As project and team leaders, we spend a lot time explaining what we’re doing, but too often forget to say why we’re even doing it. Without the “why”, clients are left to come to their own conclusions – and they may choose the wrong path without the help of a strong project leader.
The following are strategies and tactics on how to keep a balance between educating and managing your clients.
Every organization is unique – even if yours has implemented industry PM standards in regard to project process and follows PMBOK to the letter, the reality is how you actually manage projects may vary from what your client expects, simply because every project is different.
Professional project managers understand this; we expect risks. But project leaders should never assume our clients also understand the reasons behind our actions. It’s on us to explain why.
In order to combat misaligned expectations, start by mapping out your average project process – from the first touch point to project closeout. The project journey is an important framework you can use to align expectations internally and externally.
Work with your internal teams to flush out the details and nuances of your processes. Call out potential expectation-stumbling blocks you recognize from past projects. Your goal is not to fix the potential for those exceptions but to use those instances for future client education. Review, agree and promote the final workflow internally.
Depending on the size of your project, the actual on-boarding can be a stand-alone meeting or part of your project kickoff. If a client is anxious to get started, you may do more harm than good by boring them with a detailed explanation of your processes. Judge accordingly. It’s natural to want to start a project as soon as possible but more important to begin with a mutual understanding what exactly “project” means in your organization’s vernacular.
At its core, your client-onboarding process should consist of a walkthrough of a visual representation of the typical project journey with stakeholders. Explain to your client all of the potential challenges, risks and opportunities their unique project may have throughout its journey.
This will give you a framework to shape future discussions around change management, risk mitigation and future maintenance. Including this visual roadmap in your proposals or charters is an excellent way to set and maintain stakeholder expectations.
Get the Nomenclature Right
A smoldering pile of miscommunication lies under the rubble of any failed project. Early on in my career, I had a client who was unable to finalize their project requirements. As the deadline to start production loomed, I got nervous that we’d be far behind schedule before we even started. I spoke with them about extending the “consultation” phase of the project and explained how we’d then need to push our production start date. My client didn’t appreciate this message, and pushed back on the additional cost for “consulting.” Our main stakeholder asked us to continue gathering requirements and not change the timeline.
Another week went by and I was frustrated that I couldn’t see a path forward. Fatefully, in one meeting I casually stated that if we were to continue this “brainstorming,” we’d not be able to begin production. The client immediately agreed and said that we should push the timeline and approved the additional cost. I was shocked. Floored!
I quickly came to understand that in their language, “consultation” was a negative, but “brainstorming” was a positive. The project was ultimately a success, and I’d learned a valuable lesson. Frequency of communication was not nearly as important as the quality of that communication. Quality communication always starts with a solid interpretation of the words that are actually being used.
Another popular tactic is to keep a glossary of frequently used terms and share them with your clients at the outset of your project. Work to reduce the amount of exposure your client has to your internal jargon. Speak their language. Ask if they have any questions or comments on the glossary you’ve shared and address any discrepancies in future documentation.
Your company’s jargon won’t impress but your client will appreciate the flexibility and the willingness to partner on common (and sometimes not-so-common) language. Utilize and maintain an online wiki of these terms and link to it in your communication plans.
Agree to Negotiate
How will you resolve differences? How will approvals and changes be recorded consistently? At the start of your project, don’t be afraid to have a frank conversation with your client on how you’ll resolve differences throughout the project.
Change happens on projects. It’s not a matter of if there will be a change; it’ll come down to how you both handle and manage change. Sometimes your client may not understand the potential scope of those changes. Having a clear understanding of which client-side stakeholders need to be involved will help you and your client navigate changes during your project. Utilize a stakeholder matrix and keep it updated as roles and people change throughout your project.
If your stakeholders are extremely “green” to project management, it may be of value to explain the motivations of your role within your organization. What does success look like for a project manager in your company? Is your value based solely on projects being delivered on time and on budget, or do your supervisors factor internal and external customer service metrics? How is your stakeholder being evaluated on this project?
If you and your stakeholders are transparent with each other on how you are being incentivized towards a successful project, then that alignment will only increase your chance of a successful project.
Ultimately, if your client begins their project understanding the mechanics of your processes – and reasons why they exist – you’ll be able to better manage their expectations and enjoy a better overall engagement.
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