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I have a client/shareholder who is more of a face-to-face kind of client. They can't grasp how to use email and phone to communicate project amendments and feedback. Instead, they wish to meet up every week with me and watch me add the changes in real time. Needless to say, this is a huge waste of time compared to emailing, phone, or instant message. Furthermore, it's adding the cost of travel.

How do I manage this client and tell them No, I'm not meeting up; send me an email in a nice way?

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As phrased, it seems more of a Workplace issue. However, with some judicious editing, it would be on-topic as a project management issue, in which case I can foresee a cost-shifting answer in your future. :) –  CodeGnome Jan 21 '13 at 20:29
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As you edit per CodeGnome's advice, include how you are set up contractually. How do you invoice and how do you get paid. –  David Espina Jan 21 '13 at 20:55
    
I think this is a good PM issue in that it addresses stakeholder engagement and communications. Agree though that maybe more detail in the question is desireable but I gave a shot at answering anyway –  Doug B Jan 21 '13 at 20:58
    
@DougB Well, perhaps I should elaborate... so I will. –  David Jan 21 '13 at 21:29
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Rejoice! This is a great situation to be in. –  Andrew Clear Jan 22 '13 at 17:28
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3 Answers

You are actually in an enviable position in that you have a client who is engaged enough to get involved. My problem is usually one of getting that kind of attention.

Depending on the complexity of the documents and the size of the team you are probably saving more time (outside of travel) going through this FTF than dealing with it through email because:

  • Discussion is in real time. Hopefully you also have the key decision makers present so that decisions can be made in real time as well.
  • There is no time lost switching between tasks. This assumes that you are reasonably responsive to your customer, or are at least like many others who get distracted whenever a new email or telephone call comes in.
  • There is no loss of information during the discussion. Remember the vast majority of info in a discussion is through non-verbal cues. It can be a lot of effort preparing a bullet-proof email compared to a FTF chat.

So maybe the main issue you have is one of down-time because of travel. If that really is excessive for you then have an honest conversation with them. Let them know that this is impacting your productivity and provide alternatives (e.g. Webex meetings; ask them to split the difference and have them go to you half the time). Or if you're on a time-and-materials contract let them know that you have to start charging them for your time and your gas and your parking.

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+1 for pointing out that face-to-face meetings are actually desirable. I would however add that documenting your conversations is important, so that there are no disagreements about scope later down the line. This happens naturally when communication is done by email, but whenever I have FTF meetings, I type notes on my laptop and send a follow-up email directly after the meeting confirming what was discussed. And yeah, charge them for your time if you have to, but consider the good impression you make by waiving that fee (and point this out). Lastly I'd suggest you set a routine meeting time. –  Kosta Kontos Jan 29 '13 at 7:23
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For me, this is a question of roles. It's your role to complete the project to the clients satisfaction. And that includes method of communication. Declaring "I won't meet you that often" is putting yourself in the role of project owner, and that's not your role.

One of the first things PM's need to be clear on when beginning a project is how the client/stakeholder wishes communication to be handled; what form, what info, how often, who, etc.

Assuming that you're being compensated for the time and travel, then as long as the client wants if this way, it's not "wasted".

The only way I could see you being in a position to deny these meetings is if you're not being paid for the time, and it wasn't addressed in the contract initially. But even then, since they want it, you need to discuss it with him and find out what they want, and then negotiate. Not decide unilaterally what you will/won't do.

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Defining the Problems

You have only two project management problems here:

  1. How the client's communication preferences impact the project's budget or efficiency (if they do).
  2. Who bears the financial burden of travel costs.

There are other peripheral issues, but they are really more about how you feel about the client's communication style, or how you can communicate your own preferences in a professional manner. As your primary job is to manage the project effectively, these secondary issues should be carefully framed within the context of what's best for the project—asssuming you genuinely think that it's both professional and relevant to address them at all.

Potential Solutions

Communications

First, you should carefully measure the impact of the client's communication preferences on the project. Your post contains an emotional appeal, but no actual project metrics to support your position. When you say:

They can't grasp how to use email and phone to communicate project amendments and feedback...[T]his is a huge waste of time compared to emailing, phone, or instant message.

you are conveying a host of implicit assumptions, including the following.

  • You are assuming that your clients are Luddites who are ignorant of the alternatives or incapable of effective communication. This assumption sets up an intrinsically adversarial relationship.
  • You are assuming that time (Your time? Project time?) is being "wasted." This assumption is not valid unless backed by concrete metrics or quantifiable objectives.
  • You are assuming that all modes of communication are equal. Effectiveness is very context-dependent.

Unless your contract spells out how feedback and change control are to be managed within the project, how you and the client agree to handle these issues is certainly negotiable. However, such changes should be based on more than your personal preferences; professionalism demands that significant process change be tied to observable data and clearly-articulated process-improvement objectives with measurable results.

Travel Costs

This may be a legitimate issue if it represents a change in cost structure or scope from what was originally agreed to. For example, if your contract states that the project budget is all-inclusive, but included incorrect assumptions about the amount of travel that would be required, then your contracting process should be carefully reviewed and the issue gently raised with the client.

On the other hand, if the project was deliberately bid as a fixed-price contract with known travel requirements, then you may not have a legitimate recourse. That doesn't mean that you can't discuss it with the client; if reducing travel would provide a positive impact on the project, that's information the client should have in order to make an informed decision about what's most valuable to them (e.g. face-time or potential project efficiencies).

Whether or not cost-shifting is an option, travel is certainly a requirement that can impact a project's budget, schedule, or efficiency. However, it is up to you as the project manager to track any such impact with concrete metrics, and to bring a level of professionalism to process-improvement discussions that treats your personal preferences as a side issue.

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