The Art of Project Management: Telling Client Wants from Client Needs

Working at an agency, you learn many things — how to work quickly and efficiently, how to survive on coffee and (free) snacks, how to adapt to changing priorities. I could keep going, but you get the gist. More specifically, the best project managers become proficient in knowing how their team and their client operate in order to drive a project forward successfully. 

At the same time, it’s also our job as project managers to learn that what a client asks for or wants isn’t always what they need. A vital part of the job is deciphering this, picking up on certain clues to ensure that what is delivered will help them reach their ultimate goal, whatever it may be. 

I’m not saying that this means clients never know what they’re looking for, however, our clients are busy. They hired us, the agency, because we’re the experts in our particular field, whether that be paid media and lead generation, brand building, email marketing, website creation — you name it. 

While project managers aren’t wizards (though I’m still waiting for my letter to Hogwarts and to formally be sorted into Slytherin), there are steps we can take to better understand what our clients need, no matter how crazy their initial request might sound.

Build a Relationship

When you first start with a new client, dive in — absorb everything you can about them. Immerse yourself in their brand and product or service and connect with your points of contact to learn how they work as individuals. Knowing the person you are going to be working closely with will help lay the groundwork as you move into the ongoing relationship.

Once you are in regular contact and throughout the relationship, trust becomes vital. It’s the basis of any successful client-agency relationship. If you can build and maintain trust with your client, they are more likely to frequently take the advice or strategy you provide to heart, even if it means going in another direction than what they initially requested.

Ask Questions to Get to the Source of the Request

Too often in agency life, we start executing on a request without asking the right questions — particularly related to one-off items — which can lead to an end result that isn’t as strong or more work overall in order to solve the problem. 

Incorporating a mini-discovery process can be a game-changer for ad hoc items by allowing you to ask deeper, more detailed questions about the request. Ask questions such as:

  • Where did this request originate? 
  • Who is the audience?
  • What is the political or economic outlook for the business at the moment? 
  • Are there any budgetary constraints to keep in mind? 
  • And many more!

Actively listen to what the client says in order to understand the complete message being communicated and how it translates to the request. Picking up on both verbal and non-verbal cues and relaying them back to the client will lead to a more productive conversation.

Define the End Goal

Before starting the work or as an output of the mini-discovery process, define the end goal of the request. What does the client want to accomplish based on their responses? Are they looking to close the gap on generating new leads? Are they aiming to become more cohesive across channels? This will help determine what steps need to be taken for you (the agency) to provide the best recommendation. 

If your client wants to swing in a new direction or take on a new initiative quickly, testing into the change may be the best plan of action. Starting slowly when beginning new initiatives allows the team to monitor performance and make strategic decisions along the way. 

With all that said, it’s important to keep the big picture in mind. Does this request make sense for this client to move on? Is this request going to have a high impact for a low level of effort, or a low impact for a high level of effort? This will affect how — or if — you move forward.

Communicate Clearly and Frequently 

Throughout the whole process (and really, throughout your entire relationship), communicate with the client clearly and frequently to keep all parties in the loop and satisfied. Ensure they know what you are working on, when they can expect the next update or deliverable to review or if you have made the decision to pivot in a different direction. 

At the same time, make sure the client is keeping you updated on their end, too. The client-agency relationship is a two-way street! If anything pivots on the client side, it may affect how you approach the item or what the final output will be.

There is no magic wand you can wave to know exactly what the client truly wants and needs all the time. Nonetheless, taking the time to think, listen and discuss is key to ensuring both your team and your client are successful, satisfied and creating an impact.

Written by Alyssa Armstrong on June 9, 2021


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Alyssa Armstrong