guide to project management • Chapter 8


by Brett Harned
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If you’re a project manager tasked with handling internal project operations as well as managing a client relationship, you will find yourself walking the line between being the project enforcer and the cheerleader. Sounds a bit like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, doesn’t it? It’s not easy! And to further complicate the situation, you have to start over every time you get a new client.

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

It’s a really tough balance for project managers. We want to step in and help the project at the right times, but many people think project managers get in the way. As the PM, it can be difficult to gauge that zone of perception—knowing when the team or clients need you and when your best strategy is to step back. On any given day, clients and internal teams need to know why you’re there, beyond some superficial need to fill a PM role. It’s your job to balance the line between defending your team and the project and making your clients happy. While the internal team may have a better view of what happens behind the curtain, it's your clients who ultimately feel the effects of good project management, whether they realize it or not. This chapter offers some tips on creating strong relationships with your clients while setting the stage for your team to do their best work.

If you’re a project manager, get involved with the people and process, not just the paperwork!
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Be yourself

From that very first introductory call, you have to remember to just be you! Project managers often get so caught up in the (very important) details of projects that any semblance of their personality gets stuck in a project plan or a spreadsheet. BORING. If you’re a project manager, get involved with the people and process, not just the paperwork! In the end, you’ll be the one person with both a full breadth of knowledge on the project and a direct, engaging relationship with the clients and decision-makers.

It’s your job to balance the line between defending your team and the project and making your clients happy.

At the same time, be sure to acknowledge the fact that your client has a life outside of the project—not only at home, but in the office, too. In fact, being a client can be really difficult. Many people who are acting as a client lead are often tasked with several responsibilities outside of your project. In fact, your one project could be one of many. So you’re lucky if you get a small percentage of your client’s time. It’s important to keep that in mind and have empathy for your client—and his or her time.

Once your project is rolling and certain business details are out of the way, make time to be a human. That’s right: Don’t be afraid of small talk. Learn more about your clients—inside and outside of work. 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. Sure, it may take a few minutes out of your day, but 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.

Set the stage for good communications

It can be said one million times and never enough: Good communications are critical to any project, and the best time to establish a solid practice is early on. While you’re doing project research, get to know how your client organization communicates. Use that research to inform and determine how you will communicate. Be sure to use your standby practices of meeting notes, documentation, and status reports and meetings as a foundation, but tailor them to what will work for your clients. By taking the time upfront to create a tailored communication strategy with the client, you will build a solid foundation for the project and avoid miscommunication later.

After you’ve settled on a good way for your teams to communicate and make important decisions, make sure you become the person on the team who keeps the conversations flowing. With just a few tactics like these, you’ll build lasting relationships and amazing projects.

Talk, don’t type

These days, we rely pretty heavily on email and instant messaging. Sure, it’s convenient, quick, and to the point, but there’s a catch. You can say goodbye to any sense of humor or reflection of your true personality when you depend on written communication to interact with your team and clients. Every once in a while, it’s great to actually hear what someone has to say. Pick up the phone at least once a week to touch base with your clients. A 15-minute status report call over the phone, or even by Skype video, 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.

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

Listen up

It’s very easy to go through the motions as the project manager: schedule the meeting, get conversation started, take notes, 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. You have to let your clients provide you with the information that will enable you to do the best possible job, and sometimes that means being a better listener. Better listening reinforces with your client the fact that you are truly engaged in the project, share project goals, and honestly want what’s best for the project.

Ask away

If you’re actively listening to your clients, you will have tons of questions that will help you to understand a number of things: their goals, impacts on the project timeline and budget, and even potential successes or risks. You should never be afraid to ask the client 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. And if you’re not getting answers to the things you need, be frank with your client, and tell them that they’re holding up a potential decision—or success—on the project. That’ll surely light a fire. Really, you’re just being proactive, and that’s what a good PM would do.

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.

Then again, timing is everything. 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. There is a delicate balance between getting info you need, seeming nosey (or annoying), and wrecking a conversation. For instance, if you’re mid-conversation and you 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, PM, for the client will share what is appropriate in the context of a conversation. Wait your turn and you’ll get the info you need...and more.

Be honest

Transparency can really help when it comes to communications with clients. If you think about it, your clients are 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 clients. They may bring a perspective to the situation that you don’t have and might even help you solve an issue. Including your clients in the decision-making process involves them and helps to build consensus on ideas before you’ve even presented them.

Be an educator

If your project is being outsourced by a company, it’s likely due to the fact that in-house expertise does not exist for your clients. That puts you in the position to take the lead and help your clients make the right decisions. But they can’t do that unless you’re actually helping them understand your process.

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 clients to understand timelines and dependencies, which can potentially lead to faster, better decision-making.

When your team presents a deliverable, take the time to educate your client on the deliverable. 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 your 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 level of work and the process that's been followed, but it also helps them make decisions based on what’s important to the project. They’ll be more inclined to provide feedback based on the context you’ve provided rather than give direction that was never discussed. If they do, it makes it easier for you, as the expert, to address questionable decisions and follow up with pertinent reasoning.

Managing poor decisions

“Make the logo bigger” is feedback a designer never wants to hear—but clients may still ask for it. If your client does ask for something your team disagrees with, you can tactfully demonstrate why you think it's a poor decision and objectively inform them of its negative impacts on the project. As the project manager, you are in a position to ask why they’re requesting something. Use research or examples to support your case while steering them away from a less-than-ideal decision. Do it in an informed, friendly way—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 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. If things start to feel rough, you just have to give in. It’ll suck, but you have to recognize that sometimes decisions are out of your control. And when you do, be sure to do it professionally and politely. It’s fine to tell the client that the decision is 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.

Build a shared project vocabulary

If you’re working with clients, you must speak their language, whether they’re corporate or maybe a startup. They have a way of communicating and will use terms you might not be familiar with. But 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.

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.

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. Of course, you can do this in a way that is not demeaning. Share the wealth of your knowledge, and you’ll arm your clients with a new understanding of your work and your industry. If you can share your own dictionary, links, videos, or books about your own subject matter, do it. They might not have the time to review it now, but chances are they’ll keep it on hand for future conversations or learning opportunities.

It always comes back to business

No matter what you have in common, or what you have to learn about your client (or vice versa), you will always be able to bring conversations and project decisions back to your client’s core business and how a project sticks to—or strays from—its goals. You should always be able to bring a conversation back to how it will impact the business or if it meets the stated goals of the project. When you cut through the subjective conversations about the design or strategy of a deliverable (particularly when it comes to design) and bring it back to the project’s core, you can change the tone and direction of a conversation. 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.

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.

There’s one warning that comes with the talking bit: Make it appropriate. If your client wants to stick to email, don’t force the phone on them. Set expectations for how you’d like to communicate, but be flexible. And don’t go overboard when you inject humor and non-project-related discussion. At the end of the day, your job is your job. No one wants to sit through the story of your child’s first tee-ball game. Save that for Granny.

What if my client sucks?

Your relationship with your client is really important, so it’s worth dedicating a good amount of time to being a good partner. Put yourself out there, explain your intent, and hope for the best. Clients won’t always be receptive to your help, but all you can do is be there and continue to put the project and its goals in front of everything else. Delivering on time and under budget will make everyone happy in the long run.

At the end of the day, you need to show your clients that you’re a professional and that you have heart. It’s as much about perception as it is about your actual work. If you have one and not the other, you might fail. If you do your research, open up a little, and get your clients to do the same, you’ll be off to a good start. You’ll meet the finish line with far fewer issues if you make an effort to connect with them personally, and you might make it easier for your organizations to work together again on a new project.

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