When it’s your job as the systems integrator or custom programmer to make sure that a project stays on track, your reputation – and future business prospects – are on the line. No client wants to hire a consultant, only to be surprised to learn months later that the project is over budget, beset by technical problems or plagued by unexpected delays.

Because some delays and glitches are simply unavoidable, the secret to ensuring a happy client lies in managing – or even exceeding – the client’s expectations. With ongoing evaluation, documentation and planning, you can keep your client informed about the project and any factors that may affect its success, reducing the possibility of unpleasant surprises.

While documentation may seem like a distraction from the actual work that needs to be done, it doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming. Start with a quality set of documents you can customize for any project, and you’ll be off and running. According to project management process expert Karl Wiegers, one of the best places to begin is with a project management plan.

The Project Management Plan

By providing your client with a detailed project management plan, you can clearly set the scope of the project and define its motivation, objectives and goals, success criteria, and major deliverables. To help manage customer expectations, the plan should also include any constraints that could potentially have an impact on the project’s success or the client’s outcomes.

By defining project assumptions from the start, you can detail any external events or externally supplied items on which the project depends. This way, should factors outside the project have a negative impact on the work, your client will be prepared for it.

Your project management plan can also include a section defining how the project will be organized, including interfaces with external entities and within the organization itself. Clearly defining all stakeholders’ roles and responsibilities can go a long way toward preventing communication breakdowns later.

You can also use the project management plan to define the necessary personnel and other resource requirements to get the job done, as well as any training needed to ensure the necessary skills are in place for a successful project. The plan should also include details of commitments to internal and external stakeholders, as well as a work plan that includes major deliverables and scheduling.

The plan can also let your client know exactly when and how you’ll be monitoring and reporting on project progress, as well as a summary of your risk management, technical process and issue-resolution strategies.
Managing your clients’ expectations is all about keeping them informed. The more information you can give your client before the project begins, the better. For helpful tips and a tool to develop your own project management plan, see the Wiegers' Project Management Plan Template.

The Risk Management Plan

To give your client confidence that you’re doing all you can to avoid project pitfalls, it’s a good idea to create a detailed risk management strategy supported by a written plan. A good place to start, says Wiegers, is with a workshop that calls upon all team members to help identify and prioritize risks that could bring the project down or otherwise have a negative impact on the client’s business.

The key deliverable from the workshop is a prioritized risk assessment that identifies the “Top 10 Risks” to the project: those with the highest estimated risk to customer outcomes. Once the “Top 10” are set, the next step is to create a risk management plan that includes mitigation, avoidance or prevention strategies to address these critical risk factors, as well as identifies individuals responsible for bringing each risk to resolution.

Progress toward risk resolution should be carefully monitored, and the level of risk related to each item should be reassessed as each item is addressed and new risk items are identified. Each risk item’s status should also be revisited, and the plan updated, during each new project phase.

The risk management documentation can also include each stakeholder’s risk management roles and responsibilities, as well as a clear definition of where and how risk management information will be tracked and documented.

By proactively identifying and addressing potential project risks on an ongoing basis, you can keep your clients apprised of what might go wrong, while also letting them know you’re doing everything in your power to prevent any problems from arising in the first place.

For tips and templates you can put to work immediately on your own project, see Wiegers’ Risk Management Plan Template.

Project Status Reporting

As your project progresses, be sure to give your client regular updates. Start by asking your clients how often they would like to receive a status report, and define a schedule of reporting periods that meets their needs.

Then, create a brief project status report that begins with a management summary of key status indicators, critical issues and risks, trends and other information. Share the good news: milestones reached to date, risks controlled and issues resolved. And, include your assessment of the not-so-good news as well: deviations from plan, defects identified, and any new issues or risks that popped up during the reporting period.

Your project status report is also an opportunity to let your client know how you’re tracking against your time and cost estimates. You may wish to include details about consumption of critical computer resources, the amount of labor hours expended to-date and since the previous report, and planned and actual costs spent to-date and since the prior reporting period. The metrics by which progress can be measured will vary depending on project parameters.

For a convenient reporting template to get you started, see Wiegers' Project Status Report Template.

The idea is to manage your customer’s expectations by keeping surprises to a minimum, and to give him or her an opportunity to ask questions early, before any potential red flags become bigger problems. Because every client appreciates being fully informed, sharing both the good news and the bad goes a long way toward improving customer satisfaction.

Author's Bio: 

Jim Cochran is the President of TechInsurance.com, a provider of errors and omissions insurance for software development companies. His experience in providing liability insurance for technical companies, allows him to properly assess risk for small businesses of all types.