A Project Manager’s Guide To Building Successful Client Partnerships

August 1, 2023

When I first started out as a project manager, I thought that on time and on budget was all that mattered. Over the course of my career, I started to realize that this was just a fraction of my role. The greatest skill I’ve learned as a project manager is not how to just maintain a budget or build a timeline, it’s how to do that while establishing a partnership with my client.

As a client’s main point of contact, I’m an extension of their brand and a partner in their success. I’m as equally invested in their success as they are. And like any healthy relationship, there are no limitations to what we can achieve together.

Now, at the risk of sounding like a self-help book, I’ve come to learn that the same principles that apply to strong relationships in life apply to strong partnerships with clients. Here are my top four principles for building successful client/agency relationships.

Find a Rhythm in Your Communication

Any successful relationship is built on open communication. During the discovery process, a project starts with the high-level questions, such as what are your goals? What problem are we looking to solve? And what is your value proposition? These are valuable questions that will help build a strategy, but they won’t build a partnership.

Discussing everything–from how your company operates to how you will work them–is what will set the foundation for long-term success. And you’ll continue to build on that foundation throughout the relationship, as it grows and changes. Here are a few questions I like to ask my clients on a regular basis to ensure I’m keeping up with their needs:

  • What are your expectations from me as your project manager?
  • In what ways can I support you better?
  • Are my means of communicating working, or do you need me to do something differently?

Simple questions ensure you’re maintaining open lines of communication. But how do you ensure the communication is flowing both ways? It takes work from both parties to be successful. To do this, I always ensure I am reiterating the expectations I have set for my clients. We can all lose sight of the original intention as the project evolves. This could be as easy as reminding them of turnaround times, encouraging them to lean on you for support, or sending them a weekly reminder of what to expect for the week ahead.

For example, I always remind my clients to reach out as soon as they have any concerns (no matter how small) to prevent tension from building. I have had instances where a client will come to me with a problem that seems to have been festering, but they hadn’t communicated it yet. I’ve learned that the delay in communication tends to make the problem worse and can impact the relationship.

PM Tip Takeaway: Over communicate and find a rhythm in your client partnerships. It can make the difference between a partner in business striving for success, and a vendor always saying “yes”.

R-e-s-p-e-c-t: Find Out What It Means To Me

In a partnership, there is probably going to be friction. You’re managing projects that are directly impacting a company’s business, and there are going to be instances where you’re struggling to align. Finding a way to respect one another as people, as well as business partners, is central to overcoming these challenges.

We’ve all heard some variation of the phrase “I need it done yesterday,” when someone wants to instill urgency. I’ve been told this phrase at least a couple of times over the course of my career. While this phrase might send shivers down the spines of project managers, it’s to be expected. A client is not always going to be able to give substantial notice for projects. We live in a world where the unknowns of the market are often larger than the knowns, so fast pivots need to be made.

Respect comes into play when it’s time to balance the needs of the client versus the reality of The Ask.

Agencies need to respect that a client can’t always provide the warning, information or guidance when it’s ideal. The project manager, acting as a partner, is the one responsible for exploring every option possible. However, clients also need to respect that agencies can’t always make it happen, but that we’ll always do our best.

The truth is, agencies work for many different brands, and if we jumped every time we’re asked, our feet would never touch the ground. It’s a delicate dance – one that allows us to balance the needs of all our clients, while also committing ourselves to each of the brands.

PM Tip Takeaway: Respect the circumstances your client operates in, and they will respect your team’s efforts.

We’re Only Human

At Art & Science, one of our philosophies is Be Human, a practice that can often be forgotten in business. No one is without fault, and real life will always get in the way, so finding a way to humanize all your business dealings will help the relationship go the distance.

Doing this is more than just getting to know the name of your client’s family members or asking about their recent vacation. It’s about showing empathy to your clients, to your team, and really, to everyone around you. After all, you can’t establish a healthy partnership without being able to put yourself in your counterpart’s shoes. There will always be some sort of issue that arises–a project without hiccups is a thing of legends–so maintaining your humanity in these situations is key.

We’ve all had tight deadlines or tight budgets that make a project tricky to navigate. Then you factor in something as simple as a team member getting sick and losing a day (or four) of work, and it really starts to get challenging. Some things are out of your control and that’s where empathy comes in. Does your team have to work twice as hard to compensate? Do you ask your client for extra time? Or do you try to find the balance between the two even though none might exist? Having an open and empathetic conversation with all parties to see what’s reasonable to ask, without causing significant issues, will allow for the most effective course correction.

It took me a while to find the balance between on time, on budget and being human. For example, when you have a phenomenal team to work alongside, they will always find opportunities to enhance the original objectives. However, this can conflict with what is in scope for the project or within the client’s budget.

As a project manager, I used to be stuck on staying within budget. Over time, I realized that if a budget doesn’t allow for a recommendation, maybe we should still invest in it. We want the best for our clients, and if putting a bit of money into their projects will support their growth, then we should try to accommodate the little bit extra. This is an investment into both their business and our partnership as a show of good faith. In the end, this will likely result in more billable work, a happier client, and a more powerful final deliverable.

PM Tip Takeaway: Finding ways to give leniency, where possible, will only strengthen the partnership.

Be Overly Open and Honest

At the end of the day, honesty is the only way to maintain a healthy relationship. You should be sharing everything with your clients and, by doing that, you will build the trust that is required for longevity in your partnership.

This could be as little as saying, “we don’t know how but we’re willing to try.” Or as nerve racking as informing them of an issue that now needs to be resolved. As an example, what happens when the timeline doesn’t quite match with the level of effort required? My creative team always goes above and beyond to produce incredible work, but this doesn’t always fit within the time allocated.

I’ve found that sharing this information with the client in a collaborative discussion helps us uncover any solutions allowing us to accomplish our goals. By being completely transparent with the situation, we always find means to navigate through it.

PM Tip Takeaway: Honesty will strengthen your partnership as it fosters your communication, respect and empathy.

Final Thoughts

The things I’ve just shared come from an accumulation of years of missteps, soul-searching and open-ended conversations with my peers. Even now, I am still honing in on these skills to continue to be the best partner for my clients. The success of my projects is directly related to the relationships I’ve nurtured and proves to me that I am on the right path to being a valuable partner.

It takes time to form partnerships with clients and there will always be room for improvement. However, taking the time to continue learning and investing will make you a more effective project manager. Even if you don’t always succeed, practice pushing yourself forward into becoming the phenomenal project manager you want to be.

— Court Trim, Senior Project Manager

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