Every project manager has experienced that one client who simply cannot knuckle down and focus on what he or she is supposed to be doing. This can make life very difficult for everyone on the project team, especially project managers who rely on client feedback to move the project forward.
These are the clients who simply do not reply to emails requiring action, or who are never at their desks when you call. Needless to say, it can all get quite frustrating.
So how do you deal with these overwhelmed clients without being condescending, and without losing your patience?
Set Expectations and Priorities Straight from the Start
The first and most important step is to make sure all project stakeholders are on the same wavelength when it comes to priorities. Similar to Steven Covey’s book “7 Habits of Highly Successful People”, where he encourages putting ‘first things first’ sounds simple, but when internal stakeholders and client stakeholders aren’t working parallel to each other, it becomes crucial.
At the start of a project, meet with your fatigued client and make sure you both know exactly what the short-term, mid-term and long-term goals are. This will allow you to divide up the work amongst your resources adequately right from the get-go, instead of floundering around later on. Accompany this discussion with a clear project schedule, indicating key milestones.
Schedule Weekly Status Meetings No Matter Where You Are
If you’re not in the same city (or even country) as your busy client, modern technology has made regularly scheduled meetings easy to accomplish. Regardless of the course the project is taking and how much input is needed from the client, it’s critical that meetings with your client are held on a recurring basis at a set time.
While weekly meetings will usually suffice, projects that require frequent input, may see a greater need for client interaction; especially during the initial phase of a project. Make sure your client is well aware of the recurring meetings via scheduled reminders, especially if you are doing it remotely. After a short period time, these meetings will become an expected touch point where you capture the attention of your client stakeholder.
Follow up via Telephone to Report Critical Areas of Progress
When you send a progress report that contains critical information (action required or not), it is crucial you follow up with your busy client via phone. Many times, the chances of your client actually reading the report are slim, and a follow-up phone call can be used to indicate any red flags or areas where action is required. Do not simply call to ask whether the report has been received- only call with a purpose.
Get an Alternative Client Point of Contact
Many times, the client stakeholder you are dealing with who is too busy to deal with your project doesn’t actually have to be your primary point of contact. In fact, if your project simply cannot progress, it is absolutely appropriate to request an alternative client point of contact to address the “details”, while keeping your primary client stakeholder in the loop regarding project progress. Making sure you have a “backup” client stakeholder you can get in touch with when things get a bit too hectic, or when you simply cannot get through to that fatigued client, can be the saving grace for a project. It is important that your second option is somebody who has decision making power. Keep in mind, this type of approach requires significant tact to avoid offending the primary client stakeholder.
Patience and Persistence is Key
Dealing with a primary client stakeholder who is always too busy to focus on the task at hand can be incredibly frustrating. Staying calm and patient is key, even if it means that you’re always the one who has to follow up and pull all the strings. As a project manager, it is your responsibility to manage difficult situations.
Project management can be difficult, but rewarding at the same time. By dealing with the difficult clients, not only will you feel fulfilled, but you will more quickly gain experience. The key to any project is clear and concise communication. People who are too busy to focus need a little bit of spoon feeding and a nudge in the right direction. It’s important to remember that it’s (typically) not a reflection on the work your team is doing.