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How can I politely ask a customer to participate in the design of the deliverables before we begin work?

I have received a content update and brochure design job from client. Unfortunately it is so difficult to close this project because the client never gives us a clear direction of what we should put in the documents.

He has sent us a lot of sample documents/brochure from other companies in similar industries. He asked us to follow the contents in the documents and send back the draft to him for review after we are done.

Each brochure has very different contents, even though they are for the same product. For example, the brochure from company A might have a pricing section, while the brochure from company B might have technical specifications. What we do is include all the things from all the brochures and put it in a PDF that we send back to him. The next day, he asks us to redo it because he saw another brochure from company C. So we repeat the process.

We have also sent him a Word document with all the contents and asked him to change the wording, removing anything that he doesn't want. Unfortunately, he just ignores it and asks us to design the brochure in PDF and put all the content inside first. After he sees the design, then he will decide what should change.

I am not sure whether other clients on similar projects do this, but this is the first time I have encountered this type of customer. Going back and forth is really wasting a lot of time and money. How can I politely ask the customer to make a decision first on what he wants in the document?

  • Thank you for your update and correcting my grammar mistakes. – cww Mar 9 '13 at 17:19
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    I edited your question for clarity and grammar, without (I think) changing any of the essentials. Also, as I think part of your problem is the lack of active and cooperative engagement from your client, I tried to highlight that in your question. Please feel free to edit it again if you think I've failed to communicate your intent. – Todd A. Jacobs Mar 9 '13 at 17:20
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Fixed Requirements + Change Control = Managed Scope

You define two key project management issues, both of which ultimately relate to scope.

  1. [H]e...asked us to design the brochure in pdf and put all the content inside first. After he see the design then only he will decide what should he change.

    This is a problem caused by starting a project with unfixed requirements, leading to undefined scope. You're also missing a clearly-delineated design phase.

    As an analogy, no one in their right minds would say "Build me a skyscraper, and when it's finished then I'll take a look at it and decide if I like the building design." Regardless of your methodology, you need a design phase that produces a fixed scope with clear requirements, or you can never reach the finish line.

  2. Tomorrow, he ask us to redo it because he saw another brochure from company C. So we replace the content again and sent back to him.

    This is a problem with your Change Control Process—or rather, with your lack of one. There's no formal process to manage changes in scope, and no cost to the client in change requirements repeatedly.

    If you didn't address any of these process or pricing issues in the contract, then you obviously need to fix your contracting process. On other other hand, you don't really have a project management problem at the moment, even though it looks like one. What you have is a political problem that is ultimately the responsibility of your CFO or contracting officer to address.

Political Options

You have limited choices when you have responsibility but no authority. They include:

  1. Use your influence with the customer to define a new process that benefits everyone, with clear financial and functional incentives for the client.
  2. Use your influence within the organization to get the responsible executives to address the issue with the client.
  3. Educate your organization on the costs to the business of performing work without adequate financial or process controls.
  4. Work with your contracting officer to define a better process for the next client.

In many organizations with toxic cultures, you will eventually be held accountable for the failure of this project even though you are not really empowered to change the underlying process. As a professional, your best option is to ensure that the process, including its costs and inefficiencies, are clearly visible to all parties and to communicate the alternatives constructively.

That's it. There's no silver bullet. Communicate, educate, report, and provide options...that's the limit of the project management role. Keep that firmly in mind at all times, and you'll sleep better at night.

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Marketing materials like this is more of a 'you know when you see it.' The development of this type of deliverable is a back and forth process. You elicit what you can, you design and build, you test it, you go back and make changes. I would challenge you in the waste of time and money opinion. Doing it a more controlled way may save time and money, but you will likely end up with something less than useful and a customer who will hire someone else in the future.

Hopefully, you are contracted in a time and materials structure, because this type of work is consistent with that type of contract. If you are not, lessons learned. Don't sign that type of contract again for this type of work.

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I've encountered similar problems.

Basically your client has only a very hazy idea of what he wants and would rather have someone read his mind than articulate what he wants up front. In the long run your team will be demoralized by this kind of a situation, and this could push good people out of the door to work that is more challenging/stimulating.

So how do you push back against this? As David implies it is easier to do this on a time & materials contract as your customer is wasting his money. Every time he asks for something give him a cost estimate to drive that message home.

If you are on a fixed cost type of contract you will hopefully have a well defined statement of work. Stick to that and if your customer wants to move out of scope by a fraction of an inch give him a cost estimate for that.

If your contract is fixed cost and your statement of work is too loosely defined you have two choices: continue as is or back out of the contract.

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