Project Management Institute

Relationship building

a key technical skill

by Ron Rader and Cliff Vaughan

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ARE YOU A project manager who rose through the technical ranks? If so, you're probably discovering you have to develop and hone a whole new set of project management skills that weren't required just a few years ago.

You've mastered technology, but your client also wants interpersonal skills. What do you do?

Communications, networking, customer satisfaction, enlightened staff management, staff motivation, and managing a project for profit are vital skills in today's marketplace. In the past, about the only issues you heard of from your firm, your client, and your engineering university concerned technical skills and knowledge. The message was clear: The highest level of technical expertise always wins the project. While client surveys still rank a service provider's technical expertise as high in importance, the present-day client wants more. It's not enough to own and implement modern computer software to manage and track scope, schedule and budget. The technical side must be coupled with people skills, especially if your project leadership could impact the future of the organization. And it will.

The project management challenge is now more global, more complex and more customer-driven than at any time in the past. Whoever best meets and exceeds the customer's expectations earns the best chance to win and keep the business. Technical skills to manage the project are not enough—most everyone in the business can make that claim. Your mastery and effective use of interpersonal skills can differentiate you from your competition.

An effective project manager must be able to organize a team effort, inspire each team member to perform at his or her highest level, recognize and manage the effects that personalities and styles have on group dynamics, and still meet the demands of scope, schedule, and budget.

In addition, a project manager must be sensitive to and help manage the client representative's requirements to report to higher management, orchestrate the internal selling of the project, and demonstrate control of the client company's resources in a prudent fashion. In short, the personal interaction that the project manager has with the client representative and with the project team can be a major factor in the ultimate success or failure of the project.


Ron H. Rader (rrader@utk.edu) is a field consultant and manager of supplier development and training for industry in the Center for industrial Services at the University of Tennessee. Focusing on leadership development, culture assessment/development, and team building, he specializes in developing new project management teams and renewing existing ones. He also worked with the East Tennessee PMI Chapter to sponsor and develop a project management overview and certification program.

Clilford E. Vaughan, P.E., PMP, has over 29 years of experience in the engineering and project management fields and is senior vice president and director of project management for Maxim Technologies Inc., an engineering and environmental consulting firm headquartered in Dallas, Texas. He is also a past president of the East Tennessee PMI Chapter. He can be reached at vaughan.maximr@maximmail.com.

These expectations have swiftly engulfed organizations worldwide. Global competition, an insatiable demand for quality, and world-class customer service have merged to create a totally new paradigm for everyone responsible for ensuring that customers get that for which they pay and are satisfied with what they receive. The new paradigm has brought a whole new list of requirements to the world of project management and to those of us who earn our living in that marketplace.

The client's often unspoken expectations sound like this: ‘As your client, I place high value on the degree of concern that you demonstrate for my organization's success as well as my personal success.” Achieving success in this arena can be summarized in two words: relationship building. Customers want and expect the project manager to be interested in the goals of the client organization. They expect the project manager to understand their business, to actively help them meet their company's objectives. You must build personal and professional trust based on performance and personal interaction if you are to succeed.

There is a human side in all of us that asks “What's in it for me?” The project manager should look continually for opportunities to help the client representative become a “superstar” in his or her organization. Never embarrass the client representative or place him or her in an awkward position. Such actions cast an unprofessional shadow on your ability to provide customer service and technical expertise.

Unfortunately, there are many organizations where the various elements of a healthy, dynamic customer relationship continue to be undervalued, overlooked, and, even more often, ignored by project managers who continue to rely on technical skills alone. The “people” skills required to develop client satisfaction are swept aside with negative terms such as “touchy-feely,” “charm school,” “unimportant,” “waste of time,” “schmoozing,” and a litany of others. “That's not a technical requirement” and “What's that got to do with my project?” are remarks often heard.

The truth is it has everything to do with the project. In fact, the key to continuing success with most clients rests on relationship building. The successful relationship is built on mutual respect, confidence and trust between the parties. The client representative must have complete confidence that the project manager will get the job done on schedule and within budget. The client representative must also believe that the project manager will make a personal commitment to success, will keep the client representative informed of project status, and will spring no surprises that will create awkward moments in front of client company management.

