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Managing the client: A fairy tale

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In: Articles

By Sara Cliver

Published on January 3, 2002

I. Introduction

Once upon a time…

No, hold it. Why do all fairy tales have to start with that beginning? It's cliché, and it gives no idea of the time period of the story. Forget it.

Take 2:

It was... a beautiful, sunny day in 2001. A handsome, rich, and typically smarmy prince was making his tour of the countryside in search of a wife. On this particular day, he was to meet her – but he had no idea. In fact, he wasn't even sure that he was searching for a wife; his advisors had told him that he needed one, his father and mother were pressuring him, and all of the courtiers were whispering behind his back about his lack of a marital partner. Despite all of this, he remained blissfully ignorant of his need.

"If, indeed, I need a wife," he thought, "she will need me. She will come to me, begging my attention, and I will eventually take her in, if she meets my ideals."

His ideals were high. Some said they were unreachable.

"She will serve me, regardless of her own desires. She will be mine, and mine alone, whether I ignore her or acknowledge her, whether I treat her with the sweetest love or with the cruelest indifference." He quite liked this thought, in fact. Owning things was his life; a silver spoon had been jammed into his mouth since infancy, and he wanted nothing but the best.

When our heroine saw him riding through her town, she was smitten. He was profoundly attractive, and his wealth was evident. He flashed his winning (if entirely manufactured) smile, and she had to breathe deeply to keep from fainting. "Poor peasant girl," he thought to himself.

II. Development

In the weeks that followed, she pursued him ruthlessly, to no avail. No matter how many beautiful letters she wrote, how many stunning feats she accomplished, nothing could draw his attention. Finally, desperate, she visited her faithful psychic-and-savvy-business-advisor for advice.

"It's simple, my darling," he told her offhandedly. "You're a talented woman. Consider him your next prospect."

Breathlessly, she asked him to explain himself..

"Honey, think of him as you would any other new client. Marrying him is the first step; from the sounds of it, that will be tough enough, but keeping him in line afterwards might be an equally difficult task.

"What do you do when you're building a relationship with a new client? Take those very same steps with him. According to what I see in the spread before me... that's the only choice you have."

Still a little confused, she went home to consider what her advisor had said. Thinking back on her last project, she tried to remember how she'd laid the groundwork for success – before the project had even begun. The beginning of the project seemed so long ago, though, and her memory was a bit foggy. So she opened up her old project management notebook to the first chapter of notes, and she began to read.


Prior to beginning a project for any new client, you must create a rapport, inspire the client's confidence, and establish some procedural guidelines.

Learn as much as you can about your client's business and industry.

If your project is to be of any value to the client, it must advance the client's business objectives. Knowing about the client's industry, business, and short- and long-term goals is essential to planning and executing a project that will meet the client's needs. Don't be afraid to ask even the most basic questions about the industry, potential target markets and audiences, sales methodologies, and competitors; the client will appreciate your interest and effort. Many clients will answer your questions with unexpected candor as a reward. (After all, finding someone who actually wants to hear about the mundane details of their business may be a rare treat - as you should know well from your own professional experience!)

Teach the client about your process and policies – and stick to them.

Each interactive project, and each agency, comes with its own set of processes and policies. These policies are crystal clear to you. They're not clear to your client. It's your responsibility to clarify your policies before the project even begins. Trust me – the extra time and effort is worth it. Educating the client indemnifies you from legal action in the case of a misunderstanding down the road. Having the client sign off on a legal agreement stating that he/she has been informed of your policies goes one step further to insure your legal protection, and is always a good idea.

Additionally, a thorough explanation of your process ensures that there are no unwelcome surprises for the client. Talk through the project from beginning to end, clarifying any ambiguous "techie" terms (beta test, user interface testing, maintenance utility, and so forth). Don't let yourself forget that this is often your client's first time dealing with this industry and this medium, and even if it's not, it is their first time going through the process with you.

"Well, that shouldn't be too hard," she thought to herself. With a renewed confidence, she contacted the castle and requested a phone conference with the prince to discuss a "business" proposal. Intrigued, he accepted.

Before their scheduled phone call, she researched the history of his family and their kingdom. She also made sure to look up information on kingship, princely behavior, and other royal families in the immediate area; she wanted to be adequately prepared. She wrote up a list of questions she would ask him, realizing that her follow-up questions would actually prove to be more important than her initial inquiries.

All of her work paid off, and the phone call was a success. At the end of the call, she requested a dinner meeting to further discuss the possibility of establishing a relationship, and he accepted.

That night at dinner, she laid out her plans, and was amazed as he paid the utmost attention to every detail, contributing his own thoughts and opinions as she continued. She was sure to tell him what she would and would not do for him, what she'd expect from him, and how the deal would benefit him and his kingdom. By the end of the night, they were laughing and finishing each other's sentences, and he enthusiastically accepted her proposal – for marriage.

III. Assessing Needs and Planning

The date was set, and it was only three months away. The King's ailing health necessitated a short engagement, but the customs of the kingdom called for an elaborate celebration. Again, our heroine panicked. In a tizzy, she paid a second visit to her uncannily insightful advisor.

"The wedding's only three months away!" she exclaimed in a panic as she burst through the door.

"Well, congratulations," he replied. "Honestly, I saw it coming, but I can pretend to act surprised, if you'd like," he commented without taking his eyes off of his laptop screen.

"No, you don't understand." She demanded his full attention. "Three months equals 90 days! That's only 2,160 hours to get everything prepared, and there has to be at least 3,000 hours worth of work to do! I'm never going to make it through this." With a sigh of desperation, she collapsed into an armchair.

