I am a strong proponent of using systems to plan and manage process. This is not because I am a control person; it’s simply because without these systems, I would not be able to cope with the complexity of the work I do. In the design and manufacturing world, one small error in a line of source code or one missed letter in a supplier’s order code on a bill of materials containing hundreds of entires can (and often does) translate into a very expensive recovery exercise.
For this reason, managing communications with clients is vital to a successful project.
Using A Communication System
When I begin working with a new client, the first thing I do is to put a layer of management around our communication. As I have discussed in a previous post, I am particularly wary of email. This wariness is especially true where a team is involved. I create an on-line collaborative project team space which any team member can interact with using a web browser. All relevant communications and documents are placed into this space as a collaborative workspace in addition to sending and receiving associated email.
By providing a collaborative workspace comprising wiki, document versioning, issue tracking and light-weight project management, I can add significant value to a project. This value exists in keeping all team members informed and capturing tacit knowledge which would otherwise be lost at the completion of a project. This value is not always obvious to a client, and needs to be marketed well to be appreciated.
Reality Check – A Real Client
All this is wonderful for a client who has poor internal systems, recognises the value in mine and participates enthusiastically. Although I have such clients, they are not the usual situation. A new client of mine was very quick to come back to me and say, “oh, we use Product-X to manage all this stuff” and made it quite clear they were not interested in participating with my system. Moreover, they immediately became concerned that important information about our project would be lost if I continued to use my system for their work.
My first reaction was to be ‘put out’ by this. They made no effort to even look at how my system would benefit our project! Of course I did not challenge my client on this point, I agreed politely that their existing system was important (more on that later), and then hunkered down to my own internal project of proving them wrong!
Venting Steam Productively
So I procured a copy of Product-X amd implemented an internal installation matching my client’s installation. I explored different installation and deployment strategies and after a significant amount of internal work, I was happy I had found a way to provide a scalable, hosted, multiple instance web service of Product-X (which I now intend offering to new clients as an adjunct to my existing system).
Now I had learned Product-X inside and out, its pros and cons and the value it creates. I had burned off my initial frustration of being ‘put out’ with a solid look at my client’s internal systems, and I now saw the immense value that Product-X already provided them. Of course their system was very important!
So how did it compare with mine? Sorry, but it does not even come close in terms of functionality. But that is not important to them.
Communicating On The Client’s Terms
So now we communicate on my client’s terms using their systems (which I now understand). Although their systems are inelegant, limited in functionality and require a lot of human intervention, their systems are their own. They know them, they have invested heavily in them, they use them and they value them. Moreover, they value me using them!
By taking time to understand the existing systems within an organisation and the mechanisms – both formal and informal – by which communications occur, by becoming knowledgeable in their use and participating in them (if appropriate), I add so much more value than I ever could by imposing my own requirements.
Communicating with clients on their terms may not be consistent with how you might want to operate. It might be inefficient and tedious. Unless you do so, however, neither of you will derive the true value from the relationship.
Robert Rath – http://www.innovation-mentor.com