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  • June 30, 2011

(Someday You’ll Find It) The Client Connection

Every successful project needs an Awesome Blossom moment: when your relationship with a client enables the project to transcend deadlines and goals to more acutely capture the spirit of creating something great. Decorative Illustration

It all starts with finding the humanity in the project and sharing a sense of excitement with your client team members. As they have chosen your company to help build their web experience, the client has placed a great amount of trust in you. Your job, over the length of the engagement, is to solidify: a sound strategy based on the goals of the project; a transparent, trusted, and respectful working relationship with your client contacts; an agile, yet progressive, project process; and an open line of communication that can extend beyond the project.

Before any of these goals can be tackled, finding the people, not the employees, in your client team members and building relationships with them will make each stage of the process more seamless and ultimately more rewarding.

Kickoff High-Fives

Contracts are signed. Project teams are selected. Time to get the project started: when you find out how to synthesize the client’s goals with your expertise to create a successful web property. This is the point at which all future phases of the project are defined, including your relationship with the client.

Always Have In-Person Kickoff Meetings – Kickoff meetings are like the big pasta dinner held the night before a marathon: the athletes load up on the carbs needed to fuel their efforts while enjoying the convivial pre-race spirit of their colleagues. The kickoff meeting should host an explosion of enthusiasm from both teams, and the ideas and excitement put forth in this meeting will drive both teams’ efforts for the next several months.

For this pivotal first meeting, using virtual communication is like running on an empty stomach (and remember: don’t be late, and watch out for hot tea). It’s essential to have a balance of members of each team in the room to both visually express excitement for the project and bond over the opportunities ahead.

Allow for Flexibility in the Kickoff Agenda – While your project teams should have a targeted, efficient agenda with specific goals in mind, clients reveal more of their ideas when given the room to ruminate and wax creative in an informal discussion.

During Happy Cog’s 2008 kickoff with the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation’s (GPTMC) team—of which I was then the client lead—Happy Cog’s project leads asked us Philly experts a simple question: “If Philadelphia were a car, what would it be?” Answers ranged from a Volkswagen Beetle (Philly is classic and fun) to a Honda Element (Philly is eco-friendly), leading to a thoughtful discussion that carried far beyond the kickoff meeting. With this quick, open-ended exercise, the GPTMC team members expanded their thinking while providing insight that helped inform the creative direction of the project.

Establish the Project Champion – Sometimes it’s a project manager. Sometimes it’s an account exec. Sometimes it’s the person who brought you in. The project champion helps to navigate the client organization’s political structure, helps make in-roads during the approval process, and, if necessary, runs interference for the project team. You’ll recognize the project champion fairly quickly. They’ll be the one whose thoughtful answers seem to have the company’s best interests at heart, and who seems most keen to get the job done well and efficiently. Finding the project champion and allowing them to weave their web is like finding the John Stockton to your Karl Malone.

Grab a Beer – After a day of strategery and brainstorming, everybody needs a drink. Make sure to plan time in your kickoff activities to allow the smaller, core project team to fraternize out on the town. Get to know each other. Each person has a story, and you’ll be surprised to discover all the commonalities shared by your team members. The connections you make while not working on the project will pay dividends throughout its course.

Quick! Into This Foxhole!

Once the kickoff is complete and both teams retreat to their respective dugouts, the real work begins: figuring out how to build on the relationships formed at kickoff to collaborate successfully in a primarily virtual environment.

Working virtually is not easy. As Ryan Irelan explains in The Challenges of Working Remotely, it requires discipline, organization, and, most importantly, over-communication. These core traits of successful virtual teams are also requirements for the client/vendor in-project relationship.

Schedule Regular Status Calls – Keep personal communication channels open and active with regular status calls. Keep them short and sweet: 30 minutes, once a week, only the core project team allowed. Have each team’s project manager run through a quick update of hot items with the additional core team members contributing as needed. Take anything requiring in-depth discussion or follow-up offline to another call. These calls will serve as a vital supplement to Basecamp communications.

Re-Establish Humanitarianism – Even with the best projects, the doldrums set in. Weeks fly off the calendar, design iterations number a half-dozen, feedback is a week late in coming. Sometimes, in the midst of a project, you just need a reminder that an actual person is still in-step with you. A quick one-on-one conversation with the client’s project champion will reshuffle the deck by allowing each side to express their concerns and get the teams working on collaborative solutions. The client will appreciate the transparency and extra attention, and the relationship will be stronger for it.

Control the Communication Tipping Point – It starts with a feeling: you need to head off an issue, you can sense confusion, you know the questions are coming. Before you get an email or a Basecamp post asking what’s wrong, you should control the tipping point by being proactive with communications. You’ll demonstrate a firm grasp on all facets of the project while having the client’s interests explicitly in mind. As athletes in training might say, “run the trail, don’t let the trail run you.”

Keep It Light – One of the many sage-like signatures that Diamond Dave DeRuchie leaves on his projects is the use of humor to keep things light. An NCAA tourney update here, a witty anecdotal intro to a project status report there: Dave’s light banter—so renowned it has its own Twitter account—creates a sense of reassurance that things are a-ok in projectville. Sometimes an off-hand reminder that life exists outside of the project can alleviate some stress and refresh everyone’s viewpoint.

The After Party

Once the project is complete, the site is launched, the iPhone app is in the iTunes Store, and the rave reviews start pouring in, congratulate the client and yourselves on a job well done. Maintain light communication with client team members to learn of the post-launch successes, share industry updates, and possibly discuss future projects. Though your working relationship may have come to an abrupt end, you have an opportunity now to grow from colleagues to peers to maybe even friends, all with a couple of beers to thank for it.

What constitutes a successful client/vendor relationship? How has a project champion ignited one of your projects? Have you come to find friendship with any of your former client collaborators?

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