guide to project management • Chapter 8

Managing Client Projects

by Brett Harned
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As a project manager tasked with managing internal project operations and client relationships, you may find yourself being both project enforcer and cheerleader. Sounds a bit like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, doesn’t it?

As the PM, it can be difficult to know when you’re needed and when your best strategy is to step back.

It’s your job to balance the line between defending your team and the project and making your clients happy. While your internal team may have a better view of what happens behind the curtain, your clients ultimately feel the effects of good project management—whether they realize it or not.

This chapter offers 11 tips on how to successfully manage projects, create strong client relationships, and set the stage for your team to do their best work:

  1. Be personable
  2. Set the stage for good communication
  3. Talk, don’t type
  4. Listen up
  5. Ask strategic questions
  6. Be transparent
  7. Be an educator
  8. Politely push back
  9. Build a shared project vocabulary
  10. Always bring it back to business
  11. Have fun
If you’re a project manager, get involved with the people and process, not just the paperwork!
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1. Be personable

Project managers often get so caught up in the project details that any semblance of their personality gets stuck in a project plan or spreadsheet.

Using your time with clients to find common interests will help you (and your project team). Plus, building a rapport from the beginning of a project will only help you to communicate what may be perceived as sensitive information in the future.

Be sure to acknowledge that your client has a life outside of the project—not only at home, but in the office, too. Clients are often tasked with several responsibilities outside of your project. It’s important to keep that in mind and have empathy for your client—and respect for his or her time.

Once your project is rolling and certain business details are out of the way, always make time to be a human. That’s right: Don’t be afraid of small talk. Learn more about your clients. Do they have kids? A dog? Enjoy music or sports? It’s amazing how quickly you can connect with someone and generate friendly conversation based on a common interest.

By getting involved with people, not just the paperwork, you’ll be the one person with both a full breadth of knowledge on the project and a direct, engaging relationship with the client and decision-makers.

2. Set the stage for good communication

It can never be said enough: Good communication is critical to any project. The best time to establish solid communication methods is early on. While you’re doing project research, get to know how your client’s organization communicates. Use that research to inform and determine how you will shape your project communication plan.

Be sure to use your standby practices of meeting notes, documentation, and status reports as a foundation, but cater them to what will work best for your clients. By taking the time upfront to create a tailored communication plan with the client, you’ll build a solid foundation for the project and avoid miscommunication later.

Lastly, after you’ve determined a good way for your teams to communicate, make sure you’re also the person on the team who keeps project conversations flowing. With just a few of these tips, you’ll build lasting client relationships and amazing projects.

3. Talk, don’t type

At work we rely heavily on email and instant messaging. It’s convenient, quick, and to the point, but there’s a catch. You can lose any sense of humor or reflection of your true personality if you only depend on written communication to interact with your team and clients.

Pick up the phone at least once a week to touch base with your clients. A 15-minute status report call by phone or even video chat can really provide a wealth of information. (Use our project status report template to guide the calls.)

Be sure to listen to what your clients are saying and how they’re saying it. Pick up on their tone and react on the fly. As soon as they hear that you’re listening and care, they’ll feel your dedication and be more willing to share information with you. We all know that information is power, particularly in project management.

Tip: Keep in mind that, while talking on the phone helps build rapport, it’s important to ALWAYS document key conversations with thorough meeting notes. Be sure to include the meeting date, time, attendees, relevant discussion notes, and action items with deadlines.

It’s important to ALWAYS document key conversations with thorough meeting notes.

4. Listen up

It’s very easy to go through the motions as the project manager: schedule the meeting, get conversation started, take notes, and document and share information in writing and by phone. What’s missing in that list of “motions”? Listening.

Take notes based on what’s been said and what’s implied. Better listening shows your client you are truly engaged in the project, share project goals, and honestly want what’s best for the project.

Tips for better listening

  1. Make eye contact.
  2. Don’t interrupt; jot down a quick note on your thought and follow up.
  3. Wait for the client to pause before speaking.
  4. React. (It’s okay to show expression, nod, or even say uh-huh, interesting, or okay when appropriate.)
  5. Summarize what was said in your own words to ensure you’ve understood the point.

5. Ask strategic questions

You should never be afraid to ask clients questions that will help the project—even if you’re short on time. If you’re limited due to the time constraints of a meeting, feel free to circle back to the topic in writing. Asking thoughtful and meaningful questions will allow you to steer your project in the right direction and better understand your clients’ goals, timelines, and risk factors.

