Email is the Arch Nemesis of Project Management

There I was. Typing up a half-page long email to a client. The adrenaline was flowing. I was at a point where I needed to take a stand for myself. It’s not because my client was abusing me or anything, they just needed to understand how I work.

My client had shot over some changes that needed to be made to a work-item. No problem! Well, not true. There was a problem. The work-item was not in the agreed-to scope aka not in the contract. But, because I knew my client was taking heat on their end, I was doing this work on my own dime; out of the kindness of my ol’ ticker. But I really wanted to push this back to my client and say “hold-up!”

To support a healthy relationship with clients, there’s always going to be some give and take. I get that and sometimes I give a little too much. That’s the challenge of client work. You can’t measure it with a cup or a spoon. You take a pinch here, a dash there etc.

So while I was feeling justified in my position. I stopped writing the email. I quickly reviewed it and then deleted it.

I picked up the phone and made a call.

The call was friendly, and I took the direction I needed to take from my client. After doing so, I stated I needed to talk to them about this project. I offered to do this other change free of charge. I educated them that this work-item and related time spent on it was not in-scope. It wasn’t part of the project we agreed to and that generally the time spent was billable. I said, “Now, I’m not going to bill you for that time. However, if I need to do any other work on it then all of it is billable.” She understood it and while the matter of what was and wasn’t in-scope was discussed, I referred to the agreement. “Look,” I said, “I don’t like being that guy pointing at contracts, but this item isn’t in the scope of this project. I’m not trying to be mean, I want to work with you here; I’m your partner in this. I just need to make sure we’re on the same page.” One and done.

Note — A good friend of mine, Kelley Koehler, suggested placing change orders when this sort of work is requested, even if it’s free. It sets up the discussion nicely for talking about what is and what is not in scope. “Yes, I can do that; but we’ll need to create a change order for that.” Then you send over a change order with the scope and estimated cost/time. Sure, you could do this without a change order, but having one is a great way to document the discussion and later changes.

My client was cool with it and thanked me for explaining the situation and where I was coming from. She’d rather have me tell her what’s up and not sit on this pile of anger that I’m building up over doing stuff that’s not what I agreed to.

Wes Chyrchel, really hammered the point of picking up the phone and making a call a few years back. Just that seemingly simple, yet often overlooked tip, has saved me thousands of dollars. Thanks, Wes!

Managing a successful client project really is about managing the client relationship and expectations. The power of one’s voice, however, can greatly change the tone of a potentially heated discourse that ensues over frantic emails.

I’ve gotten to a point where I’ve taken to a rule for client-work related emails. When in doubt let the email site in draft for a while; whatever “a while” means to you. Maybe it’s an hour; perhaps it’s 24 hours. Just sit on it. Think on it and ask yourself: “How would this discussion in this email go in-person, word-for-word?” If “constructive” or “positive” isn’t the response that immediately jumps to mind abandon your email, pick up the phone and make a call. Or even just Skype someone. Whatever you need to.

Being able to voice your mutual goals while ensuring your client that they are a partner is one of the best ways to make sure the client relationship continues to grow. Empathy is a powerful tool and one that is hard to convey via email. Just my experience there.

So next time you must have “one of those talks” think twice before you hit the “Send” button.

Leave a Reply