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Chapter 7: How to Manage Your Clients

Operating an agency is an experience that falls somewhere between elation and enduring the business end of a fire hose. In either case, those comfortable days of answering for the quality for your work–and only your work–are gone.

You are now the point person for scheduling, deadlines, workflow, quality, team relationships, and a whole lot more.

I don’t want to add one more ball to juggle in your workday, but I would be letting you down if I didn’t give you one crucial piece of advice that will make your management duties so much easier.

Make sure to manage your clients.

Yes, it’s probably uncomfortable to consider wielding influence over the person who’s paying you, but the fact is that every manager should have a measure of control with their customers.

How is that even possible? How does that work?

To be clear, manipulation is the last thing we’re talking about here. This isn’t about forcing clients to take specific action to pad your bottom line.

Instead, you need to be fully aware that you have a great degree of control in how your clients perceive you. Remember this:

  • Agency owners control what their clients think of their team.
  • Agency owners control what their clients thinks of them.

While this influence may seem awkward at first, learn how to use it so it can start working in your favor.

What It Means to Manage Your Clients

Let’s keep this simple. When you’re managing your clients, you’re intentionally and explicitly:

  • Setting their expectations for your team
  • Helping them give you the benefit of the doubt when needed
  • Giving them reasons to brag about your team to other potential clients

When you give your clients regular, specific input on on your team’s performance, you’re eliminating most of their worries about project performance and progress.

In other words, you’re feeding them regular status updates. This is a concrete, subtle way of decreasing your clients’ worries–about their jobs, too.

Making their jobs easier makes your job easier

This principle may sound complicated and servile, like I’m asking you to read your clients’ minds and polish their shoes, too. But in reality, this tip gives you a lot of clarity around the specific and practical reports you generate for clients.

When you’re creating client updates, don’t spin your wheels deciding what to include or what to judiciously omit. After giving and receiving hundreds of these reports in my management career, I know that all of the information you could share boils down to these four issues:

What your clients really wants to know

  • Exactly what phase your team is working on
  • An educated estimate on how long it will take your team to complete the work
  • A clear deadline for the entire project
  • A quality benchmark for the final product

As you keep a handle on all of the micro-details of daily production coding, make sure you are honestly and proactively giving your client perspective on your team’s weekly activity.

Keep communication open

When you’re new to managing a team, it’s tempting to put your head down, keep plugging away, and hope that the teacher won’t call on you. Instead, muster your courage and be willing to talk to your clients frequently.

It’s almost impossible to communicate too much with someone who is directly affected by the results of your work. Put your client at ease and bring keep providing information on the four issues I mentioned above.

Prove that you’re informed and in control

Regular updates show your clients that you are keeping tabs on the essentials so they don’t have to peer over your shoulder all of the time, which is aggravating and distracting for everyone.

That said, realize that you’re not going to catch everything, especially when you’re new to leading a company. Sooner or later, you’ll face a question and have to have to reply, “I don’t know.”

Never, ever end the sentence there, however. Always add in, “I don’t know… and I’ll find out.” Chase down the answer within 15 minutes or by the end of the day—be realistic—but make sure you’re seen as the person with the answers instead of blank stares.

See things from your client’s point of view

This is another piece of advice that feels like a hassle but is really a shortcut in disguise. Try asking your clients, “How can I make you more successful?” Or, “What can I do to make your job easier?”

These questions require a small risk on your clients’ part, because you’re asking them to pull back the curtain and show you what’s really going on in their world. The potential reward is significant.

In response to a question like this, a client might reveal some simple adjustment you can make that will create a huge win for them. Even if you don’t get a specific answer in reply, don’t worry. You’ve still made a great attempt at goodwill.

How Failing to Manage Your Clients Hurts You

Some tech business owners avoid this topic for all the right reasons. They want to appear respectful and compliant, so they focus completely on their team, figuring that their exceptional management skills will be noticed—magically!—by the client.

Please don’t make this mistake.

If the payoffs for managing your clients are huge, so are the downfalls when you ignore this opportunity. Here is the cascade of negative, unintended effects you can expect when you don’t communicate and shape expectations.

1. Bad news cannot be delayed or avoided.

Missed the deadline? Found a huge bug that still needs to be squashed?

If you don’t make communication a priority, one fine day, your client is going to get blindsided with information you didn’t tell him. And he won’t be happy.

When bad news needs to be delivered, make sure you tell him yourself—so you can mitigate the disappointment.

And better to be realistic about exactly what it’s going to take to get the project back on track. It’s tempting pick a deadline that sounds good over a deadline that will actually work in order to save face. Please–don’t do it.

2. You’ll appear clueless.

Neglecting regular communication creates an environment where you will drop the ball not once, but repeatedly. After a few times, you client will assume that you’re incompetent, and that trust-busting kind of damage is difficult (but not impossible) to repair, especially when your name is on the door.

If you have a choice between being late on a project or appearing clueless, always choose to be late, and present a solution. Being late might be someone else’s fault, but you have no one but yourself to blame for being clueless.

3. Welcome to micromanagement.

If your client is convinced that you don’t have a grasp on the process, sooner or later he’s going to step in and try to steer the project himself.

As you can guess, this leads to a huge energy drain for your business’ productivity. It’s painful for you, as you have to pull yourself away from your scheduled work to deal with the neverending and probing micro-questions.. Your entire team feels the weight of shame with a job that isn’t meeting expectations. And it’s demoralizing, because it’s an ongoing reminder of what you should have done to keep the ship afloat.

Keep in mind that in stressful situations, you might might resort to micromanaging your own team or retreating into code, so find a way to check that impulse and keep the whole assembly line running.

It’s Never Too Late: Start managing your clients today

If you’re hearing about this concept for the first time, don’t worry. Chances are that you intuitively understand some of this information, which is just common-sense communication.

There’s no reason to cross your fingers and hope you’re doing it well when you can have a solid plan instead.

  • Invite your clients to give you constructive feedback so you can clearly see their priorities and perspective. This also helps frame the relationship as one of collaborators, not adversaries.
  • Ask your clients for a weekly meeting where you can keep them in the loop on progress, hangups and changes that crop up along the way. Establishing a regular dialogue removes anxiety from client interactions.
  • If your client has an established pattern or protocol for status reports, go with it, even if it seems frustrating or a waste of time initially. Part of your job is to make his work go smoothly, so be willing to offer this support.
  • Establish a “No Surprises” policy with your client. Promise each other that you’ll go to each other first when big issues need to be sorted out.
  • Create a clear, mutual methodology for measuring and communicating progress. Avoid vague responses like “almost done” or “we’re making good headway” that can convey false expectations.

If you’re still feeling a little hesitant about managing your client after all of this advice, take a step back and remember your essential role as a manager: You’re a communication hub. Keep that one concept front of mind every day, whether the project status is on track or off the rails, and you’ll steer yourself clear of many basic management problems.


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