It's not the number of advanced technical degrees or past project experience of the staff that retains the client through multiple projects. Ask any experienced sales manager in a technical service organization and he or she will likely tell you that personalized service leads to continuing sole-source work. Technical expertise and relationship building must be balanced and operate in tandem to achieve long-term success. It is the project manager's responsibility to ensure the needed level of expertise is delivered to the project in tandem with the proper interest and respect for the client organization's internal requirements.

What are the skills that separate the best project managers from the average ones?

Negotiating. Successful project managers negotiate from a position of strength built through supplying accurate information. Successful project managers are always truthful, professional and courteous. The client is often seeking information in order to explain the basis of a high cost to management. The project manager must be able to support the approach as well as the estimated costs for a project if the client representative is to become an ally and partner. An open and honest discussion of how a cost estimate was created and a willingness to explore alternatives can result in a mutual respect and understanding of how the project will be accomplished. All too often, we see projects lost during negotiations by a project manager with a condescending I-am-the-expert-and-you-should-do-what-I-tell-you approach.

Listening. Project managers must be good listeners. They must be able to communicate with the client and with the project team. The project manager is responsible for the overall execution of the project. He or she must implement through the efforts of other team members. These individuals are expected to demonstrate high performance standards and understand the mission. That mission is communicated to the project manager by the client and then to the project team by the project manager. The project manager must listen actively to the client and use follow-up questions to ensure understanding.

Often the complete requirements of the project cannot be transmitted adequately through a written scope document. Most certainly, the personal importance of the project to the client representative along with other nuances cannot be transmitted in a scope document.

Understanding Behavior Styles. Project managers must have a clear understanding of the client's and project team's different personal styles. That knowledge provides valuable insight into how to communicate effectively and negotiate with specific individuals. Behavior styles, management styles, and individual types are real and can be managed for magnificent project success; or they can be mismanaged and ignored for a dismal procession of project failures.

Before any project team undertakes a major group endeavor, especially if it shares no history as a team, the members of the group should participate in a one- or two-day program aimed at understanding and appreciating individual differences, styles and strengths. The costs of getting to know the other team members as people with names and faces will be recovered many times over as the project progresses. The results of group/team cohesiveness can often prove priceless in terms of project success.

The athletic team serves as a metaphor and ultimate example of teamwork. Winning athletic teams don't just show up on-site and play the game. Think of the endless hours spent recruiting the right individual; training that individual; making certain that individual has or develops the best skills for that position; and then practicing that individual with other team members, getting to know and learning to manage each team member's strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, individual players compete as a team, and the probability is high that the team will be effective, productive, and generate positive results.

In many projects, we execute seemingly endless documentation, make the required telephone calls, and send people who have never worked together as a team to a site and expect instant and magical success between the team and the client representative. There is little logic, rationale, or hope in this picture. It is a blueprint for failure. The manager of a major project who seeks the highest performance and continuing success will budget time for team training focused on styles, strengths, and personality types when the project involves multiple people from different locations and technical backgrounds.

Knowledge of styles can help you determine how to meet individual personal preferences for communication techniques. We have observed a number of instances where the project manager used knowledge of the client's personal style and correctly changed the approach. The change enabled the manager to quietly collect long, outstanding accounts receivable and to obtain project change orders that were previously denied.

“Personality clashes” can creep into projects and lead to a competitive, divisive environment between the client's representative and the service provider's team. This creates almost certain failure for the project and the project manager. Learn to manage individual styles and you'll orchestrate harmony on project teams.

Understanding the Client's Organization. To be successful, you must understand the client's organization, its requirements, expectations, business style, culture, competition, profitability pressures, and other related characteristics. Learn the project's priority in the client's organization. Where and to whom does the client contact report? Do you know the level of exposure for the client's project team, your project team? How well is the need for information from these teams being managed?

Where (to whom) in the client's organization the project reports can also give you insight into funding priorities and the level of difficulty you can expect when seeking project decisions.

Understanding the Client's Internal Politics and Pressures. Understanding the internal politics of the client's organization and helping the client representative with those pressures will let you quickly build a relationship of mutual respect with your client. However, becoming involved in or choosing sides in an internal political struggle within the client's organization can be devastating to your organization and to professional relationships between the organizations. Respect can be lost quickly, and future opportunities can go up in smoke.

Experienced project managers will be aware of and understand the internal politics of the client's organization while remaining apart from the struggle. The goal is to be seen as one who is a respected, reliable, professional, nonthreatening, third-party ally by all factions within the client's organization.