If you’re not getting answers, be frank with your client, and tell them they’re holding up a potential decision—or success—on the project.

Keep in mind that timing is key. Take cues from the room, and know when it’s appropriate to ask a question or revisit one. Being a relentless (and clueless) question-asker will kill the mood—and even a relationship. For instance, if you’re mid-conversation and ask a question that changes the direction of what’s being discussed, you may end up missing out on what your client was about to tell you. Be patient. The client will share what’s appropriate in the context of a conversation. Wait your turn, and you’ll get the info you need—and more.

6. Be transparent

Transparency can really help when it comes to managing client relationships. Your client is paying you or your company to complete a project. Why shouldn’t they know everything about your process and how you make project-related decisions?

Nothing is a secret when it comes to project work. Is something a challenge for your team? Discuss it with your client. They may bring a perspective to the situation that will help you solve an issue. Involving your client in the decision-making process builds consensus on ideas before you’ve even presented them.

7. Be an educator

At the beginning of your project, explain your process at a high level. Run through a project plan line-by-line and actually explain what things mean. If your client is interested, explain what your team does at each turn of the project. This will help your client understand timelines and dependencies, which can potentially lead to faster, better decision-making.

When your team presents a deliverable, take time to educate your client about it. Just showing a deliverable is never good enough because it can lead to uninformed decision-making. Here’s a step-by-step process for presenting client deliverables:

  1. Start with a short history of the project, and explain what has been done and how that has informed what is about to be presented. Be sure to highlight strategy, goals, and most all the approvals that led you to your current deliverable.
  2. Before showing the deliverable, explain what it is meant to do and what decisions it will impact downstream on the project.
  3. Present the deliverable thoroughly. Don’t leave anything out—be sure to cover the thought process behind decisions and the variations that were discussed. Don’t be afraid to show enthusiasm for your work. Be sure to tell the people you’re presenting to that you’ll run through it once, holding questions for the end.
  4. Wrap up your presentation with a series of guiding questions that will help your clients to contextualize their feedback and questions. This will go a long way toward keeping personal opinion and erroneous feedback out of the conversation.
  5. Give people time to think and review. Then discuss.
  6. Always receive formal feedback in writing, and follow up with additional conversations, if necessary.

This format not only helps your clients understand the work completed—it also helps them to make decisions based on what’s important to the project.

8. Politely push back

As the project manager, it’s your responsibility to ask why a client requests something, and if needed, tactfully demonstrate why you think it’s a poor decision using objective research and examples. Do it in an informed, friendly way, and you’ll likely have a better conversation about it.

Here’s the thing about poor client decisions: You can do everything in your power to help your clients avoid them and yet still fail. It happens. You need to know when it’s wiser to give up and not drag out an argument that will ultimately kill all goodwill and create an awkward project environment.

It’s fine to tell your client the decision goes against best practices or your judgment but that you’ll respect their wishes and keep working to complete the project. When it comes down to it, clients pay your team to execute a project for them, and their decisions stand.

If you’re working with clients, you must speak their language, whether they’re corporate or a startup.

9. Build a shared project vocabulary

If you’re working with clients, you must speak their language. Being able to speak in a way that relates to the client’s business sense and culture is crucial to successfully managing a project. If you immerse yourself in your client’s way of working, you’ll understand their business and decision-making process much better.

On the flip side, your clients will probably share the same difficulty in getting to know you and your work. So make yourself accessible. Be sure to explain your work when you start your project, and never hesitate to define what something means.

Tip: Start a project dictionary. When reviewing client documentation, pull out acronyms and terms that are often used, define them, and put them in an easily accessible document for your team to reference.

10. Always bring it back to business

You should always be able to bring project conversations back to how it will impact the business or if it meets the stated goals of the project. Keep that one in your back pocket, because it’ll always earn you respect—particularly if you’re always in alignment with those goals.

Be a professional

It’s simple. Gain a client’s trust by showing them you mean business. Here are some basics:

  1. Always be on time and end on time.
  2. Document and share relevant meeting notes.
  3. Proofread everything.
  4. Keep your project documents updated.
  5. Ensure timely delivery of project milestones.
  6. Ensure your team is using consistently branded documents.
  7. Call in your experts when you need them.

11. Have fun

Have a sense of humor? Use it in your work. There’s nothing wrong with opening a status report or email with a quick joke or reference to a current event—as long as you know your clients’ limits.

Remember, you set the tone for the project—with your clients as well as with your project team. If your management style is fun and organized, you should get the same back from your teams, and your clients might appreciate some levity now and then.

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