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Working at an agency is the calling of many a project manager, and agency life means working with clients, and clients can mean…a lot of things. 

Project managers at agencies are always racing against the clock to respond to client emails and messages within a reasonable timeframe and with the answers the client is looking for. Setting boundaries can be difficult, especially if clients are in different time zones or emailing after hours.

A recent thread in our DPM slack community highlights the challenges with always being available to answer client questions. 

“One of our leaders believes that [this] is a competitive advantage. They mentioned they don't like to schedule messages for a later time and prefer to respond whenever they're working… They don't expect others to respond when they send a message.

I.. [am] feeling the pressure of always having to respond…we're also seeing a challenge with clients having poor boundaries around messaging as well (e.g., some are constantly asking questions and we find our account managers spend a disproportionate amount of time dealing with these requests).

We've pushed clients in the past to use things like ClickUp to submit tickets, but they prefer to reach out to us directly via Slack.”

This touched off a long thread about the downstream effects of always being available to your clients, and what agency leaders can do to mitigate some of these effects and set better boundaries for their team members.

So, What’s The Problem?

You can probably see some obvious downsides to this strategy right away. 

As one respondent said, “this is a great way to teach clients that you’re their servants at their beck and call…clients also lose their incentive to be careful, thoughtful, or efficient about communication."

As part of the relationship building process with new clients, project managers often ‘train’ clients in subtle ways to respect their boundaries and to communicate effectively. Who among us hasn’t had to go down the rabbit hole asking clients what they mean by ‘this design doesn’t pop enough’ to (hopefully) get them to provide more actionable feedback in the future. 

They continued: “it also creates huge headaches for a non-huge team because even a simple holiday or vacation creates the need to not just provide basic coverage but basic rapid coverage.”

This means other project managers on the team are spending more time covering other project manager’s clients and less time on the impactful work for their own projects—not efficient for anyone (this is why it's so important to make yourself redundant).

Melody MacKeand notes that “this is a very slippery slope to employee burnout…there is a trade-off [between] the ‘competitive advantage’ of quick responses vs. employee turnover, but I don't know if a lot of leaders truly grasp that.” In other words, asking project managers to be always on call and responsive is also bad for morale—burnout leads to turnover, which just further lowers morale.

A respondent also noted that “this is extremely bad for time tracking,” which is important when it comes time for agencies to bill their clients. Constantly interrupting impactful work to respond to messages makes for a messy and/or inaccurate timesheet.

What Can Be Done About This?

One respondent noted that they spent a lot of time training their clients to put items, questions, and requests in a specified ticketing system to ensure they would be answered, and trained the other project managers in their organization to do the same. 

They also noted “recurring meetings are just better than ‘please Slack me whenever something occurs to you’..[and are] easier to work with, easier to prep for, easier to bill.” This solves both the time tracking and inefficient communication issues mentioned above.

One respondent’s suggestion is to push back on the competitive advantage aspect with this question: “‘Just how fast of a response do you think we need to differentiate?’”

MacKeand agrees. “I do think it helps if your leadership makes it abundantly clear what ‘always being available’ means,” she says, “for instance, is the expectation to respond within 1 hour? Is the expectation a confirmation that you…received their note and will respond back shortly (same day) or is the expectation to actually respond back immediately with the answers that might take involvement of the team…”

But MacKeand also argues that expectations from agency leadership for project managers need to be stated even farther up front. “If the expectation is that you…are available to hop on a computer at any point any time of day/weekend or otherwise…that needs to be very clearly stated in the hiring process,” she says, “and if not, employees need to hold hard boundaries.”

MacKeand summed it all up nicely: “I've found the best partnerships with clients when we set clear boundaries, we flex on the very rare emergency occasions, and they respect us just as much as we respect them.”

What’s Next?

The original poster took this advice to heart, and noted that they would aim to set boundaries around what forms of communication they would accept from clients (ie. email comms & status meetings, rather than Slack), as a starting point.

This is just one of the many meaningful conversations happening in the DPM Slack community on a daily basis. Sign up for DPM membership to get access to the goldmine of existing threads, and post your own thread to get advice and insights for our DPM experts. 

Nuala Turner
By Nuala Turner

Nuala is the Editor of The Digital Project Manager. Her background is in content strategy, content production, and managing projects. She brings a strong editorial eye and a passion for connecting with experts in the field and teasing out their stories, as well as ensuring digital project managers are winning at work and smashing projects out of the park.