Seeing Opportunities. Project managers not only have a responsibility to their own organizations to execute the project as contracted, but also a responsibility to create and acquire future project work. Every organization that provides any type of service has a need for new work to replace work that is being completed. Project managers have the best opportunity to be aware of and win future projects. We have personally observed instances where project managers ignored and showed no interest in a new project since it would have involved others or would have increased their workload. To ignore new opportunities with a current client demonstrates a lack of support for others in the project manager's organization. More importantly, this attitude could signal the client that this firm has no interest in a continually expanding working relationship. Professionalism creates a mutual respect and confidence that reassures the client firm that the project manager can produce desired results in the future.


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Understanding the Client's Strengths, Weaknesses, Expectations. Project managers must understand the client's strengths, weaknesses and expectations in order to deliver the desired results. Project managers must be prepared to shore-up any weaknesses, make use of strengths, and otherwise ensure that client expectations are met. As the project progresses, open communication, education, knowledge, personal relationships and the unfolding results of the project, can all be used to meet client expectations that sometimes evolve with the project.


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Communicating Continuously to Keep the Client Informed. Most service providers and their project managers are not in the same core business as the client organization. Therefore, if the client doesn't give the project the attention necessary to fully understand the deliverables that will be produced, there may be unpleasant surprises for both parties. All too often and too late, the client discovers that the delivered services may not meet the need.

The experienced project manager will remain in constant communication with the client to ensure there is a complete understanding of work in progress, work accomplished, and work that is planned for the near future. During project reviews, we have heard the manager of a project valued at over $5 million say he had not talked to the client representative in more than a month, since “he knows how to contact me if he has questions.”

A continuing status report process (both written and informal via regular telephone conversations) enables timely, lower-cost modifications to be made and creates a happier, long-term partnership with the client. Communication is a major key to achieving client satisfaction and must be planned along with other project activities and monitored to achieve the desired results.

We have witnessed multiple disputes between clients and project management organizations that were centered on technical scope, change orders and cost, when, in fact, the real issue was lack of communication early in the project.

Seeking Client Feedback. The successful project manager continually communicates with the client to ensure that needs and expectations are being met. The purpose is to solicit feedback on status and required changes, and to help mold client expectations. Early feedback can enable modifications that will have little impact on schedule and budget. Failure to communicate and ask for feedback is too often at the root of project failure.

Helping the Client Achieve “Superstar” Status in Their Company. The effective project manager must be willing to help meet the client representative's internal organization needs. A project manager must recognize his or her role as one of assisting the client representative get the job done. The project manager's success becomes the client representative's success. A client organization's internal rewards (i.e., raises, promotions, commendations) may very well be linked to performance by the project manager's organization. Recognition of excellent performance can manifest itself in the form of repeat work, if the work is done well and a professional relationship is built through mutual respect.


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The project manager is often a temporary player in the life of the client representative and must be willing to allow the client representative to share in the success of the project for the long-term benefit to his or her own organization.

Serving as the Orchestra Leader. Communication with the project team by the project manager is vital. In order to become a team, its members must be informed. They must be able to respond to scope changes, cope with schedule acceleration, and meet other internal needs. Without effective communication, the project team cannot hope to achieve a project's objectives. The project manager must also recognize and reward team members who help achieve the project objectives.

Following Up With Team Members. The project manager assigns tasks to team members to enable completion of the entire project. The wise project manager will not wait until each task is due for completion to request it. The project manager must communicate with team members on an individual basis to ensure that the task is understood, the schedule is clear and there is no interference that could affect completion of the task.

THE TRAITS THAT ENABLE project managers to win, keep clients, and develop additional business opportunities are very basic human traits. Often they are the same traits that drive our decisions in our everyday lives.

The technical skills and services of the individuals you deal with are generally equal. Gasoline prices are competitive, and all banks offer about the same rates. So, why do you choose one over the other? In most cases, you select the person or organization that demonstrates a strong, friendly, caring, distinctive commitment to you and your concerns. Usually, it's because of the people who best personalize the service they provide you.

As project managers, our clients continually judge us and select us from that perspective, once they believe we have the technical capabilities they need. Our abilities and opportunities to please the client have far fewer limitations when our work is grounded in strong interpersonal relationships with our clients. The key that will most often enable you to exceed customer expectations will be found in the interpersonal aspects of your relationships with clients, and will almost always lead to additional and continuing work from the same customer. images

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM Network June 1999

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