7 Proven Ways to Bring Out the Best from Client Staff

Assimilating client staff onto the project team is a major step that leads to project successYou have client staff assigned to your project. Full-time.

Now what?

Be grateful. Knowledgeable, dedicated, well-prepared client team members are a gift to the project team. Assimilate them. Treat them well and they will help propel your project to success.

In a previous article, “9 Common Sense Ways to Manage Your Clients”, I focused on nine practical approaches to lead client team members to be valuable additions to the overall project team:

  1. Communicate
  2. Build relationships
  3. Manage client expectations
  4. Keep client management and staff updated
  5. Explain why
  6. Respect the client
  7. Understand the client’s business
  8. Celebrate accomplishments
  9. Manage conflict

In this article, I focus on how these commonsense approaches can be realized through the basic care and feeding of client staff members that have been loaned to the project.

  1. Treat them well.
    I list this characteristic first because the client staff loaned to the project for the duration have just had their entire world upended. Nothing else matters until they are made to feel comfortable and an integral part of the project team. Prior to joining the project, they were happily working in the environment into which they were hired. Suddenly they were thrust onto an IT project, completely foreign to any experience they previously had.

    The first thing that the Project Manager and her team should do is to welcome the client staff warmly and show their gratitude for their willingness to come onto the project. The client staff should be celebrated for their valuable subject matter expertise and experience that they bring to the project.

    On many of the projects in which I served, we held kickoff events to welcome the client staff and to get to know them in an informal setting. Often we included team-building exercises with memorable activities that provided opportunity for staff from both teams to become comfortable with each other, knowing that we would soon be working together for many months or perhaps years.

    But it didn’t end there. Over the life of the project, we continued to honor each client individual as a valuable member of the team. The following list are just a few of the ways in which we showed our appreciation:
    • We marked birthday months and celebrated individuals’ birthdays.
    • For major accomplishments, we recognized individuals publicly. Where contractual stipulations would not let us reward client staff with even a small token, we would mark the achievement with a certificate or a gold star that they would display proudly in their cubicles.
    • On major holidays we shared potluck meals, and everyone contributed as they were able.
    • To celebrate the end of major phases, we rewarded the teams with ice cream and cake socials, and then extolled each individual’s accomplishment with a light-hearted limerick.
    • On a project in Hawaii, we celebrated major accomplishments with family outings on the beach or a nearby park.
    • On a recent project, we commandeered an entire neighborhood bar and grill for team celebrations (individuals paid their own way to stay within contractual mandates).
    • We have held team meetings in local parks and on rooftop decks for a change of scenery and to foster additional camaraderie.
    • We participated in charity days where the entire team, including client team members if they so wished, provided a community service.

    There is no end to the creativity can be employed to treat client team members as valued members of the project team.

  2. Be a great communicator.
    I previously described the need for Project Managers to develop their communication skills (refer to “Why IT Should Focus on Soft Skills” and “10 Characteristics a Project Manager Must Develop”. These communication skills are even more important when dealing with client interactions on the project. If ever there was an opportunity to practice adapting one’s communication style to his audience, communication with team members from the client organization is it.

    Project Managers must exhibit patience with client team members, especially as they flounder for some time before feeling comfortable in their project roles. Some client staff relish developing strong relationships with members of the IT team. Others do not, preferring to remain arms-length. Blunt, direct emails and verbal communication may work well with the IT team; however, a more nuanced approach is required in client communication.

    Project Managers must also learn how to say “no.” Typically, client staff do not understand the concept of project scope and want to change or add requirements to the agreed-upon project scope. This is especially concerning on fixed-price projects. Add to that the delicate balance that exists between scope issues that are reasonable versus those that are not. How does the Project Manager explain the difference to a client team member? How does the Project Manager say “no” to the unreasonable requests without alienating the client team member? This takes practice; but learning to communicate “no” while maintaining client staff buy-in is critical.

