Recently I’ve been asked several times about building relationships with clients as a project manager. I am a big believer that having a strong relationship with the client helps you manage the project more effectively. The trick to this is the relationship needs to be professional not personal. This is not about becoming best friends, it’s about business so be professional. The idea also applies to internal customers, bosses, peers or co-workers not just clients.
The question I keep hearing is how do you keep it professional? Too often people assume that building a relationship means something more personal than it needs to be. Here are my top three suggestions for having a professional relationship:
- Be kind and courteous: This is about being civil and polite. Ask how things are going. Make small talk about weather, sports, holidays, family or whatever flows naturally. If the person has been ill; wish them well. Ask how the vacation went. Be interested in them and their interests.
- Keep problems professional: When dealing with issues or problems keep the focus on solutions to issues not personal attacks. Avoid judging actions or behaviors. Strive for win-win solutions that work for both parties.
- Focus on business needs: Remember that you are working with them as a business person, so focus on the business at hand. You are providing a service or product that will provide a benefit for them while providing revenue to you. When you act in a way that advances their business goals along with your own the client will notice and respect it.
The idea is to become a valued business asset to your client. This means someone they can count on to help them reach their business goals. When you are working towards their goals as well as your own, you gain respect and build a great working relationship.
If you are giving what they want while sacrificing your profits and goals you can be seen as weak. Caving to every whim and request for them it raises the question of what you do for other clients. Where else are you giving in and when will that interfere with the clients goals? Also, sometimes the client’s requests are actually detrimental to their goals and they need you to tell them that is the case.
If you become too friendly it can get in the way of the tough decisions. No one likes to point out a friend’s mistake or say no to a friend. In business you must be able to say no and to keep people focused on the end goal. This is much harder to do with friends than it is with colleagues.
Building a good, professional working relationship with a client (or boss or co-worker) makes it easier to have a conversation about what is working and what isn’t working. When you know that you have the person’s respect you can safely point out concerns and get them addressed. Using the three strategies above makes it simpler to look at issues as business and get them resolved without the drama personal relationships can bring to the table. Once you have that professional relationship you can tackle tough problems in a mutually beneficial way. It takes respect and trust to make it work. Build both and you will be a better manager of projects and people.