Professional services project management: Best practices and keys for success

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“Operations keeps the lights on, strategy provides a light at the end of the tunnel, but project management is the train engine that moves the organization forward.” ~ Joy Gumz  

Pulling off client projects successfully is no small feat. Project managers and team members hyper focus on delivering high-quality work all day, every day; planning workflows and proactively addressing obstacles as they arise. Without these efforts, projects fail, clients are left disappointed, and your bottom line takes a hit.

We’ve gathered the essentials of professional services project management into this guide. We’ve included the challenges of professional services project management, how to solve them, and some exciting benefits companies that do it effectively reap.

What is professional services project management?

Project management plays a major role in keeping any business organized — but for professional services firms, it’s make or break. Professional services, like IT consultancy or financial services, bring highly specialized knowledge and expertise to their clients, who rely on them for results that directly impact their bottom line.

In a professional services project, the project manager works closely with the stakeholders and internal teams to ensure the project comes in on time, within budget, and with complete accuracy. Not only does the firm depend on the project’s success, but the client is paying for (and expecting) good results. 

For example, let’s say that a business with limited in-house IT resources contracts with an IT consulting firm to facilitate a major IoT deployment. In this instance, the IT consulting firm is the professional service, and the IoT rollout is the project.  

Challenges of project management in professional services

Managing any project is a challenge. There are frequently unexpected happenings both inside the company and externally. Professional services teams, however, face even more challenges. After all, in addition to the internal stakeholders, you have clients to satisfy!

Let's explore a few common challenges professional services firms face with their project management initiatives.

Ensuring project visibility

Poor project visibility can leave the stakeholders unsure of who is doing what and when it all needs to be finished. Lack of visibility is especially concerning for professional services firms delivering the project to clients.

Lack of visibility is a common problem. In the State of Project Management, 2021, 58% of responding project managers say they don’t find it easy to understand what other team members are working on.

Teamwork can alleviate this challenge with project health reporting, which gives you streamlined visibility into multiple projects at once. This feature lets project managers see which projects are on track to be delivered on time, which are at risk, and which need immediate attention — all in an intuitive visual dashboard.

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How to solve this: Powerful project management software and a strong project manager are the answers to increasing project visibility. The software can create a visual of the project, making it easier for participants to understand. In addition, a strong project manager watches every aspect of the project to ensure every action and task is included in the plan and visible to others.

Managing scope creep

Many professional services firms would vote for “scope creep” as the most common obstacle to managing projects effectively. Scope creep happens when the project grows beyond what was settled upon after the terms were decided. Clients may want to add new items to the project, get more in-depth with items already included in the project, or change directions. Scope creep can suck up resources and time, causing the project to go over budget and past the deadline.

How to solve this: Avoid scope creep by documenting the project requirements before it begins and asking for every stakeholder’s agreement. Once that’s complete, use a template to create a detailed project schedule with timelines.

Delivering results for the client

Internal project management teams never have to worry about this. Professional services firms, however, exist to cater to and please clients.

Depending on the client, this can be challenging. If multiple client points of contact with differing opinions are involved in the project, and some change their minds after a portion of the project is complete, the project can go off the rails — fast.

How to solve this: Clarity from the beginning is essential for reaching project success. If you document the project goal and the client signs off, everyone can stay focused on the objective. In addition, regular progress check-ins with the client and team assist in maintaining trust and keeping your team and the client on the same page.

Enabling effective team and client communication

Team communications and client communications can sometimes struggle to align in professional services project management. The team is busy working on the project, the client wants frequent updates and has questions, and neither side is satisfied as a result. 

If a client feels ignored, they may not feel like you met their expectations — even if you deliver the project on time and within budget. So, in addition to handling the project itself, project teams for professional services must act as liaisons with clients.

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How to solve this: You can use a project management tool to alleviate this pain point. This type of software allows you to add clients to the project at a high level, so they can see the project progress in real-time. It also allows team members to focus on their jobs: delivering the project.

Using clients’ billable hours efficiently

Understanding billable hours is vital for managing a project effectively and coming in on budget.

When you provide a client with a quote, it should include the estimated hours needed to complete the project. Once the project is underway, the project manager is under pressure to ensure those hours are enough to deliver the project on time and budget. Wasted time and effort, poor planning, and lack of communication can drain the billable hours before the project is delivered — which reflects poorly on your team’s resource management and leads to major client dissatisfaction.

How to solve this: Automating processes increases team efficiency, as they can focus their time on high-priority tasks.

In addition, time tracking is one of the best ways to stay on top of billable hours. Having a way to track time is a compelling feature in some project management software systems. It practically pays for itself with the hours it tracks that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Teamwork is trusted by over 6,000 professional services teams around the world. See why.

Benefits of effective project management for professional services

Professional services providers face even more challenges with project management than their product-driven counterparts. Projects are risky. If they aren’t finished on time or are over budget, the firm not only loses money but can also damage their professional reputation.