    Similarly, clients can be difficult to deal when tensions run high, or looming deadlines create stress, or there are personality clashes, or any number of such situations. Project Managers in their communication must maintain their composure, take nothing as a personal offense, acknowledge the individual’s feelings, find common ground, and reestablish control by focusing strictly on the facts. The situation can be diffused by agreeing to a plan of action to resolve the conflict.

  3. Co-locate the teams.
    I have seldom worked on a project where we did not co-locate the client team with the IT team. In my experience, this is the most desirable way to create that bond that will be needed to work together to complete their tasks. The team members develop an appreciation for each other’s responsibilities. Transparency comes naturally as everything is in sight and hearing of all individuals. Questions and consultations are addressed immediately without having to convene meetings. The camaraderie that is built in this way strengthens the entire team.
  4. Learn their terminology.
    This is one area that has frustrated me on many projects. I have witnessed on more than one occasion the IT team presenting a condescending attitude towards the client team members who were not steeped in IT processes or terminology. This is unfair. Neither team can complete the project without assistance from the other.

    It is not the client’s responsibility to learn the ways of IT or how to execute a project. They will return to their regular jobs once the project is completed and the new system is implemented. However, the IT team members will go on the next system development project, although probably in a different domain.

    So, who has the onus to learn the other side’s business? In my opinion, the onus is on IT to learn the client’s policies and procedures, their terminology, and even the expected effect the new system will have on the client’s own customers.

    Learning the client’s business ingratiates the IT team to the client. A deep understanding of the client’s business leads to a better designed and better performing system overall.

  5. Educate them.
    As I noted earlier, the client team members were taken from the security of their day jobs and put into unfamiliar territory on the project. They are soon exposed to their new roles: to develop functional requirements for the new system, review and approve IT-produced deliverables, write test scripts, perform user acceptance testing, provide counsel on how to train their organization on the new system, and help prepare their organization to accept the new system.

    In my consulting practice, I was often hired by client organizations to help prepare and guide their staff in how to carry out their responsibilities on an IT project, and how to work alongside IT practitioners. For example, before we began the requirements definition phase of the project, I would spend several weeks teaching the client staff how to develop and review detailed statements of requirements. This would prepare them to roll up their sleeves with the IT provider and fully participate in the requirements workshops. Similarly, I spent several months with them, prior to the user acceptance test phase of the project, to develop complete test coverage of the requirements traceability matrix. Together we created scenarios to test the permutations and combinations of possible real-life situations. We also developed a consistent approach to documenting the user acceptance test scripts prior to beginning their testing.

    Not only did this hands-on guidance give the client team members confidence as they approached each new project activity, but it saved thousands of hours of instruction and potential rework as they were fully prepared to work alongside their IT counterparts.

  6. Be open.
    Just as with their own teams, Project Managers must always exhibit openness with the client staff on the project. They must be prepared to answer client questions as transparently as possible, while instilling confidence in their ability to perform their role in the project.

    Openness is a two-way street. The Project Manager who is able to accept both praise and criticism from the client team members is able to use their feedback to improve his client interaction skills going forward on the current project and on future projects as well.

  7. Be a conflict manager.
    Inevitably, projects experience conflict. Some of this has already been described in point #2 above. Client team members, just like the IT team members, can become disruptive. Project schedules or deliverables may be negatively impacted. These issues need to be confronted immediately and not allowed to fester.

    Dealing with conflicts that involve the client team members is more challenging than with one’s own team because they do not report directly to the Project Manager. Therefore, the Project Manager must try to resolve the issue using his influence and persuasion or, alternatively, take the issue to client management for resolution.

I have had the privilege of working with some of the finest client staff on projects. I have also coached client teams in their responsibilities on major projects. Many times, they outperformed the IT project teams, providing additional impetus for IT to complete their tasks on time and with excellence. Client team members, when well prepared for their responsibilities on the project, are a huge boon to the success of the project.

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