How to Be a Great Client
Ryan Schaefer, Former Senior Project Manager
Help us keep the budget and timeline intact without sacrificing product quality.
One of our focuses at Viget is to always be good consultants—even when it means pushing boundaries, challenging our clients to think critically about how they talk about themselves, or breaking the status quo with cutting-edge design and technology.
We always have a common goal with our clients: to make the best end product possible. We want to get there with a shared understanding, process, and enthusiasm about the work.
This context is always helpful to lay out at the beginning of any new engagement. But it also lets our clients know they’re in this with us—and that there are certain expectations that come with being a client. With this article, organizations on the receiving end of work like ours can learn concrete ways to help keep a project moving forward.
Appoint a client-side Project Manager.
While consultants are tasked with handling the work, there will certainly be times when we’ll need to get feedback on a deliverable, get a download of some organizational structure or industry, learn about a client’s product, and more.
Likewise, we always like to review budget, timeline, and tasks to keep our clients abreast of what’s happening on their project at any given time. All this means we need streamlined communication.
It’s most efficient to channel everything through one person on the client side. We recommend up to eight hours per week over the course of the project—sometimes it can be more, and sometimes less. This works best when that time is set aside as an actual commitment—it gets everyone in a regular and predictable cadence and will prevent your staff from experiencing project burnout.
Deliver batched feedback.
The best client contacts are skilled wranglers of batched feedback. We’ve experienced both sides of this coin—a single collated list from one person, and a smattering of thoughts collected from executives and other departments that often contradict one another, copied and pasted into multiple emails. The former is much more productive. Then we don’t have to spend a client’s budget combing through a list of line items that don’t add up, make sense, or convey different messages, and then have the back and forth needed to resolve them.
If there’s one person we’re communicating with, they’ll also have a good idea of the decisions we’ve made along the way, and why we’ve made them. That will help them filter out irrelevant requests or spark internal discussions that can be beneficial.
Along these lines, it’s also very helpful when a client provides feedback that is:
- Supported with alternatives
This is a lot to ask for, but the closer we all can adhere to this model, the more efficiently the project can move without sacrificing quality.
Get your stakeholders involved in key decisions.
More often than not, the executives who approved the budget or key decision makers for the company will need to weigh in. It’s crucial to identify these people early on, which is something we can do collaboratively, and get them in the room during strategic milestones.
This mostly falls under a client’s domain, but we are eager to support those conversations. We can assist by sending out an early agenda, conveying the importance of the subject matter, and impressing upon stakeholders how ignoring big milestone decisions throughout the project can have implications for budget and timeline down the road.
The repercussions of not getting the right stakeholders involved are significant. It’s important to take early steps to avoid it. Internally, agencies should work to figure out those milestone dates. And on the client side, do whatever you can to loop the right people in, and don’t be afraid to ask us for help. (We can always record a meeting or take diligent notes as a last resort, but this removes the opportunity for stakeholders to interact.)
Timeliness is key.
At the start of a project, you’ll more than likely see a wonderfully laid out timeline with phases, key milestones, and review dates. Sometimes, this falls apart as we go through the project. As one thing gets delayed, it causes another to get delayed, and so on. These timelines inevitably turn into living documents.
That said, there is a tendency near the beginning of projects to feel more comfortable letting things slip because the end of the project may feel far away. One of our jobs as consultants is to get as hyper-specific as we can plotting milestones out across a calendar, which means it doesn’t matter when something slips, just if it does.
We do everything we can to stick to schedules, so it’s important that clients try to do the same. If things start to slide, we’ll encounter blockers, may have to pause work, or be forced to make decisions that may impact work down the road. These feedback loops should be established and agreed upon before feedback actually needs to start happening—that way, everyone knows what to expect when we move into that phase together.
Help us prioritize.
If there are strict time or budget constraints for a project, it’s fair to think of software development in terms of trade-offs—a rapid development cycle often means starting with an off-the-shelf solution; comprehensive documentation means a less polished product; adding a new feature may require sacrificing an old one. The examples are numerous, but it’s best not to think about this kind of work in a silo.
The concept in its barest form is simple: there is only a certain amount of time that can be spent, so adding more things adds more time (and therefore, budget). We can use our best judgement for prioritizing one feature, artifact, or design over another, but decisions like these are best made in conjunction with a client. They will know better than anyone what is most important to them.
Our clients’ levels of familiarity with digital work varies. Sometimes, explaining how to interpret a wireframe is a waste of time—sometimes, it’s a totally new concept and worthwhile exercise.
A client should feel empowered to ask questions about anything and everything that doesn’t make sense to them. Questions make the work better. Specific inquiries about how we landed on a certain design pattern, why we chose one tool over another, or why an interaction is prototyped a certain way can help facilitate critical thinking across both teams. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about our decisions—and certainly if what something means isn’t immediately clear.
We do the same on our side. As a Project Manager, I’m often reviewing designs or feature sets before they are presented to a client. It’s my job to interpret these with an outsider’s perspective as well. This sometimes airs requirements we may have not accounted for, helps uncover bugs, and gives the creators an opportunity to hear how their work is interpreted from someone who hasn’t been thinking about it as much (which is usually more representative of what the end user’s perspective will be).
Tell us when you don’t feel comfortable.
We’re going to extend a client's comfort zone. There will be times when they'll be pushed, hesitant, or surprised. That’s good.
What’s not good is when they feel uncomfortable about the state of the work, the budget, the timeline, or overall project health. We want to know that as soon as possible so we can course correct together.
Let’s be forthright about scope.
The word “scope” can make people cringe. It’s often a nebulous term used to encompass an individual perspective upon what fits within a project. The reason it’s nebulous and individual is because it’s impossible to fully define all work that will happen to get a software project across the finish line, and one person’s opinion on what goes into that may be vastly different than another’s. Unexpected items will come up.
However, there should be enough clarity established throughout the sales process to create a shared understanding of what we’re all working towards. With this idea as a guidepost, we can have productive discussions about what work can fit within budget, and what can’t. If budget can flex, scope can grow. If it can’t, we’ll have to think in terms of trade-offs. Our best clients understand this, and want to work together to find solutions.
I mentioned at the beginning of this article that we always try to be good consultants. A big part of that means setting expectations, both for what clients can expect to see from us throughout the project, and what we’re looking for from them. They’re both equally important.
If I had to condense this article into one takeaway, it’d be this: the more aware clients are of how big an impact they can have on the process and the end product, the better everything will turn out.
Stay engaged, be transparent, and work hard—and we’ll do the same.