I’ll never forget the time I unknowingly delayed a project by months, caused my client unneeded stress, and threw a wrench in our launch plan all because of a simple phrase. Or, more accurately, a simple phrase I didn’t say.
It was a website redesign and content development project. My team was well underway with design and development, but we were still needing the elusive website content from the client.
Snowy streets and Christmas carols turned into sprouting gardens and longer days. I kept asking,
– “Will you be able to supply the copy by (our agreed upon date)?”
– “Yes, we are working on it right now!” my client would say. With every passing week, I felt less confident about their answers.
Eventually, deadline day was creeping up. I checked in with them diligently to make sure they were able to meet it. “Yes, yes, yes!” they assured me.
The day before the deadline, the client emailed me to let me know they needed just a little bit more time. Okay, no problem, things come up. But then I read the next sentence and my heart stopped.
– “Our lawyers are almost finished with it,” the email said.
I called my client right away and asked, “Why are your lawyers drafting your website copy?”
They answered me like I must be dense, “Well, who else would we hire to take care of our copyright application?”
Talk about a miscommunication of epic proportions. I had failed to accurately set expectations for my client by not defining a simple marketing term for over five months. (!!!)
Long story short, this delayed the project. The client rushed to finish all their website copy which wasn’t possible by our original deadline, and they weren’t too happy about it to boot. I felt awful. What kind of monster project manager was I to let this happen?!
Project Management = People Management
I’ve never forgotten this experience and now I focus most of my time on explaining things thoroughly, and asking the right questions to check for understanding.
Not because clients are dumb, of course they’re not, but it can be easy to forget that our clients don’t live in our world. It’s your responsibility as their PM to guide them through everything to do with the project.
As project managers, we are immersed in the digital world every day. We think nothing of using words like agile, scrum, plugin, SEO, analytics and others with our peers all day long. It’s the language of digital marketing mankind.
We need to remember that our clients aren’t us. We aren’t always going to be on the same page.
But it’s not all bad news. Even the worst agency-client problems can lead to positive relationship building opportunities if you treat them right, and stay humble. At its core, project management is people management.
The project is just a thing, it’s not alive. Your clients, your team and you are. So act like a human being, take care of your clients and team, and the project will succeed.
Here are a few common red flags in digital projects, and how to use them to wow your customers and further your relationship.
5 Common Red Flags and How to Use Them to Build Trust In Your Client Relationship
#1 The Scope Creeper
Problem: Your client starts asking for extras, either a bunch of little things or big things that aren’t in your project scope. They may be just trying to pull a fast one, but more likely, they don’t understand what they’re asking is out of scope.
Solution: Don’t save scope discussions just for your kickoff meeting. While you should absolutely review scope at the kickoff, mention it throughout your project too. It’s easy to forget about the kickoff months later. Offer to estimate out of scope work, but be clear why it’s not within scope, not just saying that it’s not, and you need more money.
Full transparency fosters absolute trust.
#2 Client Not Meeting Their Deadlines
Problem: Need approval or content from your client, and they’re not meeting the deadlines you set for them? They may not be aware of them, or don’t understand how their tasks fit into the big picture.
They may think your deadlines are only mere suggestions if they don’t know what’s going to happen after they supply their parts.
Solution: Show your client the full roadmap, not just their milestones. Explain that they need to give you approval/the item on x date so that Joe can start development on x date. Joe’s waiting for you!
Showing how their work fits into the larger project plan will instil a sense of ownership in your clients for their tasks, and show them how important they are in the plan, rather than just telling them.
#3 No Changes
Problem: Changes are normal in a project. If a client never has any changes at all, it makes me start to wonder if they really feel that way.
Some people find giving constructive or negative feedback extremely difficult, and may stay quiet for fear of offending anyone, or just because they don’t know how to phrase their feedback or find it uncomfortable.
Solution: Dig deeper. Ask questions to show that you care.
Things like, “We took a lot of liberty with the colour palette here, I just wanted to double-check that you were okay with that? We feel it’s a great extension of your brand!” or “What do you think about the way we’ve structured your About page – does it cover all the information you wanted it to say? Just let me know if need another section or two and I can pop that in!” If they really have no changes, then great, but double-checking shows you care about giving them a good product.
Asking questions can also make them open up if they were hesitant to provide honest feedback before. More importantly, opening up a dialogue creates a warm and inviting space for your client to connect with you, their PM. That good communication should be in place for every project, and can be a lifesaver when it comes to later having to communicate a problem to the client.
#4 Too Many Changes
Problem: The opposite of the point above, sometimes a client is changing everything all the time. Progress can’t be made on the project when you’re constantly going back to square one with design and development.
Solution: Bring it back to their goals. Ask, “Has anything changed with your business goals since our original kickoff? I’m asking because while we’re happy to make changes, these will take us down a different road, away from the goals we discussed last quarter.”
If their goals haven’t changed, then why are they making so many changes in these late stages of the project?
You need to communicate the impact these changes are having. If you’re spinning your wheels, it’s going to burn through their timeline and budget faster than you can say ‘sprint’.
This is another problem solved by open and honest communication. Just be blunt, ask “What’s the deal?” Your client will most likely appreciate the opportunity to be blunt as well, and you can both figure out what the problem is a lot faster.
Once you discover the root of the problem, you can suggest a solution. Your job is to be the problem solver, so don’t just keep making changes until your budget is done. Act as their advisor, find out the root issue, and work together to solve it.
#5 Last Minute Larry
Problem: Your project is swimming along nicely, and then suddenly, your client is changing major items late into the game, or adding new scope items too late into the process, causing a lot of rework with design and development. But doesn’t want the timeline to change.
Solution: If it’s a small change, just do it. But explain that next time, you won’t be able to fit changes in, at least not within the current budget, scope and timeline.
Explain how small changes really do add up, and can distract the team from their end goals and getting the overall project done. That results in ballooning budgets and missed deadlines… Now those changes don’t seem so small, right?
Don’t be a curmudgeon though: if you can help, then do it. Fighting back against things that don’t matter accomplishes nothing, and just makes you seem difficult to work with.
The only thing you have to remember to run successful projects is to focus on managing your relationships (internally and with clients).
We’re all just a bunch of humans trying to build cool websites together. That’s really it. Don’t underestimate the human side of the business.
My philosophy of project management can be summed up by Maya Angelou’s famous quote: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Make your clients feel like you genuinely care about not just their project, but also their goals, their companies, and them personally, and you’ll have the foundation for a rewarding, long-lasting, positive agency-client relationship built on trust. That goes a long way towards creating some pretty cool projects.
No matter what may go wrong along the way, your clients know you always have their back.
After all, isn’t that what they’re paying you for?
What Do You Think?
What was the toughest client problem you’ve had to tackle? Did it bring you closer together, or cause the project to fall apart? Let us know in the comments!
All projects come with risks. Listen to our podcast to learn how to communicate properly when risks start causing problems: How To Talk About Risk And Have Everyone Listen.