleasure and the motto, “If it ain’t broken, why fix it?” Irritation and frustration are clear signs that something is broken. Right now is the perfect time to address it. Besides, no matter who you are and what you have accomplished, there’s always room to do better in this area.

So how do we fix the communication breakdown? Try these four steps.

1. Clarify the Assignment

Make it your business to give rock-solid instructions from the start.  Not everybody knows what you know.  So make it as easy as possible for them to get it right – without overwhelming them. I learned this from children: If you write it down in clear, but short, sentences, there’s a better chance that you will get back what you asked for. And if you don’t, then you have proof of the initial assignment.

Clear documentation is good for business. Plus it makes the next step easier.

2. Clear the Air

When communication goes wrong, then it’s time to clear the air.  Especially if you intend to work with the person again and learn from the situation.  Clear documentation gives you a place to start the fresh communication.  Clearing the air can save you future headaches. It gives you a chance to see where everyone is coming from, improves on the relationship for potential future business, or prepares you to make a different choice.

3. Cut Your Losses

Some professional relationships just don’t work. If you find out that you paid for something that the other person doesn’t have the skill to deliver, then you have to move on to a team that can provide what you need. And in my opinion, there is no place for ongoing disrespect in business.  In fact, that’s a sign that you may you need to move on as well.

4. Create a System

Regardless of your choice to continue the relationship or cut your losses, every communication issue highlights an opportunity to put a few simple systems in place. The goal is to make communication flow better the next time. These systems don’t have to be complicated, just consistent.

For example, create questionnaires for new clients and standard email communication for fresh assignments so that all work requests are documented.  The plan is to build a better business, and better communication plays a major role.


Jamillah Warner Jamillah Warner (Ms.J), a poet with a passion for business, is a Georgia-based writer and speaker and the Marketing Coordinator at Nobuko Solutions. She also provides marketing and communication quick tips in her getCLEAR! MicroNewsletter.

7 Reactions
  1. Great article! I have found that in addition to a WELL defined project scope, having pro-active communication systems in place helps. For example, at CFO Xchange I have a project tracking site and development site that I give my clients access to in order to cut down on unnecessary communications.

    Having structured communications and and a set of communication standards is a must for keeping my sanity!


  2. Jamillah Warner

    Thanks, Jon

    Structured communication helps me keep my sanity too!

  3. Nicely done, Jamillah! Great article to share with my clients, who are small business owners as well.

  4. Clarifying the assignment is often easier said than done with creative tasks where “look & feel” are so subjective. This is always going to be a tough one which is why the best designers get paid so well.

  5. Edward Davenport

    I have experience all this as my company goes in to the alternative energy market we have hit some challenges but also great opportunity.

  6. @Robert – I agree, communication on creative aspects can be tricky, and I imagine that it’s even more frustrating being a designer with a client who can’t make their mind up!

  7. Communication is the key when your working with someone, for someone or running your own business. If there is no communication between every one things can and will go wrong in any business. And if you keep record of what was talked about between you and that person there can be no miscommunication. Now if the person that you work with or that works with you or for you intends on doing things their way then youn really need to think about cutting your losses with that person and move on to someone who is willing to follow the rules of running a business or working for a business.