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We all want great project kickoff meetings but are we doing the right groundwork with our clients so we have a better client kickoff meeting? Projects sometimes start off a bit wonky because we dive straight into the project without getting to know the client and truly understanding some of the tacit, latent, informal requirements which might not have been recorded, but without which mean we don’t fully understand what needs to be done to succeed.

Projects can unravel as early as the project kick-off meeting, when we should be still in the honeymoon phase! But there is a simple way to help improve the chances of your project kickoff meeting going well, have better client meetings, and start your project on a positive trajectory. It’s as simple as having lunch. Have a meeting with the client prior to the project kickoff meeting, grab some food, have some banter, and iron out those prickly and pesky details, that tend to derail things, ahead of time. Here’s a guide to how to start projects better with clients with a pre-project client kickoff meeting over lunch.

Have lunch and do a pre-‘client project kick-off’

After an internal kick-off meeting, but prior to the client project kickoff meeting, take some time to catch up with the client to make sure that the ‘real’ kick off meeting with their stakeholders and team is as fruitful and efficient as possible. In an ideal scenario, you’d do this meeting in person over coffee or lunch but in a pinch, the catch up can be done by Skype or phone too.

The purpose of connecting and meeting with the client before the ‘real’ kick off meeting is to level set expectations outside of the context of the potentially much more political ‘real’ kick off meeting. It’s an opportunity to establish some rapport with your client, communicate essential project and team information and get as much relevant information as possible prior to the kick-off meeting to refine the kick-off meeting agenda. The discussion should be focussed on how you’re going to work together and as much as possible, set and align expectations.

Sample pre-client project kick-off agenda

For a quick run through of the agenda, watch our video:

Although every project will require its own agenda tweaking, there’s value in ensuring you cover off some of these basics. Here’s a rough idea of timings so you can fit this into a 60 min meeting:

  • Introductions – some warm and fuzzy banter (5 mins)
  • Review the project teams – who’s responsible for what? (3 mins)
  • Approval process – the process and personnel for signing off deliverables? (3 mins)
  • SoW Review – what are we doing, when, how, and what will we produce? (20 mins)
  • Discuss Risk, Issue and Change Management – what’s the client’s attitude and approach to manage to risk and change? (3 mins)
  • Reporting – how will we track and communicate project progress, and to whom? (3 mins)
  • Collaboration – what tools will we use to work together? (3 mins)
  • Assets – what do we need to get started? (5 mins)
  • Kickoff agenda – what will we discuss in the client kickoff? (5 mins)
  • AOB – anything else that we need to discuss? (5 mins)

1. Introductions – some warm and fuzzy banter (5 mins)

As long as your client hasn’t brought along the entire project team for the ride this is a chance to have a bit of a heart to heart so that you can run the project better with fewer nasty surprises. The goal here is to get to know your client outside of the context of the project and begin to develop a relationship and level of trust that develops over time and carries you through the ups and downs of the project.

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2. Review the project teams – who’s responsible for what? (3 mins)

In the ‘real’ kick off meeting, there’ll be a chance to recap with the full project team on roles and responsibilities, so the purpose of discussing the project team is to try and gain and share some insight on team dynamics.

You’re trying to get a behind-the-scenes perspective on who’ll be involved in the project and to what extent. You want to know the best way of engaging with them so they’ll help to progress the project. It’s really helpful to understand who the allies or supporters of the project might be and who is most likely to cause trouble.

It’s also an opportunity to sell the resources you’ve got booked on the project so that the client has a sense of confidence in the team that’s going to be at the client kickoff meeting. By giving them a bit of a behind-the-scenes insight into your team, hopefully, your client will reciprocate and give the skinny into the personalities who could impact the project, for better or worse.

3. Approval process – the process and personnel for signing off deliverables? (3 mins)

After running through the ‘who’s who’ of the project teams and identifying the team, it’s an easy transition into governance, and who’ll need to sign of what, during the project. It’s important to clarify from the SoW what’s been assumed in terms of signoff in terms of timeline and rounds of revision

You’re trying to get and understanding from the client whether or not the process that you’ve assumed in your SoW is going to work. Is the timeline long enough? Are there enough rounds of revision accommodated for within the SoW? Are some of the team difficult to schedule for meetings or approvals? Are they off on vacation during the project?

4. SoW Review – what are we doing, when, how, and what will we produce?

Of all the items on the agenda, this is probably the most important for level-setting so it’s worth spending a significant portion of time on it. You need to go into the ‘real’ kick off meeting having discussed this in detail so that you’re aligned with expectations.

This is an opportunity to take the client through your draft SoW in granular detail, and yes, that means that – detailing how the project will be run, what activities can be completed, and to what extent (within the proposed budget and timeline) and what the deliverables will be. It’s important that you highlight rounds of review, dependencies and assumptions so that you’re on the same page with regards to what the project will ultimately deliver.

If you leave a discussion about the SoW to the ‘real’ client kickoff meeting, it can turn ugly – the dynamics of a large client team throwing around opinions of what should be in and out of scope are never pretty. Discussions about scope are best reserved for small meetings with the client where you can have a discussion without turning it into a round table debate.

