Communicating effectively with students and clients

Communicating effectively with students (people doing our courses) and clients (people paying for the courses) is fraught with difficulties. There are just so many things that can interfere with effective communication and yet if we don’t manage to communicate at a minimally effective level, our students and clients’ experience is going to be far from optimal.

The following is a list of the most common reasons why in my experience communication can breakdown:

  1. Information overload. Providing students and clients with all the information they could possibly ever need all at the same time is not the most effective way to make sure that they get or can find relevant information when they need it
  2. Timing. We assimilate best and are attentive to what somebody is saying when we think the information is relevant to our needs. This means that if we provide students and clients with information which isn’t required at that moment in time, few will remember the information for when it is relevant.
  3. Expectations. Students come to your language teaching organisation (LTOs) with a series of already formed expectations about the sort of experience they are going to have. These expectations will be influenced by a myriad of factors such as their experience of studying English at a different language school; what friends and family have told them about what language courses should be about; what they have seen in social media, on television, in advertisements; and importantly on their experience in education in general (their cognitions).
  4. Language issues. Inevitably if your communication with your students is in English, communication will be limited by their level of English. But, less obviously, communication will be influenced by other aspects of language. We often use technical language with our students and clients without realising we are doing this, what I term TEFL- speak. This is a language specific to those working in the field but which the majority of our clients and students don’t speak.
  5. National and regional cultural identities. Geert Hofstede defined these as the “those things that are shared by people who grew up in the same forest”. Through research he carried out in the 1960s and 1970s on people working for IBM in 70 countries around the world, he developed 6 categories (later 7) on which he scored different countries accordingly to how people behaved in the categories in the different countries. By doing this he proved just how different some cultures are from others and how this influences how we behave. The language teaching industry often brings different cultures together with mixed nationality classes or a teacher from one nationality and students from another. These differences can also contribute to break downs in communication. See for more information.
  6. Assumptions. We tend to make assumptions about what people know and how they behave e.g. if you send around an email with information, that students or clients have read it and understood it; that a new training manager with an established client will have been brought up to speed by the previous manager, etc.
  7. Chinese whispers. Many students who study at language schools come via agencies or third parties rather than directly. The more middle people there are between you and the end client or student, the more likely information is going to become distorted.

As you can see, there are lots of reasons for why communication can break down so as LTO managers, what can we do about this? How can we limit breakdowns in communication?

Student / client journey

A tool which I find incredibly useful is the student / client journey. It’s a tool that originates in the principles of relationship marketing which focuses on the importance of creating, nurturing and developing a relationship with your students and clients during and even after their time with your language school. This tool can help you work out what information you need to give to your students and clients and when. If this tool is used well, it can help to make sure you share relevant information when required and avoid bombarding students and clients with irrelevant information.

It is suggested that the best way to do this is by breaking down the student journey into different stages which in the case of LTOs would look typically like this:

student journey

For each stage, you need to ask yourselves the following questions:

Actions – what is the student / client doing at this stage?

Motivations – what is motivating the student / client?

Questions – what questions might the student / client have?

Barriers – what might be impeding the student / client from moving on to the next stage?

The answers to each question should help you select what information you need to communicate to your students and clients at each stage of their journey. It helps you to sort out the what and the when of communication. Ideally this would also be used to work out how this information is communicated and by whom. If you do this and involve different people who deal with your students and clients in the process, you have the beginnings of a “communication strategy” which is ideally what you should be striving towards. This is a strategy which reaches across departments and people to ensure that everybody representing the LTO and dealing with students or clients is communicating the same information, message and set of values.

For an inspiring read on just how effective this tool can be, read this article on Sungevity, a solar panel installation company.

But of course effective communication is so much more than what, when, who and how. For communication to be effective it is necessary to understand that it is also about human beings interacting on an emotional and social level. So the second aspect of communication which LTOs need to understand and do well is the importance of applying the principles of emotional and social intelligence competences.

Emotional intelligence competences

Emotional intelligence competences are those competences that allow us to be aware of our emotions and manage them. Moods are contagious; it’s amazing to observe the effect of the mood of a person, particularly managers, on the people they are with. So if we are aware that we are in a great, upbeat mood that is an ideal time to talk to our clients and students. And on the flipside if we are aware that we are not having a great day, maybe we can consider postponing certain meetings or at the very least, try to temper our moods before communicating with people. Interestingly our moods are transmitted not only in person but also by email and at a distance.

Social intelligence competences

Social intelligence competences are the abilities to be aware of other people’s emotions and manage them. One way to communicate effectively with students and clients is to find out and use what is really motivating your students to study English or what is really motivating your clients to contract a course with you. These motivators might just be the necessity to pass an exam but they can go much deeper than this. A lot of importance is being given now to the influence of what is known as Emotional motivators on why we do things.  According to an article in the Harvard Business Review   “emotional motivators drive human behaviour” and when “companies connect with customers’ emotions, the payoff can be high”.

Below is a list of the top emotional motivators which transcend most fields according to this article:

Emotional motivators

If we learn to tap into our clients’ or students’ emotional motivators when we communicate with them, what we say is inevitably going to be more meaningful for them, they are much more likely to want to listen to us and be receptive to what we are saying.

Social intelligence competencies also include showing that you care about your clients and students. Simple things like using your students’ and clients’ names in all communication can make a difference. When dealing with people in person, remember personal information about them and use it. If people feel that you care about them, they will again be much more receptive to anything you need to communicate to them.

And finally, remember to be mindful. Remember to be fully present when you are communicating with somebody. Don’t allow your mind to wander, keep your mind fully in the present in the here and now and demonstrate that you are listening to the people you are talking to you. They will know if you are not and it will be counterproductive. And they will know if you are really there for them, and communication will be much more rewarding if you are.

Feedback and Reflection

Effective communication is hard and getting better at it will only happen in my opinion if we build into our communication strategy moments of reflection involving as many key players as possible. It is essential to frequently revisit the strategy, question its effectiveness and fine-tune it. As Peter Drucker said:

“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action”

Carefully designed mid- or end-of-course questionnaires which focus on aspects of communication can provide invaluable information on how effectively we are communicating with our students and clients. If they are carried out regularly it also serves as the perfect excuse to bring key players together to talk about the feedback and to give their own feedback about the effectiveness of communication. This keeps communication issues in the forefront of your team’s minds. Reflection needs to include all players who deal with students; it needs to happen on a regular basis; and the resultant reflections need to influence how an LTO’s communication strategy evolves.

Click here for the link to a webinar I gave for LAMSIG: Leadership and Management Special Interest Group (IATEFL) on this topic.