Friday, September 2, 2011

Keep clients in the loop with a good communication plan

When is an IT consulting project like an oil change? This isn’t a riddle — it’s a brainstorm I had recently while watching the team at my local Instant Lube perform an oil change on my car. Let me describe the process.

As I drove up to the garage, the manager came out and guided me into the oil change bay. When I stepped out of my car, he walked up to me and smiled, and then began to explain to me how they were going to service my automobile. He described the different grades of service available, but never tried to sell me on one or the other — he just gave me the information I needed so I could make a decision about which service was appropriate for me. The team that would work on my car surrounded it and began to shout to each other: “Car in bay one,” “Opening hood in bay one,” “Testing coolant in bay one,” and “Tire pressure 40 in bay one.”

It wasn’t clear to me immediately why the guy emptying the old oil from my car needed to know that another guy was putting air in my tires. As all this activity went on, the manager, rather than trying to shuffle me into the waiting room, chatted with me about the work his team was doing on my car, explaining to me why they constantly communicated their progress to each other as they worked. “It helps each member of the team know how much time they have left, and helps them make sure that we do everything we’re supposed to do for each car. It helps them check each other, so no one forgets to put back the oil plug or the fluid cap.”

Inform clients at every opportunity

Why am I going into this length about my oil change? Because I’ve had my oil changed before at other places that didn’t go through this process. I’ve faced surly, uncommunicative mechanics who pulled out my air filter — which was in fine condition — and tried to talk me into changing it, and then looked at me like I was a bug when I declined. I’ve been to lube stations where I came out not knowing what they had done, or if they’d even actually changed my oil at all. The stark contrast between those other lube shops and this one was so striking that I’m sure I’ll be a customer for life, as long as they keep communicating with me the way they did.

How does this relate to consulting? I’m no mechanic, so I can’t judge the quality of the work that my mechanics do except by the results and by the quality of the attention I receive. Many of our consulting clients are in the same boat. They’re looking to us to deliver excellence in our technical specialty, but in order to differentiate ourselves from other service providers, we need to do more. We need to make their experience with us the best, most comfortable event possible.

This superior experience, in most instances, boils down to superior communications. Helping our clients understand the process they’re about to go through, just like the store manager did with me; communicating the status of the job as it progresses — both within the team and with the client — like the lube team did; acting as an advisor, not a salesman: All these things add up to an enhanced experience for the client.

Characteristics of a good communication plan

For all these reasons, I insist that in consulting teams I work with, every engagement includes a communication plan. A good communication plan can bring value to the engagement in a number of ways: It helps set customer expectations, acts as an assurance factor that bolsters the client’s confidence, builds consensus around the project and helps market its benefits, and gives the client and the various constituencies in the organization an opportunity to give feedback on the results of our efforts.

Let’s delve into these factors a bit and discuss the ways a communication program can make our lives as consultants easier and more fruitful.

  • Set customer expectations. One of the most important jobs any project manager or consultant must do is to manage the expectations of the client community. From the very first meeting, and all through the project, we need to be sure that we’re communicating clearly what we’ve committed to deliver, what we can (and can’t) achieve, and what our role is and what the clients’ or subcontractors’ roles are, and we need to be sure that we’re setting budgetary and schedule expectations. This is not a one-time event, but a constant activity. We need to help adjust client expectations as we deliver, so that as circumstances affect our schedule, budget, or deliverables, we’ve clearly communicated that to the client, thereby avoiding any misunderstandings.
  • Assurance factors. As I described in one of my previous columns on pricing scenarios, reassuring the client as we go is a critical consulting skill. In all engagements, but especially in time and materials projects, the client can be nervous or uneasy, wondering if we’re on track, running into any hidden snags, or running over budget or schedule. By building in formal assurance factors, like status reports and team reviews, we short-circuit any concerns that may be building up, and get a reputation as a “straight shooter.” For clients who have internal intranets, I’ll often set up a project Web site where interested team members can keep tabs on the project’s progress.
  • Build consensus. Effective users of technology have one characteristic in common: they seek consensus, rather than running IT projects out of the boardroom or the executive suite. Communications plans that include believable, meaningful descriptions of the features and benefits of the new technology go a long way toward building buy-in across the organization. For large-scale projects, town hall meetings or “lunch-and-learn” sessions can help create a feeling of inclusion and participation throughout the organization.
  • Market its benefits. Experienced consultants, just like good internal IT professionals, know that a major part of their job is selling the features and benefits of the technology they are implementing. I’ve been involved in projects that went as far as designing logos and “brand names” for the project in order to raise awareness and comfort inside the organization with the new effort. New technology is often disruptive; it’s our responsibility as business advisors to help our clients convince their troops that there is a reason for the disruption.
  • Client feedback. One-way communication, from the top down, doesn’t cut it anymore. Modern associates in the client enterprise are likely to resist any effort that doesn’t give them a chance to participate in the process. Project communication plans should include an avenue for feedback from the affected staff members. The project Web site mentioned above is one avenue, as are project e-mail and voice mail suggestion boxes, where constituents can voice their opinions and express their concerns.

The corollary with the oil change has one other significance: Communications are the lubricant that every IT project needs in order to run smoothly.

Have you created a sure-fire communication plan that keeps you and your clients happy? If so, what does it entail? Let us know in the forums.

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