5. Discuss RAID (Risks, Assumptions, Issues, Dependencies) and change management – what’s the client’s attitude and approach to managing risk and change? (3 mins)

As part of rounding out the discussion on the SoW, it’s worth discussing with the client their preference for dealing with risks and issues as well as their appetite for change. If you can, in advance of your meeting, prepare a risk or RAID log and run through it as part of your discussion. You want to set the expectation from the start that you want to be transparent about identifying and responding to risks and issues collaboratively together.

You’ll benefit from getting an understanding from the client as to how much budget wiggle room there is. A useful way of framing it can be to ask the client whether there’s additional budget to pivot the project if new opportunities present themselves – such as additional rounds of design development, feature buildout or user testing. You need a shared understanding as to whether they’re hoping to

Remember too, to talk about the use of contingency and to get aligned on what the contingency is for, and how it can be used; is it a risk and issue budget or to accommodate small changes as the project progresses? Recommend an approach for how you think it should be used so that there’s clarity on what you’ll be doing when something pops up on the project that you weren’t planning for.

6. Reporting – how will we track and communicate project progress, and to whom? (3 mins)

Tracking project progress will require a status report which shows how the project is tracking on budget, timeline, tasks and milestones. Similarly to the preparation you’ll need to do for demonstrating how you’re planning to manage risk, it’s also helpful to prepare a status report that you can share with the client and so you can ensure that the format and detail works for them.

Getting the format and details right for your status report can be important because it’s usually tied to billing. You need to ensure that the client is getting the right level of ongoing detail so they don’t hold up payment of invoices. To help with that, track the budget on your status report with the upcoming invoice amount and when it will be billed.

Agree the distribution list for the status report so that everyone who needs to be in the loop, is kept up to date with what’s happening on your project. It’s always better to distribute the report to a wider audience than strictly necessary so that in the event that something doesn’t go to plan, no one can turn around and claim they were unaware.

7. Collaboration – what tools will we use to work together? (3 mins)

Most PM’s and teams will have their default collaboration toolkit defined. But whether it’s Basecamp or Jira, Trello or Businessmap (formerly Kanbanize), make a plan with your team of how you’re going to work together so that you can share with the client a plan for what you’re going to use, and how you’re going to use them. Then check with the client to make sure they’re happy with the selected toolkit and are able to use that platform to share files, information, status updates and to have project conversations.

8. Assets – what do we need to get started? (5 mins)

There’s always ‘stuff’ that’s needed before projects can get started properly. Make a list of all the things you need to remember to ask the client for so that you can get started, in priority order, so they can work through the most critical items first.

  • Logins – CMS, analytics, social, image libraries
  • Brand – logos, fonts, style guides, templates
  • Repo – site files, databases
  • VPN – to access a client’s intranet
  • Invoicing – who do they need to go to? who approves them?

9. Kickoff agenda – what will we discuss in the client kickoff? (5 mins)

This is an opportunity to run through the agenda for the ‘real’ kickoff meeting. Whereas the pre-meeting with the client is a chance to level-set, the ‘real’ kickoff should be used to get an understanding of the broader project context and the factors that will influence its success.

Check out the client kickoff meeting guide, but at a high level, here’s what you should be thinking about.

  • Introductions – who’s working on the project, and what’s their role? (15 mins)
  • Project background – how does this brief fit into the broader strategy and other projects? (10 mins)
  • Project briefing – what’s the business problem and customer need? (30 mins)
  • Success – how we will know if we’ve been successful and what’s failed before? (10 mins)
  • Project management – review timeline, deliverables, roles, reporting, estimate and change management (10 mins)
  • AOB – what haven’t we discussed that we should? (10 mins)
  • Next – what are the next steps to keep the project moving? (5 mins)

10. AOB – anything else that we need to discuss? (5 mins)

Wrap up the conversation with some clearly defined next steps and an opportunity for the client to raise anything that they want to cover off. Often just asking; ‘Is there anything else we should know?’ will spur the clients to share things they hadn’t previously mentioned that are worth knowing.

And finally, be sure to end on a happy note. Go back to the banter you started with – it’s a chance for you to develop some rapport and get to know them better; find out what they enjoy outside of work, what they’re doing at the weekend, what they’re watching on Netflix or what sport they’re into. Do the groundwork for getting to know them as individuals and so you’ve got something to talk to them about next time you connect.

What do you think?

What do you think we’re missing?  We’d love to hear if you’ve got any thoughts on better client meetings, especially prior to project kick-off meetings in digital project management – why not join the conversation below?

By Ben Aston

I’m Ben Aston, a digital project manager and founder of I've been in the industry for more than 20 years working in the UK at London’s top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. I’ve delivered everything from film to CMS', games to advertising and eCRM to eCommerce sites. I’ve been fortunate enough to work across a wide range of great clients; automotive brands including Land Rover, Volkswagen and Honda; Utility brands including BT, British Gas and Exxon, FMCG brands such as Unilever, and consumer electronics brands including Sony. I'm a Certified Scrum Master, PRINCE2 Practitioner and productivity nut!