Communicating with Clients

Robert StarbucksmallRobert Starbuck retired in 2008 after 32 years in the pharmaceutical industry. He is an active member of the American Statistical Association, an ASA Fellow, and a recipient of the ASA Founders Award. He earned his bachelor’s in mathematics from Miami University and a master’s and PhD in statistics from North Carolina State University.


A “client” is someone who plans to use your skills to achieve an objective that matters to them. During your career as a professional statistician, you will engage with numerous clients, many of whom are likely to not be trained in statistics. Clients come in a variety of flavors (e.g., a colleague who is seeking your advice about how to solve a problem or use an unfamiliar statistical technique, a project team leader who needs your input on how to design a new product developmental program, or a supervisor who needs your expertise to address a business objective).


Some of the most important factors in working with a client are the following:

  • Understanding the client’s objectives
  • Ability to meet the client’s deadlines
  • Data, analyses, and reports needed to achieve the objectives
  • Adequate communication with the client

Client’s Objectives

To succeed in assisting your client achieve his or her objectives, you must gain a good understanding of the nature of the objectives, the kind of data that can be gathered to support the attainment of that objective, and the timeframe in which the objective must be achieved. There are a variety of ways in which you can gain this information:

      a. Ask direct questions to your client. Your client should be able to clearly state the objective. If not, you may be able to help the client clarify the objective and determine whether the objective is feasible.

      b. Ask for background information that will help you understand the nature of the work to be done. The client may provide this information verbally and in writing, including published articles or other forms of documentation. The Internet also may be a good and readily available source of information. Gaining a deeper level of background knowledge will help you ask the right questions as you work on meeting the client’s needs.

      c. Clarify with the client what will represent “success.”

Deadlines: Can You Meet Them?

Ask the client what deadlines must be met. Make sure you clearly identify the “must have” critical deadlines from the “nice to have” non-critical deadlines. If you determine you will not be able to make a critical deadline, say so and give the reasons why. In some cases, the client may be able to find a way for you to achieve the deadline. For example, if the client is your supervisor and you are working on another task for the client or the organization that would prevent you from achieving the deadline, the client may be able to change the priority of your current work or provide additional resources that would enable you to achieve that task and meet the critical deadline.

If you are certain you will not be able to meet critical deadlines, letting the client know up front will enable the client to either modify the deadlines (if possible) or find another person who can meet the deadlines. If you want to have future involvement with a client, don’t accept an assignment you know in advance you will not be able to fulfill.

Data, Analyses, and Reporting

To achieve the client’s objective, you will almost certainly be working with data and summarizing it in a manner that helps to achieve the client’s objective. You need to find out what data already exist that are relevant to the objective, how you can gain access to that data, and what data may need to be collected prospectively. For example, the client may have a goal of increasing the output of a production line. Historical data exist that can be used to characterize the production line output, and the objective is to make improvements that increase output by 25% or more. Prospective data will clearly need to be collected to determine whether the objective is achieved.

As you contemplate what statistical methods you will choose to use to analyze and present data, find out what methods are commonly used in the context in which you will be working, and are thus familiar to your client. Methods familiar to the client are more readily accepted and require less effort to “sell.” If you think a less “conventional” approach to data analysis and presentation would be superior, discuss it with your client. Novel approaches can sometimes be so readily understood and obviously superior that the client will be quite pleased with your recommendation.

Communication with the Client

An open line of communication with the client needs to be established up front. Ask the client what communication methods will enable you to contact him or her when needed (e.g., office or mobile phone, email, text messages). People differ in their use of communication methods, and it is important to know which methods a client does and does not use and how frequently they look at email or the recent calls on their phones. An email message that is not viewed for a week may represent inadequate communication. Don’t assume the client will use the same methods you prefer.

Scheduling a regular meeting to discuss progress and any issues that need resolving or that the client should be aware of is a good idea. Determine a schedule that works for both you and the client and make sure both of you put that schedule on your calendars.

Be sensitive to your client’s style of communication. Some clients will want brief, to-the-point communications. Others will be more relaxed and enjoy talking about topics unrelated to the work objective. In the latter case, you may occasionally need to bring the conversation back on track to optimize the use of your time.

Finally, working with clients can be a very enjoyable experience. You can meet some nice and interesting people, some of whom may become your friends; you will gain a better appreciation of how statistics can be of value and you will almost always learn something new.