The role of a project manager is complex: we manage timelines for tasks, maintain budget of the engagement and assess potential risks, all while creating human-centered relationships with both our internal team and clients.
To most people, this looks like checking off to-dos, poring over spreadsheets and bugging people a lot to make sure deliverables are turned in on time. But being a project manager is much more than just managing clients and tasks.
So, what makes a great project manager?
A great project manager manages the little details with a focus on the big picture. We should be thinking strategically about our clients, their goals and their challenges instead of saying yes to every request that comes our way.
This means that a great project manager knows when and how to tell a client no.
Redefining the Role of a Project Manager
The industry needs more skilled project managers who can lead accounts rather than simply take orders from clients.
It isn’t easy — I get it. But it’s a necessary part of being the best project manager you can be.
When I first started managing accounts, it was hard to tell my clients “no.” It just seemed wrong to say no to someone I perceived to have power over me. Afterall, I was working for them; my goal is to make sure their goals are met.
However, over time I learned that in order to do truly great work, I couldn’t just be their yes-man. My job wasn’t to be maliciously obedient — it was to listen and assess whether it would help or hurt the engagement.
My role is to think. When a client comes to our team for help, it’s my job to consider the request from a unique perspective. Project managers have a bird’s-eye view of the entire project. Instead of simply saying, “Yes, we can do that,” we should be asking ourselves if this request is valuable. Will it further the goals of the project or my client’s business objectives? Are there gaps the client may not be seeing?
Not only do we have to evaluate the request and its adherence to strategy — we also have to think about timelines. Sometimes high-quality work just can’t be done within certain time constraints. If my client sets unrealistic deadlines, our team will not be able to produce amazing work.
This means at times, the answer has to be “no.” And it’s our job as project managers to communicate this clearly and effectively to the client.
The Art of Saying “No”
With that said, it can be tricky. “No” isn’t an answer people like to hear, much less our clients, who need to communicate this to their own bosses. Which is why when you have to tell a client no, it’s important to be empathetic.
First and foremost, be respectful. If you don’t agree with something, feel free to speak up. However, support your answer with the “why.”
Explain why their request may not the best option. Explain that it is not in line with their budget or within scope. Describe how this request conflicts with their marketing and business goals. Remember that, in most cases, your clients are reporting to someone else. Help them communicate to their own manager your concerns and why this request may not be the most successful route to take.
Secondly, give an alternative. You can still utilize their suggestions and requests in a way that is more beneficial to the overall project. Lean on your project leads to be present in these conversations. Their expertise in their area (PPC, SEO, etc.) can be an invaluable way to help reiterate alternative approaches.
Think strategically about what they want, and if there’s a better way to accomplish it. By including their suggestions in your alternative approach, you’re showing the client that you’ve heard their request and you take it seriously. You’re also showing that you’re putting strategy first and have their best interests in mind.
What Do You Manage?
So what do you manage: requests or strategy? Are you saying yes to get things done and not rock the boat, or do you push for the right marketing approach?
If you truly care about your clients and their success, then you should be doing whatever you can to help them meet their goals — even if that means saying no.
Being a project manager at Nebo is unique. We focus on the human-centered approach, not only internally, but with our clients and their target audiences as well.
I always listen to my clients and seriously consider what they have to say. But I have to temper that with my own experience as a marketing project manager. Our clients are paying us to be experts and lead their strategy in an efficient and effective way. If doing so means pushing back on a request, I will. In the long run, they will appreciate the honesty and dedication to doing what’s best for their account.