45royale September 13, 2007

PMGEP Part 1: First encounter of the client kind

To say that we’ve been busy over here at 45royale would be an understatement. Between client demands, late night coding sessions, and managing a constant cycle of new business, we’ve found that in order to be successful, it’s important to maintain a high level of productivity. The key to staying on top of things lies in organization and our ability to set and keep project deadlines. Oh, and we can’t forget about the copious amounts of caffeine.

That being said, my role as Product Manager ultimately plays a large part in a project’s overall success or failure. I’ve gathered my thoughts and have decided to dive head first into a five part series entitled “A Product Managers Guide to Extraordinary Projects”. In this series I will share my experiences and tips I’ve learned along the way about dealing with clients, contracts, scheduling, time tracking, and what to do if you encounter “unexpected complications”. While some of topics covered in this series will be a simple refresher for day to day project/product managers, it should serve as a nice introduction to those that are just starting out or struggling with how to manage their projects effectively. So without further ado, let’s get started.

Part 1: First Encounter of the Client Kind

At 45royale, my job as Product Manager is to actively manage all of the existing and future web design projects that we are a part of. In order for our business to grow, it is imperative that the entire team is in a position that fosters success. One of the best ways to achieve this is by being the first point of contact for all new clients. Just think of me as the bouncer at Club 45royale (nobody gets in unless I say so or you slide me a $20 spot). I do my best to find clients and projects that not only better us as a firm, but also inspire our team to do its best work. Sure, I might be fortunate enough to find us a fun and/or cutting edge project; but if the client is argumentative and unreasonable, it’s likely that negative attitude will frustrate the team and adversely impact their ability to maximize creativity and hit their deadlines. Well if that’s the case, how do you decide which clients are right for you and your team?

What to look for in a new client

Deciding if a client is a match for your company is not always an easy task. Many companies take anyone and everyone that comes their way. I can understand that, we all have bills to pay. However, if you want to ensure a successful and pleasant work experience for everyone involved, you might have to take a more judicious approach. Potential clients come to us in a number of ways; through our Contact or RFP forms, a direct email, a call to the office line, or (our favorite and most fulfilling) referrals from colleagues or previous clients. No matter how the client lands on our doorstep, it’s important to keep a top-level view of the situation and not be drawn in too quickly. Even during the initial contact stage there are signs to look for that will help you decide whether or not this potential relationship is a good one. Since it’s still early in the process, most of these red flags are certainly not deal breakers. However, they might serve as your first clues in determining if this relationship will work out once the project begins. Let’s take a look at some things you’ll want to consider when starting a new project and taking on a new client.

Initial Contact

As the old saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. This is especially true when it comes to initial client mingling. Is the potential client rude? Are they making unreasonable demands or setting unrealistic deadlines? Are they asking for deliverables before a contract is signed or first payment has been agreed upon and/or received? All of these shortcomings should be reason enough to pack your bags and head quickly towards the door. I know, it may seem hard to do, especially since this is only the beginning of the project and you’re anxious to get things started (or to cash that first check). But believe me, you will be doing yourself a favor by making a quick exit now before things start spinning out of control and the proverbial “shit” hits the fan.

Email vs. Phone Calls

Although we value a fun and loose work environment as much as the next guy, 45royale is a business. We are professionals and carry ourselves as such. So when I receive the first email from a potential client, I’m looking for that same level of professionalism. Is their email well-formed? Does it have a greeting at the beginning and a salutation at the end? Is it courteous and respectful? If the email reads more like an IM conversation and contains smiley faces and an overuse of the exclamation point, my warning light instantly goes on! I will caution you though, it’s easy to make assumptions about the author of the email early. I would advise that you try not to read too much in to the tone of a client’s first few emails until you’ve gotten a chance to know them better. Most people contacting our company are not professional writers. We aren’t either. You shouldn’t expect that they’ll be able to properly convey their tone in an email. You can however make a mental note, and if you still don’t like the interaction after your first phone call, consider it a trend and walk away.

Most people contacting our company are not professional writers. We aren’t either. You shouldn’t expect that they’ll be able to properly convey their tone in an email.

Although email can be a quick and concise form of communication, sometimes there is more perspective to be gained from a simple, ten minute phone call. Once you have the initial phone call jitters aside, you’ll find that it can be much easier to get answers to questions via phone than it can be through email. It’s also easier to gauge a client’s interest and enthusiasm for a particular aspect of the project this way. Does the client sound upbeat or do they sound bored and annoyed with the task in front of them? Or are they serious, yet at the same time good humored? Ideally you want to find a client who is passionate about their project and will be just as invested in its success as you know you and your team will be. That passion will translate in to hard work, which usually translates in to a well thought-out project and meaningful relationship. This level of understanding and chemistry is paramount to a project’s success.

Determining a Project Lead

Next to chemistry, the most important step towards an extraordinary project is to determine the client’s role in the process and establish a main point of contact. There’s nothing worse than getting 4 weeks in to a project and realizing that your project liaison is actually a middle man answering to other people and the work that you’ve done up to that point did not get approved. The time you spend up front by establishing a single point of contact can greatly cut down on the time it takes to get things approved and moving forward in the future. Besides, you want to be talking to the person that not only sees things from your angle, but can give you the ultimate sign off on decisions that you think are important, right?

There’s plenty more where that came from

The absence of any red flags during the initial phases by no means guarantees that the project will be a success. However, knowing what to look for will ensure that you start off on the right foot and give you, your team, and the project a chance to be extraordinary. I hope that this article has provided some insight and shown you what to look for when starting a new project. Make sure you stay tuned for my next installment in the Product Manager’s Guide to Extraordinary Projects where I’ll talk about best practices for handling agreements and contracts with your newly found client.

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