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  • April 3, 2015

Next Level Project Management

Recently I’ve been privy to several good discussions in the Digital Project Management community around ‘next level’ project management – going beyond tactical proficiency and honing one’s skills around crafting client-team relationships. Tactical proficiency alone does not build a strong project manager (PM)-client relationship. Decorative Illustration

I truly love a well-built plan and get a thrill from artfully making adjustments to make a project work. Performance—timeliness, making good on promises, transparency (even delivering bad news)—all build the vital trust that is core to a good client relationship.

There is a beauty in crafting a relationship with a client, that is built both on tactical skill AND the artful and persistent effort to know the “people” behind the “client.”

Anticipation + Assuaging Fear

In a recent conversation with Dan Mall (a SuperFriendly dude I run into occasionally) about the titles “Project Manager” vs. “Producer”, he mentioned that in thinking through the role he had started compiling a list of its core functions. One point on his list rings super true to me:

“Help clients see the future. If they know what’s coming, they freak out less.”

At the onset of a client project, I make sure to have plenty of “face time” (often via phone) with my main point of contact on the client side as well as key stakeholder who stand to be affected by the outcome of the project. My conversations are not only centered around developing a rapport but honing in on fears:

  • What aspect of the project does the client bring up repeatedly?
  • What questions or conversations really trip up a client? Questions about team responsibilities? Questions about sign-offs or unseen stakeholders? Questions about design?

I consider myself successful when I’ve given clients answers to questions they haven’t yet thought to ask and have found opportunities to reiterate specific assurances. Sometimes before a client has clearly expressed concern, I have let them know I am aware of the concern simply by emphasizing team competency and skills, thorough documentation, or awareness of ‘red flags’. This very quickly serves to build trust and a sense of partnership.

Using All The Tools In Your Toolbox

Any good process stands to benefit from a checklist (be quiet, I love checklists). First impressions are vital, but, it’s ok to try something, fail, and readjust until you land on the right ‘voice’ and communication style for this person. And it’s REALLY hard to give yourself the permission to step outside of a very formalized relationship and being creative and flexible in your approach to a client.

To get to this point, in the early stages of a project, I go through the following checklist:

  • Identify opportunities in these first few weeks to meet (in person or via private phone call) with the client.
  • Get some background (internet stalk) on your client. Know where they come from. What makes them tick.
  • Show some damn personality. Where can I express my enthusiasm and dedication to the project and the web in general(without using 50 exclamation points!!!!)?

The Softer Side of PM-Client Relationships

On a recent project, my main point of contact on the client side loved and had studied musical theater. He’d make obscure references to songs on calls and in emails. On one particular call, we started riffing about how the hold music was intolerable and what, in an ideal world, we would play instead. I set up a Basecamp writeboard, invited him, and started documenting all the ideas we’d had in the meeting – nothing at all to do with our project. Throughout the course of the project, we’d occasionally go in and add to the list which gave us an opportunity to step back from the project and banter about something we had in common.

In another case, my client contact traveled frequently and was tough to get a hold of via Basecamp or email. As a busy director of marketing, all of his writing was very brief – a sentence or two that sounded like a tweet or text. Though I typically loathe to use texting as an official means of communication, I asked him if he minded if we texted occasionally when we needed to communicate quickly (which he eagerly agreed to). The conversational nature of texts actually lent itself to both of our communication styles and we ended up feeling more comfortable sending each other design inspiration photos and links to social media more than I think we would have via email or posts. We had found a reason to build a conversation that humanized us to each other beyond the project needs.

I’m curious – How do you go beyond being tactically excellent at what you do to craft strong client trust and relationships? Have you found a consistently effective conversation or goodwill gesture that seems to be a keystone to an ongoing good client-PM partnership?

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