Project management is a wide-ranging discipline that touches all aspects of a company’s projects and reaches into nearly every department. And that’s before you add client needs to the mix.
As wide-ranging as project management already is, creative agency project management involves so much more. You have to keep team members on track and internal stakeholders happy, plus client relationships to nurture and client expectations to meet all along the way.
This post dives into client projects and client project management, including what’s different in the world of client projects and what steps you can take to meet project goals and grow client relationships.
What does a client project entail?
The simplest definition of a client project is quite straightforward: It’s any project your organization completes for another organization (client). If the deliverables you’ve produced at the end of the project benefit or belong to your client, not your organization, then that project is a client project.
We can also describe a client project as any project where one or more representatives from the client company are involved at some level beyond simply receiving the end product, where ongoing input, feedback, or approval occurs throughout the project.
With either the general or the more specific definition, the implications are the same: Where an internal project involves managing only your project team, client projects involve managing both your internal project team and some level of client interaction.
The 4 stages of client project management
Project management generally can be broken down into four stages, which map onto projects involving client management and internal ones. This phase framework is widely credited to the Project Management Institute, and you’ll find many in-depth analyses of this system.
A project's initiation or launch phase sets expectations for the project, builds a budget, creates a rough outline of the project schedule, and defines the deliverables. This phase involves plenty of data-gathering on the project manager's part, both with the internal team and the client.
This phase is absolutely vital to project success. It’s tempting to skip straight to planning, but to plan successfully, you must know what you’re planning — and that you’re on the same page as the client.
One complication in client project management is that your client may not always know what they want or may not communicate what they want in the terms or language you’re expecting. Project managers must take extra care when interfacing with clients in these early stages, ensuring the expectations and requirements are all as clear as possible before continuing.
A project charter (a simple document without too much detail) is typically produced during this stage.
The planning phase grows out of the initiation phase and often overlaps with it. Here the project manager expands on the details collected in the initiation phase and turns those details into organized documents. The statement of work is developed here, which goes into greater depth than the project charter.
Of course, the project manager’s largest responsibility during the planning phase is building out the project schedule — ideally in a project management software platform like Teamwork.
In client projects, you’ll need to consider the client's needs concerning any tasks that directly involve them. Consider questions such as these:
Where in the process will the client review and approve elements?
What will the client need to deliver before you can do the work?
Who at the client business is the go-to or contact point?
What is a reasonable turnaround time expectation for client tasks?
Additionally, make sure to secure a commitment from the client that they will meet the deadlines and timeframes agreed upon here.
With an accurate, comprehensive, and accessible project plan and project schedule in place, it’s time to move to the execution phase. This is where the producers do the work and assemble the deliverable.
The project manager’s role shifts in this phase. You could say the role becomes equal parts schedule monitor, traffic cop, communications specialist, and referee/therapist (yes, really — we’ll explain).
Schedule monitor: Keep a close watch on the schedule, making sure tasks are finished on time.
Traffic cop: Oversee the flow of work, stepping in when something gets stuck, misplaced, forgotten, or misdelivered.
Communications specialist: Both your internal team and your client will need regular updates and purposeful interaction. Much of this falls to the project manager.
Referee/therapist: While the doers are doing, conflict is inevitable. Tossing a client into the mix complicates things further. Often it falls to the project manager to solve smaller relational disagreements.
Closure can look different from project to project, but it should never be overlooked. The project is not over the moment the last deliverable lands in the client’s inbox. There’s crucial work yet to do.
Project closure is a time to debrief, discover what went right and what could’ve gone better, archive project data, save templates of anything that might relate to a future project or deliverable, and (in small ways) begin preparing for the next project or cycle.
In client work, project closure may also be a time to pull in more work or to make a case for the client’s ongoing need for your services.
6 tips and tricks for managing client projects
Below are six tried-and-true methods you can use to improve efforts and outcomes across all stages of client projects.
1) Put the right project management tools in place
First, you need the right tools. Managing projects — whether simple or complex or somewhere in between — is detail-heavy work. Trying to track those details manually (or even in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet) is a recipe for trouble. Even if those methods aren’t outright failing, they’re imposing a significant resource burden as you manually work through research, tasks, notifications, and reports that could be automatic with the right tools.
A project management platform is a must, but not all are equally well suited for professional services work or the kinds of creative workflows common in client project work.
Teamwork is world-class project planning software built for agencies and others involved in client work. Dashboards show project status and other information at a glance, and teams can visualize project schedules in powerful ways (whether you’re using a Gantt chart or one of the Agile methodologies). See why Teamwork is perfect for client project management — sign up now!
2) Have an open feedback relationship with your clients
Your clients may not know how to communicate with you, especially if they aren’t accustomed to working with an outside agency yet. This can lead to a reluctance to tell you what they really think of that design or this email campaign.
This hesitancy presents a problem for you: You need their honest feedback so you can better tailor your services to their needs.
Set the tone early, making it clear that you invite open feedback and that it will improve the end results.
3) Be transparent about scope
Client scope creep is one of the most persistent project management challenges, and part of the reason is that agencies don’t get transparent about it. They try (with the best of intentions) to “eat” the scope creep in the name of pleasing the client. But this is rarely a successful long-term strategy. You lose money, deliverables run late (because the schedule never adjusts to accommodate the scope creep), and the client is unhappy due to rushed or late work.
Instead, be upfront and transparent with your client about scope. When they request a change to scope, be clear about what it will take to accommodate that change (whether more time, more cost, or both). The project management triangle is unavoidable, so it’s best to bring it up early.
Scope creep and other negative encounters with the project management triangle are widespread across industries, too. Forty-seven percent of organizations report that they have a track record of success — meaning more than half of organizations don’t.
4) Create realistic and attainable goals
As you set up client projects, make sure the goals stay in the realm of the possible. And as you determine what is and isn’t realistic, don’t forget the client wild card: Delays, indecision, or imprecise communication on their part may affect what’s truly realistic and attainable.
5) Stick to deadlines and milestones
After working hard to set realistic goals, stick to them! Meeting your deadlines and milestones keeps your clients happy and communicates that you’re a trustworthy partner.
6) Respect your clients’ time
Last, understand the value of your clients’ time. Most likely, they hired you so they wouldn’t have to worry about or execute your creative work. They want to be in the loop but don’t want to burn time or feel like they have to make every last decision.
Better manage client projects with Teamwork
Improving client relationships through better client project management is one key to the long-term client success that agencies crave. And at the heart of improving your project management efforts is the need for a better project management tool.
Teamwork was built for teams like yours, creatives who work with clients on projects ranging from simple to complex. Its feature set, ease of use, and client-facing functionality set it apart from the rest.
Take your client project management to the next level with a software platform built for client work: Sign up for Teamwork today.