The Awkward Client

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The author spent the first part of her career working in IT and IT Project Management in the oil industry and investment banking on complex global projects involving the management of outsourced project teams. She now runs a digital marketing company with particular expertise in technical SEO and Content Marketing.


I have recently been considering some of the traits and behaviours that successful project managers exhibit. For a project to be successful it obviously needs a project manager with the experience and skills to guide the project and the team from the initiation phase right through to a successful completion all within the time and budget allocated and, of course, within the defined scope. There’s no arguing with that, but a project also has to deliver what the client actually wants because it is the client’s perception of progress and their opinion of the final deliverable that will give a project the stamp of approval, or not. Unfortunately in many projects the documented requirements or scope may not actually be what the client wants.


There can be situations where the client has not, and will not, make their full requirements clear and yet the project manager is expected to start the project with only a sketchy idea of the needs of the client and, worse, the expected benefits that the completed project will deliver.


Depending on the industry there are many project managers out there shouting now – surely every client knows what they want and must provide documentation before the project starts? But equally there are just as many project managers who recognise this scenario of vague requirements and difficult clients.


Why do these sorts of awkward clients crop up and what can the project manager do to improve such a situation?


Firstly, try and understand the client – their apparent unwillingness to fully document their requirements may stem from a lack of experience and understanding of what the project is all about and what it’s benefits will be. But if you are to deliver a successful project then you need to work closely with the client. This may require a certain amount of diplomatic hand-holding, advice and guidance but without this effort on your part the project is doomed from the start. Try not to think of the client as awkward but simply inexperienced.


Secondly, you must help and encourage the client to define the requirements accurately. This may require you to make suggestions about what you think is needed and maybe even write some, or all, of the requirements documentation. You may not consider writing requirements the job of a project manager but on many projects this is the only way to get them done.


Thirdly, no matter what pressures you are under do not start any serious project work until the requirements are documented and signed off by the client; doing so will simply waste time and effort on tasks that may not actually be needed. If there are some initial pieces of work that you know will be needed to lay the foundations of the project work then this could be started but anything more, and certainly not a full schedule of work, must be held off until client approval is obtained. Hopefully, by working closely with the client in the early stages of the project you will have developed a rapport that will enable approval to be easily obtained.


Let me know if you have any suggestions of your own on how to deal with awkward clients …….

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Project management has developed into a fully-fledged chartered profession since the granting of the Royal Charter in the UK to The Association for Project Management (APM) in 2017. Training courses for project managers were already available and highly popular to help people gain professional project management accreditation, but with this wider recognition of the profession it is now seen as a desirable career path for many. Whilst the APM has the coveted Royal Charter and continues to develop its APM PMQ (formerly the APMP) programmes, there are also other internationally recognised qualifications that continue to be highly regarded such as PMP and PRINCE2.

Organisations have become increasingly project-focused in this era of rapidly emerging new technologies and they value the expertise that comes with experienced and fully qualified project teams and managers. By investing in their project management capability businesses can be confident of delivering their new projects in time and on budget more often and more successfully. Many major corporation are now training their people to have the right project management qualifications as well as relevant experience, through internal Learning & Development (L&D) programmes; or by using external project management training providers.

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