Client relations can be tough. On one hand your customers expect you to quickly ramp up and practically join their teams – but there’s no denying the fact that you’re an outsider, and you likely lack the resources that the client gives its own internal staff members. This creates a difficult situation: you need as much information from the customer as you can get, but you gotta know that some information will simply never come your way.
That said, you can get ahead of this issue by keeping in mind five questions that you should always ask clients at the beginning of any project. These queries help you understand your customers better, and they go some way towards transforming you from short-term consultant into valuable team member in your clients’ eyes.
Q1: What needs to be done, when?
Chances are you’ll discuss the project deadline with the customer – but what about the deadlines behind the deadline? Do various components of the project have to be finished by certain points in time? The answer is probably yes. And if you know this up front, you’ll have an easier time meeting the client’s expectations. Consider creating a work-back schedule – a calendar indicating what needs to be done, when. Verify the schedule with the customer and you can rest assured that you and the client are at least starting from the same page in terms of desired project outcome.
Q2: Who are my contact people?
It’s easy to forget that your client isn’t just the person who hired you. It’s also that person’s supervisor and maybe some of her same-level colleagues in different departments as well. Who are you expected to talk to? Where is your information supposed to come from? Is your main contact supposed to represent your only interaction with the company, or are you actually expected to reach out to others as well for background data and raw material? Sometimes this important detail is missed in early project discussions. Clear it away as soon as possible, so you know who your go-to people are, and you can avoid pestering your main contact for this information later on.
Q3: Who are my backup contacts?
Let’s face it, nothing is permanent. Someday you’ll find yourself half-way through a job when you discover that your main contact has moved to a different department, left for a four-week vacation, or quit. Who takes over? Ask your main person who you should talk to if he’s not available (no need to say you’re worried he’ll quit or anything, of course). This could help you avoid scrambling for details.
Q4: Who needs to know about project progress?
This is related to question two, but it’s slightly different. Q2 focuses on where you get your information. Here we mean to assess the communication chain for feedback and, frankly, diplomatic purposes. It’s terribly frustrating to learn part way through a project that your hard work has missed the mark because your main contact person’s supervisor wasn’t copied on your correspondence – and now, the boss is complaining about having been left out of the loop. Nip this problem in the bud early by asking up front who needs to know about project progress. Should your contact’s supervisor receive drafts and early iterations of the work you’re doing? It helps you avoid having to redo substantial chunks of work, because you’ll know you’re getting the right level of feedback from all of the stakeholders from the get-go.
Q5: What do you mean by “progress updates”?
Some customers won’t want to hear much more than the occasional “a-ok” via email. Others will want weekly itemized reports detailing your tasks and goals. Find out what the client wants by asking this simple question: what sort of information would you like to have in my progress updates? It not only helps you meet the customer’s expectations – it also helps you set realistic goals. After all, if the client needs detailed reports, you’re probably going to need more time to work on the project, because at least some of your time will go towards keeping the customer informed according to the level of detail the client wants.