How to Be a Good Client (and Get the Best Outcomes)
At Webapper, we do our best to be an outstanding technology partner. We occasionally push boundaries as we challenge our clients to transform their businesses using modern applications and technology. Technology providers can be your best asset or your biggest nightmare. We know because we rely on technology providers (like Assembla, Weekdone, and AWS) ourselves from time to time. With the unique perspective of sitting on both sides of the table, we wanted to share our insights on how to be a good technology client, which can help you obtain the best possible outcomes from your outsource technology partners. It can also help your projects get results faster and easier.
We share a common goal with clients: to deliver the best solution within budget and time constraints (which are actually good things). We achieve more via a shared understanding, strong process, and mutual enthusiasm about the project. Using this foundation, here’s how you can keep your next project moving in the right direction…
Designate a Primary Contact
Before you even start your project, designate who will be your primary contact with your technology partner. Project management by committee rarely works. It’s also a drain on resources if you consider all the duplicated effort, extra eyeballs on emails, and miscommunication (e.g., I thought you were doing that, so I didn’t). Your primary contact doesn’t have to know everything, but she must be the gateway for communications between sides, a filter and a coordinator. In dealing with the vendor, she might schedule meetings and respond to questions. Internally, she may coordinate cross-functional teams, collect feedback, and update stakeholders. Having complete domain knowledge is not a prerequisite, but over the course of the project, she will certainly learn a great deal.
Understand the Project Scope
Chances are good you’re optimistic about how difficult your project is. As technology providers, we also seem to underestimate the size and scope of most projects. Nearly. Every. Single. One. I wish we had a crystal ball and could accurately size everything up and give you the magic, perfectly affordable project scope you seek. But we can’t. Even with a discovery phase, we’re still guessing. And we are usually overly optimistic. That said, you are best served knowing the degree of difficulty you face in your project. Try to understand the boundaries, and make sure those boundaries are clear in your discussions, the budget, and the agreements. For example, if you need some custom software development, what defines “done” and what happens after delivery (e.g., who fixes bugs after delivery, and at what cost?). The more fully you understand the project scope, the more likely you’ll wind up with a decent outcome.
Keep Stakeholders Informed & Involved
Although you should use one primary contact, that doesn’t mean that person should be an island. The primary contact is the conduit for communication with stakeholders. It’s problematic for the relationship if you appear to change your mind or move the goalposts. For example, if you get into the project and (ahem) find out the scope was bigger than expected, the stakeholders need to know. There are three ways to meet deadlines: working harder (more mental muscle), reducing scope (must have vs. nice to have), or extending the timeline. Stakeholders should be involved in these decisions, so keeping stakeholders involved and informed during the project helps keep them happy. Keep your team involved, no matter how busy they are, throughout the project (or consider extending the timeline to accommodate their heavy workloads).
Do Your Part
Every project needs your input. YOU are the ultimate stakeholder. If the vendor asks for documentation, data, feedback, or guidance, provide it in a timely manner. Waiting until delivery to respond to queries, define requirements, or review results is way too late. If you outsource software development, at some point you own the resulting code, so doing your part (testing, code reviews) is a must. An outsource technology partner should become an extension of your business, but you own the output. Let’s look at an example to help illustrate the point. Suppose you’re having a vendor implement a new API into one of your mission-critical applications. Yes, the vendor’s job is to perform the implementation, but when they leave, you need to know what the API does and how they implemented it (documentation on all required). In this example, your part definitely includes having a firm grasp on the API.
Be On Time
We’ve mentioned this already within “doing your part”, but timing matters a great deal. Last minute responses lead to poor results. Consistent, timely participation helps. Attend meetings (and be present, not distracted). Share feedback ASAP. Your timeline will work far better. Investing in this area is paramount to finishing on time. While on this topic, it’s important to understand timelines and how they are built. Are you working backwards from an event? Are you creating milestones along the way? Are you on target in reaching milestones? Project timelines are fluid, nearly always behind, and absolutely impossible to estimate accurately, including mid-project. Even agile software development focuses on controlling scope as much as timeline (scope changes are expected as you build).
Deliver Aggregated Feedback
Yes, no, maybe…preferably not maybe. Let your vendor know what your stakeholders like or dislike. It’s YOUR project. A good technology partner will iterate (preferably using agile methods) and show you what’s happening regularly. If you feel like it’s going well, say so. If you don’t, say so and explain why. Is your vendor not communicating often enough? Does the user interface look awful? Is it running too slowly? Say something. It’s best to batch up feedback too — don’t send a hundred separate emails. If the vendor has a ticketing system, use it. If you have many issues and no ticketing system, send one comprehensive, detailed list.
Push Back to Your Technology Partner
Your vendor isn’t always right. Push back when you need to. If a feature is must-have, “fight” for it. If you think they’re glossing over something, push for a deeper explanation. Note, you’re not always right either, but you should expect reasonable explanations when you ask for them. Let’s explore an example. Suppose your vendor says “don’t worry about performance — it’ll be fine.” But you’ve been in situations where performance issues shut your business down. So you need to communicate your concerns, and perhaps the system needs a smoke test to assuage your worries. A good vendor will work to explain or resolve the issue (perhaps they’ve already built something similar or there’s benchmark reporting available). Communicating your concerns and not letting the vendor brush them away is pushing back in a good way.
Communicate Your Challenges
Sometimes issues outside the project impact the project. You could have a human resources problem. The organization could be facing financial difficulties. Force majeure could disrupt operations. Don’t withhold bad news from your vendor. You don’t have to give all the gory details, but you can share the existence of outside influences on the project. Your technology partner may offer some unexpected support (e.g., revised payment terms, referrals, or additional services). Vendors aren’t just there to take your money — if you grow, they grow with you. Your success matters to them on many levels.
Be a Reference
One of the easiest ways to get the best service from a technology partner is to serve as a reference. If your project is showcase or case study material, they’ll almost always go above & beyond to document it for marketing & sales purposes. Not only can you get great service, but the resulting marketing materials can show your organization off. Obviously you don’t want to divulge any organization secrets (e.g., your competitive technology advantages) but you can highlight what your company does best (“our technology upgrades shortened turnaround times by more than half!”). Almost all businesses are technology companies now, and those that innovate appear in a better light. As the old saying goes, there is no bad press. And no, you don’t have to be a reference or get written up as a case study. It solidifies the relationship if you do.
The End Game
With the shared goal of finding the best solution, staying under budget, and meeting deadlines, a good client thrives with a good outsourced technology provider. Unfortunately, life (and business challenges) can interfere. It’s important to focus on the process and communication framework. It’s also helpful to express enthusiasm and (mini-)celebrate milestones. We hope these ideas help you work with any technology vendor (your SaaS providers, your infrastructure vendors, and your technology consultants). If you use them, we bet your projects will fare better.