The good news is that professional services firms can enjoy lucrative benefits like big profit margins and satisfied, loyal customers by managing their projects effectively. Efficiently-executed projects offer:

Refined organizational and project planning

Project management in professional services helps to refine organizational and project planning by drilling down into what the firm provides its clients. By proactively planning every project, firms optimize their human talent, know-how, and reputation to achieve greater success in every project. Planning allows for less stress and conflict, making the entire experience more pleasant and fulfilling for everyone involved.

Clearly defined project scope

Vague, incomplete, and ill-conceived project scopes set everyone up for failure. Professional services providers that focus on defining the project and committing to task management are more likely to stay on track and less likely to deal with avoidable holdups and bottlenecks. Develop a project scope statement, then build out your plan from there.

Greater visibility into project health

Project planning makes project health more visible to the project manager, who can then make better decisions. Good resource management and handling necessary business processes can turn unhealthy projects around and keep already-healthy projects moving along productively. Visibility from dashboards, charts, and team communication gives managers the information they need to achieve their goals.

Better management of billable hours

If billable hours get out of control, the project loses profitability, and the relationship with the client can suffer. By proactively managing billable hours, project managers can get the most out of their resource allocation efforts, maintain the project’s profitability, and keep the project pricing in line with what the clients expect.

Mitigated project risks

There are risks associated with every project, and professional services organizations face even more risk because they work with clients. Effective project management keeps every stakeholder accountable, helps the project move forward productively, and highlights bottlenecks earlier so your team can handle them appropriately. Keeping a close watch on a project via real-time and asynchronous updates and other touch-points minimizes the project’s risk to the company.

See how Teamwork helps agencies manage workloads and resources to make good decisions, re-prioritize tasks, and avoid obstacles.

How to manage professional services projects successfully: 5 best practices

There are many methodologies for managing the lifecycle of a project in order to manage it successfully and delight your clients. Within these approaches, there are these five overlapping best practices.   

1) Keep client outcomes at the center of projects

Professional services organizations must always have a client-centric approach during the project. If the client is dissatisfied, it doesn’t matter how well the project was executed: it still wasn’t a success.

Tips for centralizing client outcomes

  • Add clients to the project management software so they can check on updates and progress themselves, driving their own experience.

  • Lay out a communication plan via meetings, emails, texts, phone, and other ways to make the client feel comfortable and build trust.

  • Give status updates about milestones, deadlines, changes in the plan, and expense tracking, so the client is never in the dark about the project.

2) Implement proactive resource planning

Project managers should spend a big chunk of their time on resource planning. Outlining who is responsible for which tasks, how long each will take, and who are the supporting players is essential if you want a project to run smoothly.

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Tips for efficient resource planning

  • Use resource scheduling to eliminate potential scope creep before it has the chance to rear its head. This helps you plan appropriately for future projects, mapping out where, when, and for how long a team member should be working, ensuring that you always have the right amount of staff on hand.

  • Use workload planning for an at-a-glance look at your team’s bandwidth — and make adjustments where necessary. This short-term planning tactic gives you a greater understanding of your team’s immediate capacity and prevents anyone from having too much on their plate while others sit idle.

  • Break down tasks based on categories of work to see where most of your spend is going. Separating tasks by category can allow you to see where more (or fewer) resources are needed, and can help identify cost-saving opportunities.

3) Maintain exceptional communication with clients on project status

Communication can be the difference between clients being happy and completely dissatisfied with the project. Good communication is a win-win, as it helps the client stay informed of progress and helps the project team see things from the client’s perspective.

Tips for achieving stellar client communication

  • Set consistent meetings at the beginning of the project to facilitate a positive exchange of information. 

  • Standardize communication methods by encouraging a single source of truth in the project management software.

  • Establish a single point of contact on your team to liaise with clients and facilitate any questions or concerns they may have. This keeps communication simple, builds rapport, and reduces the chance of miscommunication.

4) Use project management software that gets out of your way

We’ve mentioned above how project management software can provide a better project management experience for your professional services team. This is only true if you use the right one. Otherwise, it will be too cumbersome and time-consuming to use, and adoption rates will be low.

Teamwork is a tool that helps streamline processes without spending tons of time, energy, and headaches trying to make it work for you. Learn more about how Teamwork can amplify your project management efficiency here.

5) Start project planning during the sales process

Planning as early as possible is one of the biggest ways to attain project success. This may even mean planning before the project is a done deal.

If a sales process in your organization tends to be drawn out, project managers can begin planning during it. That way, they can hit the ground running once it lands on their desks.

Tips for early, effective project planning

  • Reach out to the potential client for a discovery call.

  • Start outlining the broad aspects of the project, like milestones and needed resources.

  • Set it up in your project management software so it’s ready and visible to other stakeholders after the deal closes.

Produce killer project outcomes for your clients with Teamwork

Professional services projects are high-risk, high-reward endeavors. By being aware of the challenges and taking steps to solve them, project managers can increase the chances of project success and client satisfaction — every time.

If you’re looking for a project management tool that aligns with a professional services team, Teamwork is the software solution for you. Manage your project portfolio, keep your team and clients informed, and produce deliverables on time and within budget. Get started for free today!

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