How to successfully work with client managers
When too many people are involved in a custom project, things can go wrong. So, how do you deal with personal managers and assistants? Anthony Grimani explains.
A rich man once said to himself: “You know what would be really cool? A convertible Bentley!” So he called in his personal manager and said, “I want a Bentley with a convertible roof. Get me one.”
The congenial manager immediately replied: “Of course, sir, at once.” He then departed to see to his boss’ wish.
In due course the convertible Bentley arrived and was received by the personal manager. Bentley had done a magnificent job. The car was delivered with the top down, and, like any well-crafted convertible, the retracted top was perfectly concealed in the car’s body.
Not realising this, the manager freaked out and cried, “Oh, no! My boss wanted a convertible roof. They built him car with no roof!” So he rushed the car to a local carriage works shop and left it with the instructions: Client wanted a roof.
The puzzled carriage works team figured the customer changed his mind about a convertible and wanted a hard roof, so they dutifully crafted one and bolted it to the frame.
When the car was returned to the customer, the manager once again received it and said: “No, no, no! He wants a convertible roof.” So he sent the car back to the shop with the update: The roof needs to be convertible.
Now thoroughly exasperated, the shop crew figured a large sun roof was called for, so they fabricated a roll-back sun roof into the new top. Finally satisfied that he had done his job, the manager presented the car to his boss.
The boss took one look at it and said, “I wanted a convertible Bentley! What the **** is this?”
Sound familiar? Despite your best eff orts, does it seem like some of your projects go round and round before finally coming off the rails? If not, you are one of the lucky few. I’ve had my share, and I see this kind of thing happen all the time. A new project arrives. It’s a wealthy client, a big high-profile deal that could set you up for life. Yet, in the end, everyone winds up angry and dissatisfied, and lawsuits or threats thereof are flying around. The above story is fictional, but here is one that actually happened to us on a high-end home cinema design project.
We were working with the client’s team of managers. Communication was tricky and required lots of bouncing around between various parties, all of whom had ideas about what the client wanted. We finally got to the subject of speakers.
We had specified in Grimani Systems speakers, which – aside from being a great product that we know performs – was the perfect fit for this project from a strictly engineering standpoint.
“Why did you specify your speakers?” the management team asked. “You know this client wants Dolby Atmos. You must use Dolby speakers.” We patiently and politely explained that Dolby is a technology development and licensing company; they don’t make speakers.
The response from the management team was links to Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers.
As you know, Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers are for more basic living room type environments where the speakers sit out in the room, allowing the up-firing drivers to bounce height-related sound components off the ceiling. This was a full-blown dedicated home cinema project where all the speakers were baffled and/or concealed and physical Atmos speakers were installed in the ceiling.
But, of course, the managers didn’t know about any of that. All they knew was that it had to be Dolby Atmos, and those speakers said Dolby Atmos. Fortunately, with much cajoling, we were able to convince the managers to present the question directly to the client. Of course, our position was immediately confirmed by the client. He did, indeed, want the Atmos experience with actual ceiling speakers. If we had not been conscientious and politely firm with the management team, this project would have gone off the rails like the Bentley convertible!
What’s the common element here? Accurate communication is essential to these projects. The more people there are in the loop, the greater the chance that intentions and goals will get mangled. Personal managers are usually at the centre of these quagmires, because everything routes through them. Over the years, I’ve developed a couple of guidelines for handling this type of project where access to the client is restricted. Check it out.
First, know what you’re getting into up front. Don’t assume this project is going to somehow be magically different. Don’t be wowed by the money and prestige of working on the project.
Second, insist on direct contact with the client. If this is denied, appeal your case with a detailed explanation and examples of how things have gone wrong in similar cases. The key here is to be willing to walk away from the project. If your intuition tells you this is going to be another one of ‘those’ projects, trust it and stand your ground. Remember, all that money from the project only becomes reality if the project goes well. If the project is destined to fail from the start, that money is only a phantom!
Third, if you are ultimately denied contact with the client and if you decide to go ahead with the project anyway, craft a detailed scope of work document that is signed by all responsible parties before any work occurs. It may take time, and it may require a lot of hand-holding to get all the information you need, but it’s worth it in the end. Don’t start until you’re sure you know what you’re being asked to do and you’re confident you can deliver based on the document. Be so confident that you’re comfortable defending it in court. No one wants that to happen, but it could.
Finally, identify ‘squishy’ versus ‘hard’ requests from the client managers and avoid all squishy requests or turn them into hard. What do I mean? A hard request would be something like, ‘We need a block of wood that is 6” by 6” to set under this column that is too short.’ A squishy request would be, ‘This column is too short. Fix it.’
If you have any questions or reservations about the client’s desires, nail them down up front. And, like I said above, don’t be afraid to walk away. Losing the project is better than some of the other alternatives.
There are a few cases where we have worked successfully with client managers having no direct contact with the client. However, the vast majority of these projects go awry in some way, so we’ve learned to be very wary of them. I’d advise you to do the same, and keep your reputation and business intact.
Chase Walton contributed to this column.