Part Four of a Four-Part Series: Quick Reference Guide for Better Client Communication
By Sean Moseley, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering
What’s the best way to deal with a client who is extremely detail oriented? Or the best communication strategy for a project with only a slight chance of success?
We conclude our series with an easy-to-use reference guide created to help novice engineers discover the best-possible communication and project management strategies for any project—based on the combined characteristics of the client and the project itself. This guide breaks down a holistic analysis of the situation into a series of easily identifiable low/high characteristics.
The strategies presented here make visible the hard-earned knowledge of experienced project managers, based on six months of observing engineer-client interactions at Ventures. Following these suggestions should improve the utility of new hires, minimize training time, and may even help seasoned project managers by suggesting new ways to talk about communication with their teams. Best of all, asking these questions helps engineers internalize the importance of understanding their audience for any communication situation, making a positive outcome much more likely.
Table 1. Rate your client and project as low or high in these characteristics.
Low or High?
Low or High?
|INVOLVEMENT of client in project details||Overall PRESSURE on the budget and schedule|
|Client’s tolerance for RISK||Current PROBABILITY of project success|
|FORMALITY of client’s business culture||CLARITY of project development path|
|Client’s TRUST in the work of your company||SIZE of project scope|
|Client’s actual subject-matter EXPERTISE||NUMBER of people at client contributing to the project|
|Client’s EXPERIENCE in the business or market||VISIBILITY of project within client’s organization|
|FRIENDLINESS of client|
Table 2. Choose an effective strategy based on your rating of the client.
|Client characteristic||Strategies for a LOW rating||Strategies for a HIGH rating|
|INVOLVEMENT of client in project details||Expect infrequent communication; Updates focus on big picture & low detail||Expect frequent updates with moderate details; Follow-up calls with email summaries|
|Client’s tolerance for RISK||Established techniques will likely be preferred; Look for the sure thing over the gamble||Look for new approaches; Honestly assess pros/cons of possible paths|
|FORMALITY of client’s business culture||Document decisions in writing even when reporting verbally; Approvals likely quicker||Give updates in discrete documents with effective summaries; Expect managers to get reports|
|Client’s TRUST in the work of your company||Watch your tone—be competent and not defensive; Highlight any positive results||Keep client informed; Document and justify your work just in case|
|Client’s actual subject-matter EXPERTISE||Summarize to client without condescension; Help client decide how to achieve their claims and goals||Be prepared to learn from client; Rely on their skills as needed|
|Client’s EXPERIENCE in the business or market||Understand what’s unique to the client’s approach||Appreciate the client’s current position and market knowledge|
|FRIENDLINESS of client||Expect phone calls to get right to business; All written communication will tend towards formality||Calls can begin with casual small-talk; Keep written updates relatively formal; Maintain professionalism|
Table 3. Choose an effective strategy based on your rating of the project.
|Project characteristic||Strategies for a LOW rating||Strategies for a HIGH rating|
|Overall PRESSURE on the budget and schedule||Consider pursuing interesting ideas or changing paths; Keep client aware of budget & schedule even if on-track||Keep on the main path; Stay focused; Frequently update the client about the budget & schedule, with context|
|Current PROBABILITY of project success||Record and share lessons learned and possible paths; Take ownership of failures||Move continuously towards goals but watch out for roadblocks; Consider what extras you can identify|
|CLARITY of project development path||Share lessons learned as path is uncovered; Frequent checks that path still makes sense||Foreground unexpected results or delayed progress even when things are going smoothly|
|SIZE of project scope||While ad-hoc organization may be sufficient right now, organize project info for later||Time spent organizing documents will pay off in the short and long term|
|NUMBER of people at client contributing to the project||Urgent needs might be dealt with by a phone call||Understand the roles of each person; Write as if the entire client team will read it|
|VISIBILITY of project within client’s organization||Documents unlikely to be shared beyond client team; Formal updates less frequent||High risk/high reward situation; Expect more frequent formal updates, likely shared beyond client team|