9 Common Sense Ways to Manage Your Clients

Client staff must be made to feel part of the teamClients. Can’t live with ‘em. Can’t make ‘em go away.

Whether you’re an external IT provider, or the internal IT department, THEY always show up on the project. THEY don’t seem to understand what you’re trying to accomplish. THEY ask too many questions. THEY offer their own ideas. THEY deliver late on their assignments. THEY go home early. THEY slow things down …

Sound familiar? Those pesky clients! Life would be so much easier without them.

But would it? If this is your experience with client staff and stakeholders as you manage THEIR project on THEIR behalf, the problem may not be “THEY”. It just may be YOU.

Clients. Can’t live with ‘em. Can’t make ‘em go away. Can’t live without ‘em.

In previous articles in this series, I have commented on the responsibility of Project Managers to develop their teams and team members (“How to Form and Norm Your Way to a High-Performing Project Team” and “How to Develop Project Team Members”), and on successfully leading and managing those same teams (“10 Surefire Approaches to Leading a Project Team” and “10 Characteristics a Project Manager Must Develop”).

But to have a truly successful project, it is essential that Project Managers focus equal attention on the development of the client staff loaned to the project. Client staff have been taken from their day jobs and are thrust into the unfamiliar world of project life. I’m not suggesting that it is the Project Manager’s responsibility to help develop their careers (though I have witnessed many client staff who have excelled in their careers following their time on an IT project). Rather I’m focusing on their development as important contributing members of the overall project team, eager to meet the goals and objectives of their organization’s project.

My foundational premise for this entire 52-week series of articles on the people aspects of project management is that, while Project Managers are well trained and well equipped in the process and technical aspects of their jobs, they must also develop and grow in their ability to lead in the people aspects of project delivery. And nothing challenges that more than developing the client staff to be highly functioning assets of the overall effort.

Add to that challenge the fact that client team members don’t report to the IT Project Manager, but rather to their own management. The Project Manager does not direct them to perform in a certain manner (as they do their own staff), but they can inspire them to work well alongside their IT counterparts through influence and persuasion.

Here then are nine practical approaches to lead client team members to be valuable additions to the overall project team:

  1. Communicate.
    Isn’t it interesting how communication continues to rise to the top as a most valuable principle of project work? Projects are first and foremost a people business augmented by technical and process capabilities. Building strong relationships with the client staff on the project begins with building trust. Building trust is a direct byproduct of open and honest communication. Just as strong communication with the IT team is paramount, so is communication with the client team as well.

    Good communication builds trust, which in turn builds the client’s confidence in the project team’s ability to perform. Then as problems and challenges occur, client staff will roll up their sleeves and work issues alongside their IT counterparts to resolve the issues.

    Honesty and transparency in communication with the client cannot be underestimated. It provides opportunities to receive feedback from the client that can be used to improve client interaction on the current and future projects.

    Above all, communication with client staff must be professional at all times, whether in emails, status reports, meetings, instructions regarding task assignments, hallway conversations, or social gatherings (see my article, Why IT Should Focus on Soft Skills.”

  2. Build relationships.
    I recounted in an earlier article that one of the greatest compliments I ever received as a Project Manager occurred during a project review by the major stakeholder. The primary reviewer noted that he was unable to distinguish between the IT staff and the client staff on the project. This spoke volumes to me as he recognized that there was a strong relationship between IT and client staff, such that we operated as a single team for the single purpose of delivering a successful project.

    Whether it’s an early social gathering at the start of the project, or a fun get-to-know-you teambuilding exercise, or sitting down informally with client staff to answer their questions, it is important to develop and nurture a working relationship with client staff. I have never been on a project that did not experience challenges, and those challenges were always best met by a united team of IT and client project staff.

  3. Manage client expectations.
    Too many IT project teams assume that the client project staff are more versed in IT processes than they really are. Most client staff have never participated on an IT project and don’t understand what is expected of them. Neither do they know what to expect of their IT counterparts.

    It is worth noting that the client stakeholders, who are investing their scarce resources into the IT provider’s ability to deliver, are naturally inclined to be constantly looking over the IT provider’s shoulder. Similarly, the client staff on the project have little understanding of the concept of scope and can be oblivious for adding to the project requirements.

    It is therefore incumbent on the Project Manager to set expectations for the client early on in the project lifecycle, and then to remind them often of those expectations. This is where the process aspects and people aspects of project delivery work hand-in-hand. The process aspect creates the project scope statement. The people aspect sets the expectations around the statement of project scope in the way it is communicated to the client.

    Of course, client expectations must also be set for their project responsibilities in areas of requirements definition, testing, implementation, and others that directly affect the client organization.

