February 13, 2018

Essential Ingredients for a Healthy Client Relationship

Every project manager knows how vitally important it is to establish and maintain strong client relationships.
The content and tone of the relationship affects everything—the pace and quality of work, cooperation between teams, communication, and the project outcome, to name a few. But just like relationships between individuals, relationships connecting organizations are alchemical. You can feel it when the relationship is strong.

But how can project managers, administrators, and the development team work together to help create the alchemy that leads to a thriving client relationship?

In order to answer this question, we turn to Basalt’s EVP of Delivery to unveil Nam Ho’s Hierarchy of Client Needs.

Before we get into the specifics, a word on structure. You probably recall that familiar pyramid, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, in which each need is a building block—both a prerequisite and a support for what sits atop it: Physiological Needs at the bottom, then Safety, then Love and Belonging, and so on. Nam’s Hierarchy carries the same implications, though we like to think of it more loosely: any point in time, any task, and any opportunity to begin strengthening a client relationship is a good one. We’re not trying to label a pyramid. We’re describing the signifiers of a living, breathing entity—a great client relationship—and adding our two cents on how to cultivate each aspect, and take care of it.

Communication

We believe open, thorough, frequent, low-stakes communication is as foundational as it gets. That’s the base. Teams who foster strong client communication are more approachable, which leads to fewer issues, and helps develop better shared tools for dealing with problems when the project jumps the tracks. Communication is vitally important: it’s the engine oil that helps the whole organism run smoothly, even when things start to redline.

You know you’ve got it when…
Communication is fluid, frequent, and enjoyable. You know when your date’s going well.
Communication is thorough, thoughtful, and actionable.
You know what your client is doing on the weekend. (Investment in a project is primarily emotional: clients notice when you’re interested in them and take time to get to know them. More talk is always better...it’s not zero sum!)

You can strengthen it by…
Flagging risks right away, offering your logic and reasoning behind everything.
Offering multiple solutions when problems arise—collaborate, don’t pontificate.
Going the extra mile early. Establishing that precedent increases buy-in, and does wonders to help with...

Trust (AKA That Special Jive)

Teams work much better together when they’re jiving. A lot of it has to do with the people involved (and don’t forget about that essential prerequisite: communication), but in order for two teams to keep one another aloft in a flow state, they have to trust one another.

You know you’ve got it when…
Your team and your client’s team feel like extensions of one another. (When it's really strong, you feel like one team.)
Everyone is able to work in parallel, and communication channels are clear and bidirectional. If your client feels like they'll be heard when they reach out, their communication threshold stays low, and they're more likely to bring up the little things. This is great for you: with strong trust facilitating strong communication, the little things stay little. You can keep projects on track by putting out fires before they start.

You can strengthen it by…
Keeping project goals and requirements CRYSTAL clear. If those stay stuck in everyone's head like the latest Taylor Swift, everyone knows where you’re collectively headed. Clarity keeps teams well-aligned.
Trusting every team member with meaningful roles. well-directed and highly appreciated. Every person on the project has something to offer. Everyone is a potentially crucial node between teams. Make sure they’re all empowered.

(One more thing about trust: It’s built in small increments. We think it’s incredibly important to remember that lots of actions in a project may not add value directly, or immediately...but we believe it shows up cumulatively as the project progresses, and DEFINITELY shows in the project outcome.)

Ongoing Work

The ultimate, end-of-the-day signal that your client relationship is thriving: they want to keep working with you. Clients care about excellent project outcomes, but they also want the process to be as smooth as possible, and as human as possible. They’ll want to experience that again, and they’ll be excited to refer you to someone else.

You know you’ve got it when you get referred, whether internally or externally.
And the way to strengthen it is to honor the referral by cultivating another strong relationship and doing the same excellent work.