Client and Project Relationships: Keeping it on track


In this article I wanted to write about some of the “soft skill” requirements that are necessary for every project manager to effectively navigate difficult waters.  Stakeholders and clients have high expectations regarding their relationships with their constituents and they have a certain expectation for their end result of the working relationship with you.

As professionals, I am sure there have been many times where where we have had the uncomfortable task of having to face an unhappy client. Of all the tools necessary of any project manager, the one having to manage the time when you get a call from an unhappy client is the most difficult.

One can think of many reasons why a client/stakeholder could come unglued but I think there is a short list of the expectations that a client request that if not met, may cause the former’s reaction. In no particular order they are:

  • Respectful Treatment
  • Prompt response
  • Competent service
  • Updates on progress and problems
  • Trustworthiness
But there is a lastly and it is:
  • Excellent Technical Work
Interestingly, in my years as a subject matter expert I’ve discovered that rarely has my core technical expertise been as important as the first set of bullet points above. The reason is that generally if a client knew enough about your specialty to distinguish outstanding technical work, they wouldn’t need to hire you.
Customers are comforted by managers who don’t act entitled to their projects or engagements 
I was once told by mentor who was a very successful Management consultant that the best way to retain a project is to be easy to fire. He told me that good project managers remove as many obstacles to getting them fired except good work.
Recently, I was managing a pair of consultants in a complex rollout of a financial accounting platform. I personally had no knowledge about the system and was relying very heavily on their expertise to give me information on workflows and configurations so that I could train the full time staff as part of our plan. One consultant was very open and liberal with the information of how to use the system. I never got a bad feeling from my interactions with him. With the other, I felt this constant resistance to impart with information almost to the point where it was hoarding and self serving.
Subconsciously, I believe she was trying to make herself indispensable or perhaps she was fearful of the potential short duration of her time on the project. It worked in the short term but it also bred resentment and in my subsequent plans, you can be assured that I was immediately looking for ways to make her less relevant because of this risk. With the other, I was looking for many ways to keep him around.
Good work is the asset that will keep you engaged for the longer term.
 Managing the Stakeholders Expectations froom the Outset
Too often on projects I’ve seen where the project starts off correctly but somewhere along the way, it gets derailed because of some misperception of what should have been delivered.
The obvious answer is that a good project manager and his team should manage the expectations of his stakeholders from the beginning but in practice, this is often so easy to do.  On a recent project, I had to manage a global team where we were a full day’s apart in communication lead time. Even with all of our technological communication tools we never got off to the right start on the project. Finally, on the day we were to deliver a significant piece of work our stakeholders gave us a painful expression of disappointment.  To her, something was lost in translation between requirements gathering, design and analysis and implementation. “This isn’t what we wanted”, she lamented.
After the final analysis, we could have done things differently. We could have involved our client much more in the process using a different methodology of iteraction, progress and status reporting or deliverables management which we did but perhaps at too great a cost to recover from our initial mistakes and way too late in the game for it to matter.
However, despite this setback, the problem remains for anyone on a project where client/stakeholder management is important: If you don’t manage the stakeholder’s expectations, the stakeholder could take things at face value and think what he is wants is what she is getting.
The painful lesson in this case, is manage your stakeholders’ expectations. Make sure the client understands how you will approach the solution to the problem. Explain clearly and with many interactive meetings on what is to be delivered and how. Show and tell! Often! Tell her who is working on what and when it will be done by or not done by. Remember, clients and stakeholders hate surprises. Listen carefully to everything your stakeholder concerns, even the ones that are not overtly stated.
We missed a critical signal on our first go around which could have been averted if we paid more attention. Hopefully you won’t do the same.

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