In this global environment, there is rarely a project we work on that doesn’t have some set of customer users in a remote location, inevitably overseas. While we are typically eliciting requirements in English, we are always faced with ESL customers. So here are a few tips I shared with my team this week as we prepped for such a session with users in China.
- Communicate their value. Help them understand how important they are to the success of your project. After all, you couldn’t possibly understand their business needs as well as they do – with differences in business practices, culture, and preferences.
- Talk slow. This should be obvious, but it always happens that we talk much too fast, so slow it down. Be very thankful they are willing to talk back to you in English! So whatever you need to do to remind yourself frequently through the discussion to talk slow, do it. Ideas I have include a post-it on the corner of your screen or a co-worker sitting beside you to remind you frequently.
- Eyes in the room. Have someone in the room, if at all possible, to facilitate the discussion. If you cannot hear or clearly understand a comment (this often happens with large rooms of people and a speaker phone), that person can sit beside the phone and repeat it. Have a communication tool such as Instant Messenger open on a computer that isn’t projecting, so that person can communicate with you about body language – to tell you if you are going too fast or if people in the room look lost.
- Visual is important. I like to prepare powerpoint slides with small bits of information on each slide pertaining to what we are talking about. So perhaps a screen shot or mock-up with a few features list on a slide. Diagrams and visual models are also extremely helpful.
- Send materials ahead. As important as visual materials are, they are ten times more useful if you send them ahead. I know I have a better time reading foreign languages than I do hearing them, and this is the case for most. So if you send the materials ahead, they will have a chance to read them and more likely follow along with you during the discussion.
- Open questions, not closed. Depending on the culture, some people are hesitant to ask questions or tell you something negative. So be sure to ask open ended questions. Instead of “are there any questions?” you would ask “what questions do you have?” – because we know they have some. Then call on people by name to ask what questions they have. Ask their leader what questions he/she has. If they say they are ok with you are presenting for requirements, then you really should ask “What are you concerned about?” or “What have we not captured that you need to have?” or “What are you not ok with” instead of “Is this ok?”.