    Additionally, expectations around the following types of questions should be negotiated and agreed to up front. What hours of work best suit their contribution to the project? Why is adherence to schedule so important? Will they be dividing their time between day job responsibilities and project work, and how will that be accommodated? What is the best method for them to communicate with project staff?

  4. Keep client management and staff updated.
    Just it as the IT team does not want to be kept in the dark, neither does the client management or their staff on the project. Again, process and people aspects of project delivery work together in this respect.

    Process dictates that the Project Manager provides frequent and consistent status reporting both verbally and in writing. The people aspects compel the Project Manager to invite client project staff to team meetings to keep them abreast of all that transpires on the project. There is nothing more disconcerting to client staff then not being in the loop, and yet be expected to perform their tasks as part of the overall project delivery.

  5. Explain why.
    I discussed this in an earlier article “10 Surefire Approaches to Leading a Project Team” with regard to the IT team. Client team members are no different. Keep in mind that this may be the first IT project that they have worked on. They may have never been exposed to requirements definition, or developing user acceptance test cases, or preparing their organization for implementation of the new system. Client staff will participate much more readily and enthusiastically if they understand why they are expected to do certain tasks.
  6. Respect the client.
    First, let me get this off my chest: GUILTY! I’m not proud of it. I can remember several occasions during which we on the IT team railed about the attitudes and weaknesses and ignorance of our client counterparts with regard to project execution.

    “But what’s the harm?” you ask. “After all, it’s just letting off a little steam in private, and the client won’t know.”

    But they do know. Or at least they feel it. Negative attitudes toward the client, even if acted out in private, are subconsciously sensed by those same clients no matter how much we disguise our feelings.

    IT project teams and project managers can be consciously or unconsciously dismissive and condescending towards their client counterparts. They often develop negative preconceptions about them, and this need not be.

    All projects, especially long-term projects, can become a grind. During this time the honeymoon phase with the client fades and the entire team falls into a routine. It is important not to let this happen, not to treat your client like they are yesterday’s news, and to look for ways to maintain that initial excitement.

    Developing an attitude of complete respect for every client team member, and encouraging the client staff to perform to the best of their abilities, creates an environment for client staff to maximize their contribution to the project.

  7. Understand the client’s business.
    On every project I managed, I encouraged my team to understand the client’s business as well as the client staff themselves. This goes a long way in developing the client’s trust. I’ve been in situations where the client so trusted my team that they requested us to represent them in requesting clarification their own policies and procedures from the regulating bodies.

    Doesn’t it make sense that if IT spends the time to understand the client’s business, right down to their everyday terminology, that the client staff would be much more collaborative in every facet of the project? When IT staff work to understand the client’s business and terminology, rather than expecting client staff to understand IT, it makes for a much healthier working relationship.

  8. Celebrate accomplishments.
    Throughout my entire career, it seemed that the IT staff had an unofficial motto: “work hard, play hard!” IT project teams take time to celebrate their wins.

    However, it has also been my experience that client staff was not allowed to participate in these celebrations because of contractual requirements. To do so would be considered providing a benefit to client staff, which was strictly forbidden. In fact, on one project, client management went so far as to ask that the IT provider not provide free coffee and snacks to the project team. Apparently, client staff not on the project had complained that client staff on the project were receiving a benefit that they were not entitled to.

    While it is important to stay within contractual guidelines, it is also important to find ways to recognize the achievements of the client staff on the project. That may require collaboration with client management on what is allowable. It may be as simple as a celebration were each team member pays his or her own way. Whatever it is, accomplishments must be celebrated.

  9. Manage conflict.
    Referring to point #3 above, client stakeholders and client staff can be very passionate about the system being developed for their organization. At the same time, IT providers are under constant pressure to complete the project on time and within budget. When passion collides with time pressures, there can be conflict.

    However, the project manager that communicates well, builds relationships, manages client expectations, keeps management and staff updated, explains the why behind every decision and task to be completed, respects the client, understands the client’s business, and celebrates accomplishments with the client staff, has a much easier time dealing with any conflict situation.

    Nevertheless, managing conflict requires that issues are addressed early while they are still brewing. Project Managers must never be afraid to have a difficult conversation with the client. It’s far easier to address the problem up front than to attempt to fix the consequences of inaction later on.

Project Managers must always, always, always keep an ear to the ground. They need to read the room in every interaction, paying attention to the nuances of how the client is responding to every situation. They must pay special attention if the client goes silent. Silence is never a good thing. Any change in how the client is responding, particularly if it appears to be negative, requires the Project Manager to address it immediately.

These nine points seem to be fundamental. Common sense some say. But if it’s common sense, why is it so uncommon in implementation?

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