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Thomas Carney
Thomas thinks of ways to make Planio grow, writes content and ponders metrics.
September 21, 2015 · 4 min read

Client Relationship Management: Avoiding the “Black Box” Problem

Here’s how clients often experience hiring outside talent for projects: they agree to pay you a huge amount of money for a result they’d like.

They throw a few vague requirements over the wall to you, because they’re a little hazy on the actual details of what they want.

After all, that’s why they’re hiring you.

So, you start the project. After a kick-off call and maybe a workshop, you disappear for weeks on end with vague updates of progress.

Then, the “result” is revealed dramatically.

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And that’s where things start going wrong.

Why You Had 14 Rounds of “Feedback and Iteration” from the Client

As Paul Boag explained in Smashing Magazine, there is a reason why clients don’t trust the work you do or interfere in the process.

Put simply, they have no idea what’s going on and this scares the hell out of them.

For them, there’s nothing worse than going into a meeting with a senior member of management, and not being able to confidently talk about the status of the project.

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“Lack of visibility on project status” is a black mark in the record of any middle manager, and it’s a cause of night sweats for small business owners.

Secondly, they’ll have to spend the next 4 years defending why the company went with your solution, while you’ll be long gone.

It’s hard for them to defend your choices if they have no clue why you did what you did. All they did was pay you, wait for you to be finished and receive the final product.

And so if you give them a “black box” experience, you’ll get hit with countless rounds of “iterations” that reduce the quality of the work, and they may not even trust you enough to actually use what you built.

Not to mention that every additional round will be eating into your hourly rate if you’re working on a fixed-price project basis.

The “Transparent Process” Approach

On the flip side, it can be wonderful working with clients that trust you.

They’ll treat your work with respect. They’ll refer you to the best companies in their network, and they’ll be happy, no proud, to pay you a healthy fee, on time.

Obviously, this trust doesn’t appear out of thin air.

It has to be built up over time by working together on the project. You involve them on key decisions, and you use their insights to make the solution even better.

They’ll learn why yours is the best approach, and you’ll get constant insights into their business and industry that will let you build a better product or design.

Obviously, you don’t want to “pair up” on a computer with your client for the duration of the project. It’s not about you pushing pixels based on every word they say.

It’s more about making sure they feel included.

I’ve talked to people who use Planio for client projects, and from the thousands of businesses based on Planio, I found out how the best businesses integrate their clients into the process using Planio.

Invite Your Client into Planio

In Planio you can create a custom role for your clients, so they can log into Planio and see the latest status of their project.

They’ll be able to see progress towards milestones and updates on the various issues in the project.

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At the same time, you can have private notes on issues that clients won’t be able to see, if radical transparency sounds a little too radical.

Clients can also post their ideas in the forum, so you can include them in the discussions.

If you use Sparkleshare for synchronized file sharing, you can have draft designs or concepts automatically synced to the Planio project, so clients get insights into your progress right from the beginning.

The client has now become a team member instead of an outsider. This change in perspective sets the stage for collaboration instead of confrontation.

Involving clients means they're a team member instead of an outsider, setting the stage for collaboration.

Harnessing Workflows for Overcoming Roadblocks

You might need sign-off from your clients on certain stages of a project. A classic example is getting approval of designs for a website before moving ahead to development work.

At the same time, client approval can be a big source of delays that put the target completion date in danger.

That’s where you can use custom workflows to your advantage.

You can create a custom status such as “approved” that only the client can set, thanks to their special “client” role. Then, you can set issues as dependent on previous issues having been approved.

It makes it very clear to the client that delaying on approval or delivering content will push back the due date until they get around to giving approval. This accountability is often more effective at getting their attention than nagging emails.

Accountability is more effective at getting a client's attention than nagging.

Automate Overcommunication

It’s almost impossible to over-communicate with your clients, and even if you do, it’s a fairly easy problem to solve.

It’s particularly important when it’s a new client, because that’s when they have the most anxiety.

At the same time, it’s a energy drain to have to write up status updates at the end of every day. That’s particularly the case if you need to talk with your own team first.

Therefore, you can use email updates in Planio so your clients get a daily summary of outstanding issues on a project.

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In addition, you’re likely to get clients who will refuse to use any tool you provide. The email updates will keep them in the loop even if they don’t log into Planio.

Let Clients Use Emails But Answer It In Planio

One problem I’ve faced when working with clients using a project management tool is that the client simply ignores my fancy processes and sends me emails, instead.

Obviously, it’s a pain to have to update the project management tool based on client email.

Before you know it, you’re managing the project with a mixture of color-coded Excel sheets and 20-email-long threads.

And you hate life.

That’s why Planio is so tightly integrated with email thanks to the email drop box.

You can automatically forward all client emails from your inbox into Planio, so they’ll appear as issues in Planio.

You can answer the client’s email directly in Planio, and the rest of the team will be able to see the response.

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You’ll avoid the situation where you’re on holidays and no one else on the team can figure out what you promised the client.

Create a Relationship of a Trusted Advisor

This level of customer involvement will not be for everyone.

But if you’re in the business of offering high-end solutions to your customers, you need to build a relationship of trust with them to the point that they see you as a trusted advisor.

This relationship means they’ll trust your solutions and approaches. You’ll avoid constant micro-questioning of every single decision that you made, so you’ll be free to concentrate on getting strategic results for them.

Oh, and the value of a trusted advisor to the client is order of magnitudes higher than that of a strictly controlled commodity.

The value of a trusted advisor is order of magnitudes higher than that of a commodity.
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