Having a Successful Client Relationship May Hit Closer to Home Than You Realize
Have you ever been a little frustrated with your client? Do you feel like they are in your business a little more than you would like? Are they constantly asking you about money? If so, you may be in a business relationship that reminds you of your relationship with your in-laws. As everyone knows, early into a marriage you establish communication channels, level of trust, and boundaries. This goes for your in-laws as well as your spouse. Is the new family going to know how much you earn, what you paid in taxes this year, or tell you how to parent? In much the same way, a new client is like a new marriage- how you begin your relationship will set the stage for the future. Planning your client relationship is a critical part of good project management. Everyone wants a happy family and a happy client.
The first step is to determine how much information you will share with your client. A lot of this will depend upon the client’s organizational structure, as well as project risks and stakeholder personalities. If, as a project manager, you are transparent and an “open book” at the start of the relationship, you will be expected to be this forthcoming throughout the entire project. A good rule of thumb is to just share the level of detail based upon the certainty of scope. For example, in the early stages, a milestone schedule is more than sufficient to get the project schedule across. Anything with more detail is likely a guess and could be held as fact later on. Less is best. Budgets are the same way. Don’t give a line item budget for $583,607 when the scope is uncertain, and all the customer needs to know is are they are in the ballpark to fund the effort. $500,000. Anything else implies a level of certainty that does not exist. A rough order of magnitude can often be sufficient in the conceptual phase.
How you establish regular communication with your stakeholders is another process that should take some thought. Weekly communication is always a good idea, and when there is very little to discuss or report, a short status email will suffice. When your project is going full tilt, a regularly scheduled meeting with the entire team is always a good idea. Your key contact for your client should be in this weekly meeting. This shows transparency and will help you build trust with your client. However, if things are not going well, i.e. the job is “headed south”, you need to change your communication method with your client. And do this quickly.
Let’s assume you are having problems at home. You don’t really want your in-laws in the midst of the situation most of the time. You and your spouse will hopefully attempt to contain the issue. The same applies with your stakeholder(s.) The bigger the problem, the more quickly you need to act. Following the chain of command is important in this case. If, for example, you have discovered a major quality issue, you should notify your primary client contact first. You don’t want them to be the last to know. However, a timely email to your supervisor and the important stakeholders is warranted.
At the early stage of an issue, you have usually just identified the problem. A solution may take some time. So, be forthright, but short and sweet in your email. We have identified a problem and the team is working towards a solution. You should wait to write the long and detailed discussion or email until after you have gathered the facts and analyzed the situation. The search for the optimal solution is often a team effort, and may take a lot of time and require multiple meetings. But always remember to formally close out anything that was a “big deal”. It is best to document the actions and resolutions to a problem with all parties in writing. On the positive side, the experience and its solution can often be shared through lessons learned to the team or the company, and may help you improve the process or eliminate the problem in the future.
When a project has been approved, many project managers just focus on the technical aspect of the project kickoff and be totally immersed in the creation of the scope, schedule and budget. But developing a plan, formally or informally, for communicating with your client, should be at the top of the list. A dissatisfied client, or a client “in the dark”, can create a myriad of problems through the life cycle of the job. With a little planning, a well-informed client help facilitate the project’s success, as well as offer future work and professional references. Getting the next job is the “icing on the cake”. A good client relationship will pay itself back time and time again.