5 web project management tips for small agencies.

Why you shouldn’t ask your creative team to also manage client communication.

Spend enough time in the web development world, and you can hear all kinds of stories about nightmare projects that went south for some reason or another. It can often be hard to tell where the project went wrong, but any good agency will look at this as an opportunity to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

One of the challenges of agency work come from the competing demands of multiple clients. Every client is important, and even if one client pays a larger bill, no good agency will allow that fact to justify treating a smaller client like crap. After all, your other clients aren’t their business, but they are most certainly yours.

At the same time, your creative team has a lot on their plate. Managing communication between them and your client, establishing feasible deadlines, and ensuring that everyone is on the same page in their understanding of what the final product is going to look like and how it’s going to behave is no easy task.

If you’re wondering how any agency does it, here are some of the top lessons we’ve learned as a small agency about web project management. We hope that it will help you negotiate some common potholes. And, if you’re a client looking for an agency that knows how to manage their web development projects, talk to them about some of these points. If they don’t have a clear point of contact or if their project proposal seems vague, it may be a sign to look elsewhere.

1. Establish the core deliverables.

One of the benefits of having run a successful web development agency for so long is that through many iterations of web development we’ve been able to solidify a list of core deliverables that apply to almost every web project we do. This allows us to cut down on a lot of the discovery process with clients, because we no longer need to reinvent the wheel with every project. It’s also helped us deliver consistent products that we can improve for future projects based on customer feedback.

The point here is that, while every project is different, many of them will follow the same process. Standardizing your deliverables will help both you and your client settle on what to include in the website project. It will also help manage scope creep, because your clients can see up front which items they’re leaving on the cutting floor. This also opens the discussion for how the project might change if they want to add them back in later.

2. Respect the maker’s schedule.

Managers and creatives work on separate schedules. While managers move from task to task throughout the day, conducting meetings and coordinating with clients and team members, creatives (or makers) focus on larger projects that require uninterrupted concentration. The more their time gets chopped into pieces due to impromptu meetings, shifting priorities, or client management, the less productive they become.

If you want to your creative team to produce their best work, then give them the support they need to get their work done in peace. This is where a good account manager can save your team. Their job is to help field questions from the client and follow up on important project details so that your creative team doesn’t have to keep an eye on their inbox all day. Essentially, your account lead gets to work on the manager’s schedule so that your creatives don’t have to. Pretty neat!

3. There is only one priority. Everything else is hierarchy.

We’ve all seen arm-length lists of priorities. The problem is, the whole concept of a “list” defeats the purpose of establishing a priority in the first place. Your priority is your #1 concern. If you add a second priority, then you’ve put two things in the number slot, meaning they’re sharing priority with each other. If you make that list twelve items long and fail to establish which item on that list is the most important, then you don’t have twelve priorities—you have zero.

Most of us fall into a situation of too many competing priorities when we’ve taken on a lot of work and are feeling the pressure on all sides. We can’t decide what to focus on first, and we’re worried that no matter what task we start with, someone is going to feel neglected.

Fortunately, this is what project managers are for. It’s their job to make the decision about what the top priority is for each team member, and to organize everything else into a hierarchy. While some team members may have input as to what projects are actually most important for the day, in most cases they’ll be happy to have their marching orders so that they can get down to work.

4. Work expands to fill the time allotted.

Deadlines matter. So do project hours. As much as your creative team might gripe about them, most of us won’t get anything done without either a deadline, or a set budget of hours on a project.

You should know how much work any member of your creative team has on his or her plate, and how much they can handle before they become overburdened and stressed out. Once you know what their availability looks like, assign hours accordingly, and set a deadlines they can fulfill. Then hold them to it.

Use this same approach to set a project timeline with your client. You know how much work you have on your plate, and you know how long it will take you to complete. If a client is asking for a project with a breakneck turnaround time, be realistic about what you can deliver. And don’t give yourself longer deadlines than you need in the hopes of making the task easier. You’ll find a way to fill that time anyway, and be just as stressed when the deadline hits.

5. Know when to manage client expectations.

Any good client knows that you have other clients, and that you can’t drop everything to talk to them if it’s not an emergency. The only agencies that can work this way are the ones huge enough to staff dedicated account managers. But they do expect you to handle your client well enough such that you deliver their projects on time and with the agreed-upon features in place.

You can forestall a lot of problems with good communication. Your client should have a primary point of contact (usually the account manager) so that they know who to speak to should any concerns arise. We’ve also found that creating a Slack team with our clients helps them feel looped into the project without needing to establish a weekly production meeting.

If significant problems arise, it’s time to look at the relationship. There are two relevant sayings that often come into play in these situations. The first is: you teach people how to treat you. The second is: the squeaky wheel gets the most grease. So, if a client learns that they can get their project needs met ahead of everyone else’s by calling you on the phone until you do what they ask, then they’ll learn to continue doing this in the future with every other problem.

If you can manage that without it causing problems with your other clients, then maybe that’s worth the irritation. But if a client becomes so demanding of your time that it’s having an impact on your other clients, it’s time to sit down and discuss what it would take to change the situation, or else to break off the relationship.

Roll with the punches.

Very few web development projects go as planned. But that doesn’t mean they’re doomed to failure, or that we’re helpless to learn from any of them. On the contrary, good web project management can help you identify potential problem areas before they arise, and then work proactively to solve them before they become an issue.

Published 10/17/17 by Laura Lynch