Managing client personalities

As a project manager, I’m always dealing with different clients at different stages of their projects. And that’s one of the things I don’t understand about Scrum: managing the competing demands of various clients. I think one expectation of Scrum is that you are only dealing with one client and one project at a time. Which makes me wonder, what do you do after your daily Scrum Meeting? Coffee and cupcake time?

So, in the world I live in, I’m always getting calls from clients or I’m calling them to get the next piece of the puzzle, or something or other. I have multiple projects running at different stages of their life-cycles. As well, each client has their own distinct personality and knowledge that they bring to the project, and so I need to deal with each client very differently to get the same outcomes.

So in order to deal with the idiosyncrasies of my clients, I have my own set of triggers that fire to warn me of the conditions of an approaching problem – my warning signs. When a client offers a suggestion for a way of doing something, the idea will flow through my triggers until it passes through to the end (a green light) or trips a few triggers (orange light) or generally causes a traffic haemorrhage (red light).

I’ll try and compare and contrast two clients I have now. Sadly, I can’t mention who they are so we’ll call one Client L, for LovelyToGetAlongWith and the other Client M for MajorPainInTheArse.

We’ll start with Client L. We’re going through the development of some online forms to collect information for their business – previously they had collected this information over the phone after receiving an initial request for information through their website. When we started there was only one form in mind, which was trying to replicate Client L’s paper based system. After doing a mock-up and discussing it with them over the phone, Client L felt that something more complicated was required. I knew this was going to happen (a few triggers had fired – no project looks the same at the end as when it starts) and I was glad that they had come to this revelation themselves. So, I dropped by their office and spent an hour going over the details and have now come back to them with a higher quote – and the one form is now split into 4 detailed forms. A good result for all of us. They have a much better solution for their business needs, and we have a more interesting project (and more money.) But the point is this, only a few of my pre-programmed triggers went off, and I didn’t have to do anything drastic because Client L had had the same experience. By spending so much time doing mock-ups now, we’re avoiding going down the costly route of premature development.

However, Client M (the bane of my life) almost always fires off most of my triggers every time I talk to him. The project itself has taken nearly a year to get where we are now – it should have been a 3 month project, and I’d say we’re at the 75% mark so far. And I’d put it down wholly and solely down to the personality of Client M. Now, for the type of business he runs, he’s perfect. But he’s not a businessman. And I think that’s where most of the problems arise. When I try and explain something to him, he’ll stop me half way and make a decision. When I try and clarify what he wants (because he’s also expect me to read his mind, and lots of my triggers are going off in rapid succession) he’ll get upset because the decision has been made and he’s explained it to me – and therefore I should understand 100%. And yet I know, some knew piece of information will come along and complicate my life.

So, let’s try and distil what I consider to be green and red light triggers in the personalities of my clients.

Red lights Green lights
indecisive, impulsive or
irrationally decisive
contemplatively decisive
shifting boundaries
of responsibility
clear delineation between
PM and client
decisions and progress
are not made
tasks are well managed

And this is where I start getting buzz-wordy. How do Agile Project Management Methodologies handle red light clients? When a client is well educated with the process, and knows how it works, we get clients like Client L, that make my job pleasant. But with Client M, no amount of intellectual posturing will help me manage the process. And that’s where I think it’s not about managing client expectations but their personalities. If a client is impulsive, indecisive, non-communicative, ill-informed, uneducated or just a right pain in the arse, no Project Management Body of Knowledge is going to help you get through the horrors of horrible clients.

And I shouldn’t avoid the responsibility of knowing my own personality here. It’s just as important for a Project Manager to understand their own way of doing things, as it is to understand their clients. Client M isn’t as bad as I make him out to be. Really. But we’re chalk and cheese, and managing myself in the relationship is just as important as managing the client.