Finding Your Voice as a Project Manager

Project Manager Jordan McGee shares how to create lasting relationships with clients by following your own style.

It’s Safe To Say I Was Freaking Out

A massive management company had signed a contract for a new website, and I had just been assigned to project manage the build. The budget was almost the size of all my other clients combined, and this was a huge opportunity for me. I had been a Project Manager for a few months now but, up until this point, I had only spoken to a few smaller clients on the phone and through email.

Preparation for this call consisted of my normal routine of research, coffee, and self-pep talks. The initial call may not have been perfect (they never are), but I learned more in a 60-minute phone call that was outside my comfort zone than in 60 days of managing smaller clients that were well within my skill range.

That call was the beginning of me discovering my voice as a Project Manager.

What About You?

Do you dread talking with clients? Do you struggle to understand their vision and communicate your objects? Do you feel like you spend more time managing your clients rather than their projects?

Even if you don’t consider yourself a project manager, if you are client-facing there’s always an opportunity to improve your communication skills. There is no secret formula to being a project manager. It’s more than simply organizing resources and tracking budgets — it’s about building successful relationships in which both parties feel open to share their ideas and critiques.

Empathy Not Apathy

Difficult clients can be frustrating, clueless, cheap, and indecisive. Often it can feel like they’re holding you back from accomplishing the goal of the project, even if it was their goal in the first place. Others will treat you like close friends. If you are lucky enough to only work with clients who treat you this way, hats off to you, but chances are you will one day have client relationships that don’t run as smoothly.

This communication gap can oftentimes be crossed by a bridge of empathy. Personalities will inevitably clash, but it’s of critical importance that you put yourself in the client’s shoes from the outset of the project.

They want their projects to succeed, and they want to feel like their thoughts and feelings are being heard. Treat them like you’re working with them, not for them.

Communicating with Intention

Client interactions should be a two-way conversation, not a lecture. It’s so easy to get caught up with your own thoughts and ideas that you may forget to actually listen to your clients. This doesn’t mean that it’s not your place to tell the client when they are wrong. If you don’t, who will? Clients can just take it personally when things aren’t handled exactly like they want them to be.

If you hit a roadblock with your client and a compromise cannot be reached regarding a specific request, take a step back and find out what the motivation is behind it. Addressing the motivation first can be a very effective way to overcome the roadblock. Your main motivation should be wanting to see a successful product launch that you accomplished together, but sometimes you need to dig deeper to understand what other motivations are driving your client’s requests. When your client knows you are really listening and understanding with their best intentions in mind, they will be more likely to trust you and the insights you offer.

Be An Expert

Confidence is everything when it comes to being a project manager, and you may be surprised how many people miss the mark when it comes to doing this the right way. Confidence doesn’t mean swagger. It’s about educating yourself on both your industry and that of your client so you are self-assured in what you bring to the table.

Confidence manifests itself in two ways: trust in yourself and your team, and knowledge of the project.

Seeking Knowledge

Sometimes you may know a lot about a project, and other times you may know next to nothing when you start. Whatever information is available to you, take the time to educate yourself on as much as you can.

If there’s not a lot information available, know exactly what resources, skills, experience, and expertise you and your team can bring to a project. Before communicating with the client at all, ask yourself, “Why does the client need me right now and what does my team specifically bring to the table?” If you know this information, you’ll be better able to adapt and react to whatever the client throws at you.

One technique that’s useful after a client kickoff (or anytime projects requirements change) is to try and describe the project in its entirety to someone else. This will quickly reveal if there are any knowledge gaps. A good project manager is a jack-of-all-trades who has at least a cursory understanding of the different areas of the project. The more knowledge you have, the more confident you’ll be as a project manager.

Find Your Style

Project management really gets exciting when you find your own unique style. Much like improv, you have some guidelines to follow — in the form of processes and industry standards — but everything that makes you a really good project manager you will figure out in the moment.

Sure, it’s always a good idea to have an agenda and take notes whenever you talk to a client, but besides that, allow yourself room to maneuver. Don’t simply emulate those around you, even if you’re surrounded by other great project managers.

Do what comes naturally to you, see what parts of yourself your clients connect with most, and then smooth out any areas for adjustment.

Consistent and Trustworthy

As you become more confident in your personal style, it becomes second nature. When you are consistent through all of your communication channels your client will feel comfortable knowing that they’re always working with the same trusted person.

Once you find your voice, you become much more than that just a project manager. You become an ally, an advisor, and someone your clients can rely on.

At PRPL, we believe the best products are created when everyone (including the client) operates as a single unit with common goals. As Project Managers, we intentionally sit on the same side of the table as our clients and measure our success as a team.

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