1. Build a Better Brief
The biggest disappointments in client relationships tend to come from missed expectations. Perhaps they weren’t stated clearly by the client, understood clearly by the person doing the work, or, sometimes, the client hasn’t taken the time to think through what they really do want. In any case, a better brief can help.
Depending on your specific role, a brief could be a request for proposal, a creative brief, a project charter, etc. Whatever form it takes, there are a few critical questions that should always be addressed:
- What’s the objective? Why is this work being requested? What is the business question that this work will address? Don’t settle for a surface answer to this; understanding the real underlying business context, drivers and needs will help provide a more relevant deliverable.
- What does success look like? Not every project will have formal, numerical success metrics (although some certainly should), but what constitutes success should be understood and agreed among all parties. For instance, in a market research context, success criteria may be minimum scores or results vs. a benchmark. It’s critical to understand what really constitutes a “win” for that particular client or organization. You should understand any criteria that will be used in assessing the results (if applicable) as well as what a successful project deliverable looks like to the client.
- What comes next? If this project is a piece of a larger initiative or plan, make sure you understand the broader context and how it fits. This will help you both define scope and tailor the deliverable. Understanding any key decisions that will be made based on project outcomes, including who will make the decisions and the key inputs, will allow you to tailor the work and deliverable to be as actionable as possible.
2. Build in Enough Time
A common mistake in creating project timelines is to underestimate the time required for activities outside the project itself. These include things like: upfront briefing and alignment, check-ins and updates along the way, reviews and feedback (potentially multiple rounds), and follow ups after initial project completion. The consequence of not building in adequate time for these things ranges from missed deadlines to compromised quality to going over budget—or getting underpaid.
To increase the accuracy of your timelines, draw on past project experience (your own and/or getting input from other team members) and think through the times that felt rushed, required trade-offs, and were otherwise unanticipated time-draws. This isn’t about creating padded or unnecessarily long timelines; by planning for these connection and feedback points up front, you can often be more efficient overall, or at least more accurate.
If you’re in a consulting or supplier role, try keeping track of time spent by type of activity (e.g. project work vs. client meetings, etc.) and keep a record for each project, which will help you better estimate for future projects over time. Regularly updating project timelines with actual dates and keeping them on file for future reference will help in corporate settings.
Robust, accurate and well-planned project timelines set appropriate expectations up front with clients, allow clients to be better prepared to provide inputs and feedback, and allow you to delight clients by delivering on time, as promised.
3. Build Relationships
Chatting and small talk don’t come naturally to everyone (myself included), but spending a bit of time on pleasantries adds an element of human connection that not only makes interactions more enjoyable, but also increases trust and sharing—and increases the odds that you’ll get the benefit of the doubt if needed. Remember when you’re writing an email that there’s an actual person on the other end and use a more conversational tone when appropriate. Open a phone call or in-person meeting with a couple of minutes of informal conversation. Gauge your audience of course—some people will be eager to get down to business and others would be happy to talk about their hobbies or kids for hours, but a sincere interest in your client as a person tends to go a long way.
Understand and respect their professional context and preferences as well. Find out how they prefer to communicate, certain days or times that are best to reach them or other facts that will make your communication more efficient and customized. Getting some context on who their key clients are, the priority of the project within their total responsibilities or within the overall organization, etc. will allow you to appear savvy and in-touch as well as helping you become a go-to, strategic business partner.
Practice professional empathy with your clients. Try to put yourself in their shoes and understand their motivations and priorities. This can help you proactively tailor messages and deliverables and give you context to understand feedback and reactions. You’ll obviously invest more in building relationships with clients who are ongoing business partners or regular customers, but practice these approaches on a smaller scale with potential or new clients, in a sincere and authentic way, and they might just end up becoming ongoing clients (or key internal advocates) as well!