"Now, now, no need to get into a huff about it. What did I tell you before? You followed my advice, and see where it got you. So keep it up – consider the engagement a signed contract, and the wedding a project."

She considered his words carefully. He was right; his advice in the past had paid off, in a big way. Maybe he had a point. The wedding resembled a new project with a tight deadline in many respects. She thanked him for his advice, and rushed home to dig out her project management notebook yet again.

"Now, where is that chapter…hmm…not that one…ah, yes, here we go," she thought to herself as she flipped through the pages.


During the course of the project, it is up to you to keep the resources, schedule, and quality of the project balanced, while ensuring that established procedures are being followed and the client's needs are being met.

Promote your strengths and face your weaknesses.

Whether you're working by yourself or with 20 other developers, your team is certain to have some definite strengths and weaknesses. It's your job to know these things, and know them well. Even after your team has won the contract, you have a responsibility to constantly sell your team's strengths. This isn't the time to get shy or bashful; your strengths are valuable, and the client is paying for them, so don't be afraid to promote them.

On the other hand, it's equally important to know – and face – the specific weaknesses of your development team. If you're managing the project, any mistakes made throughout the process will often fall on your shoulders, at least in the mind of the client. Keeping that in mind, it's in your very best interest to compensate for any weaknesses your team may face. For example, if you know that quality control isn't your greatest strength, be sure to pay extra attention in that area, and don't be afraid to get help if you know you need it.

Be firm about pricing and policy issues.

These are the issues that are the most important for you in the long run. During the project, many clients will try to test their limits. The more you let them get away with this, the more they will push you. Review the original proposal often to remind yourself of what has been promised to the client. If the client requests services that go beyond the scope of the agreed-upon proposal, be careful to clarify the cost of each of these additional services. No matter how tough it seems, remaining firm on these policies is crucial to the overall success of the project and the establishment of a mutually beneficial relationship with the client.

Integrate yourself, and your project, into the client's business.

Before the project, you educated yourself about your client's business. Now ithe investment of time into all of that research gets paid back. During the course of the project, stay tuned into news in the client's industry, and be sure to let the client know of developments that will effect their business. If the client is aware of these changes, they can make great conversation pieces; if not, you've provided yet another valuable service to the client.

Continually remind the client of the value of the project in progress. When the client has a business problem, try to find a solution that includes your project. Point out ways that future iterations of the project could provide even more functionality and value to the client's business. In order to get the client's full attention, you must continually show the client how his/her investment will pay for itself and create additional revenue.

Establish procedures for maintenance.

At times it's hard to see to the end of the project, but it's there. Then what? Decide early on how the project will be maintained in the long run. Keep in mind the limitations of your client's resources, especially time and technical expertise; plan to train the client about the project and lay out a training plan for all important players in the client's organization. If necessary, draw up agreements that outline the maintenance program and any regularly-occurring or hourly charges.

"Yikes," she thought. She was already exhausted just thinking about all of the things that she had to do to prepare for the wedding and, more importantly, the marriage. The guidelines helped to focus her energy as she made a list of all of the things that needed to be done and started to tackle them one by one.

With a little bit of self-assessment, she took stock of her own strengths and weaknesses. She impressed herself with her own organizational skills, but she realized that she fell a bit short in the area of decorating. Keeping these things in mind, she found talented decorators to subsidize her own meager efforts, but she made sure to keep track of all of the details.

As the wedding drew closer, she spoke often with her groom-to-be, letting him know exactly what would be expected of him on the important day – and beyond. She reassured him that everything would be picture-perfect, fitting perfectly into the image his monarchy had set for itself. The wedding would go down in the annals of history as a sophisticated, elegant affair, and they both had high hopes that the marriage itself would be just as notable.

IV. Implementation

The day of the wedding celebration arrived with much pomp and circumstance. Thanks to all of the careful planning and preparation that had taken place, the entire day was proceeded smoothly and memorably – just as it was supposed to! Small problems arose, of course, but they had been anticipated and were quickly resolved. The new princess just smiled quietly to herself as she watched the action going on around her, proud of all she had done and excited for the future ahead. While the guests ate at the reception, Her Highness stole away for a quiet moment of reflection. Pulling out her trusted project management notebook, she read one final passage.


Congratulations! The project is complete. The work, however, isn't.

Measure the success of the project.

Remember that a successful project has a measurable and positive impact on the client's business objectives. Set a time period to measure the progress toward achieving those objectives, and plan to measure progress on a regular basis. If you find that there are adjustments that should be made, or additions that can improve the project's functionality, propose these changes in a Phase II estimate.

Maintain your relationship with the client.

By the completion of the project, you should have established a strong relationship with the client. You know his/her business and industry thoroughly and you have contributed a significant amount to the success of his/her company. The client views you as a resource, and the business relationship is sound. Now is the time to ask for referrals, recommendation letters, or testimonial quotes. It never hurts to ask, and you may find that your satisfied clients are your best source of business.

Be sure to check back periodically with the client, making sure that he/she is content with the performance of the project. As your services expand and your business evolves, keep the client updated. Maintaining your relationship with the client will provide you with a strong base of supporters as your own business proceeds.

"Now, that I can do," she said confidently. In that moment, she just knew that they would live happily ever after.

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Related Topics: Client Management


Sara Cliver left college early to join a technology startup (sound familiar?) and managed a large number of interactive projects on a day-to-day basis. A chronic multi-tasker, she is now going back to school to complete her degree in marketing while freelancing as a copywriter, designer, and project manager.

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