Is this thing on?

How many times have you worked with a client who just goes missing for days or weeks on end? You’re sitting there with your pretty project plan in-hand, expecting feedback or a response to an important question and you get nothing. It’s disheartening and really frustrating, and tough to not think about the hard work you’ve done to keep the project on track.

As project managers, we always say we’ll do whatever we can to uphold our end of the deal—but does that mean badgering your clients to keep the project on track. At what point do you stop being a helpful liaison and start becoming that guy? Here are a few tips to help you stay calm and get what you need to keep your project on track:

Start out on the right foot

Make sure that project management is part of your kickoff meeting agenda.  During that session you’ll want to talk about:

  • Your project plan. You mainly want to communicate spans of time in this forum. Save the line-by-line yawnfest for the crew who really cares about the details. Focus on the big picture: It’s good for the once-removed stakeholder to know that he or she will only have 5 days to review and provide feedback on a 20 page content recommendations document. If you communicate timing at the kickoff, you won’t have to worry about the removed client team members not knowing about your time constraints.
  • Expected delivery times for all milestones—this applies to client feedback as well. For example, we like to say that we will post all deliverables to Basecamp by 5pm, EST (very helpful when your client is in another time zone).
  • Suitable modes of communication. Do you prefer to communicate via Basecamp messages, email, IM, or telegraph? Setting that standard in the beginning of the engagement can make a difference in how you work together.

Conduct a weekly status call

It never hurts to be in touch with your clients—even when things seem to be going well. I recently closed one of the most easy-going projects I have ever had. There were never any issues, but I still spoke to my main client contact on a weekly basis. While there were never any issues to communicate, I was always able to reiterate the project milestones and be sure that we’d be expecting to receive feedback from the client team on time. Throwing that little hint, “we’re expecting to hear from you on…” is so easy when you’re actually talking about the deliverables! Plus, you’ll have a weekly status report in writing to cover your upcoming deadlines or action items.

Don’t be shy.

Clients hire agencies with project managers because they know they need help keeping the project on time and on budget. Your job as a project manager is to keep everyone honest—even the clients. Many times clients are too busy to worry about day-to-day workings of the project, so a quick follow-up message never hurts. Picking up the phone was tough for me, until I realized something really important: You’re not calling to sell them anything like a bothersome telemarketer, so don’t feel like you’re bothering them in the middle of their family dinner. You’re calling with a purpose—to keep their project on time.

I do not recommend sending a barrage of emails or voicemails about the same topic—that is just flat-out annoying. But if you send an email and don’t hear anything back, make a polite phone call, or vice versa. I’ve found many times that clients are busy with several projects, so following-up is sometimes necessary and never annoying if you are polite and make your point, which leads me to my last point.

Clearly communicate the impact of the unanswered item.

Make sure that when you follow-up with a voicemail or email you are communicating the rippling effect that delays will cause. The more urgent you make your message, the faster it will be answered or resolved.

I mentioned earlier that I do weekly status report for all of my clients. At the end of the report, I list all project risks to be raised to the client. A sample of that might be:

Issue/Risk: Client feedback on Sitemap version 2 is three days late

Detail: Agency delivered Sitemap version 2 on 6/20 per the project schedule. Scheduled feedback from Client was due on 6/24. Delay in response will cause milestone and project end-date delays, as well as a need to reschedule forthcoming deliverable reviews.

Mitigation: Client to provide feedback delivery date; Agency to update and deliver timeline and review impact with Client.

Not only does this communicate the delay in response as a “project issue,” it elevates its prominence and helps to lay out all of the issues one simple delay could cause. I have found this very helpful mainly in the fact that clients do not like to see “ISSUE” in writing and like to act fast to come to a resolution (especially if the word “scope” or “additional hours/dollars” are included). I’ve even gone as far as creating a color-coded column that tracks all issues (red=halt!, yellow=potential issue, green=resolved). It can help if you feel like maybe some people are not taking the risks seriously.


The motivational part.

You can’t get frustrated. What you can do is try your hardest to make things happen and remember that, as much as you want to, you can not control anyone else’s actions. You can try to influence them, but that won’t always work either. If you keep a positive attitude and do your part, the project and your team will benefit.

Okay, I am all done with the self-help bit. Go forth and do good work! If you have any points to add what I posted here, please share!

6 thoughts on “Is this thing on?

  1. What do you suggest when a client has become so reliant on your nudging that they do not give any feedback until they get a nudge?

    • Hi Nicole! That’s a tough one–and why I suggest you set the expectation of communication up front. When you send your deliverables to your client, do you reinforce the date that you expect to receive feedback? I would definitely suggest that any communication that is sent with a deliverable should clearly communicate the next steps in your plan.

      If it gets really bad I would just have a discussion with your client about the expectations of the relationship. It sucks to have to be that guy, but if you just plainly (and politely) tell them that you can not always be responsible for keeping their team on track, and that their delays cause many issues (I know for my team it can mean shifting resources around, additional hours, etc.). I’m a big fan of just stating the facts and standing behind them. The relationship has to work both ways, or it won’t work at all.

  2. Very helpful information.

    With this framework in place — how do you handle clients that repeatedly miss deadlines and then kick and scream to get it done :) Based on your last comment response it sounds like you would need to “fire” your client, that would be a relationship that’s not working.

    • Hi Benson: Thanks for reading! I totally know where you are coming from with clients who consistently miss deadlines and push back on response times. I definitely worked at a place where the client often won and agency employees had to work crazy hours to meet insane deadlines. Thankfully, I’m no longer there.

      When you are in a position to take a stand, it’s all about setting a precedent. It’s always important to reinforce with your clients that the spans of time that you indicate in your project plan to complete work or make revisions is the time you need to do quality work. I’d never want to put my team in a position where they have to kill themselves to please a client who is not keeping up their end of the deal, and possibly forsake quality at the same time. It’s a tough situation, because you have to be firm with your clients. If they take it above you (which they do), you have to suffer the consequences internally-and that really just depends on how your company handles this sort of thing. Firing a client is definitely a last resort situation, but if the issues are that bad it’s worth thinking about.

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