Project Management v's Difficult Client! Help!

Hi everyone - this one's quite an essay, but I'd really appreciate the advice!

I need some help with working out how to manage a large course project.

This is the history and set up of the project development;

I work for a 'company' (on a fixed term contract) - the company looks after the 'client' and project manages the project and I develop the courses on behalf of that company for the client, liaising with the company on timescales etc....

Existing client wants an Induction course, consisting of 12 modules and they want it interactive, not linear.

My company initially agreed this project in a meeting with the client back in November last year.  Basically the client showed them a course they liked and the company said 'yeah we can do that, no problem!"  "You want flash? We can sort that for you!"  BTW.....I'm not a flash developer, neither do they employ any flash developers....

So anyway, I have a meeting with my company, then we and the client have a meeting to set out the requirements.  I express my concern to the company after seeing the course the client had used as an example and mention the 'flash' elements - the company says, "We can use flash components, no problem!"  I reluctantly say 'ok', also confirming that the course would need to be bespoke rather than created with Articulate interactions, because the client had seen a course I'd done using articulate interactions and didn't like the look of it! (So I was thinking along the lines of branching scenarios and hyper linking).  I also confirm that I cannot do the narration which is required because for the size of the course it would need a professional narrator in order to get the quality throughout.

So, I create a couple of designs, the client sends their feedback and then I move on to storyboard the 1st module out of 12.  The SB is sent to them and they send feedback and then the amendments are made on that module.  Then I receive a bunch of amendments which totally restructures the module.  But I get on and start to come up with lots of ideas on how to display the content and things begin to move quite swiftly - however the module has changed and therefore the client needs to see the re-structure and in some areas, re-design. But my company doesn't send this to the client until I have completed module two.

So in the end, the client is sent module one and two together; and they're not happy with the course so far.  

So that's the history in a nut shell. 

My question is this.......what is the most constructive way to manage a project of this size?  I have no doubt that the client is also being difficult, because they don't actually know what they want until they see it - and of course this is totally unrealistic, the project could go on forever!!!  

How do you create a bespoke course, with branching scenarios that are put there to engage the user, but keep to the same design in order to be confident that your client will like it?  Apart from sending the client a screen shot every time you create a slide, how can we display our design proposals without developing the actual scenario/slide only for the client to say "I don't like it"?

Finally, I am actually quite happy with the designs I have put to most of the content so far.  I think it uses the content well and will engage the user much better than linear style.  Although the 'flash' components are a thorn in the project's side - I hate them, but the client has been promised them by the company!

[NOTE: Publishing the slides as a storyboard is also a problem in this project because the imported 'flash' components only display the 'flash object' holding image.]

We've got to the point where we don't know what the client wants anymore....it's becoming a nightmare!!!

It is the first time we’ve dealt with something on this scale.  I have told the company that for future clients we need to set out our boundaries immediately – give them a couple of demos and say ‘this is what we do’ - if they want something different then, we’re not the right company for them.  

Does anyone else work like this?  Do you agree?

Also I wonder if it would be better to ask clients to approach us once their content has been drafted?  I.e. we don’t take on or even price a project until we can view the content.  This surely then prevents incorrect time scales and pricing.

Again, is this the way to do things?

5 Replies
Steve Flowers

Your situation isn't uncommon, Louise. And I wouldn't automatically think it's a bad client, though I'd begin to prepare to deal with them as such just in case.

Sounds like your biggest fix is the exchange smaller doses of design conveyance with the client. Here's where I'd go with it from the point you've described:

  1. Start with an alignment and carefully validate assumptions. Most situations like this are merely communication issues. Once everyone fully communicates and each assumption is validated with something more than "I don't know what's wrong, I can't put my finger on it" everything gets back on track. Clients are rarely equipped to put their finger on it, so it's up to you (the seasoned professional) to channel the inner detective. In any case, it's critical to gather everyone's energy to align expectations, document those expectations, and move ahead (or pull the rip cord and bail out).
  2. Rapid prototype a model for each delivery that conveys and elaborates the design sufficiently for the reviewer. You may even want to invent some exercises to help narrow down expectations. You might try abstract exercises to narrow down preferences or expectations (think like an optometrist - A or B, B or C) or more concrete exercises to help the client visualize the mapping of the solution to the problem.
  3. Get it in writing before you move on and get it yourself. Sounds like there's quite a bit of middleman going on that's breaking up the flow of communication.

If you're able to convey a genuine intent to help the customer and the customer respects your expertise, everything will be fine. If not it's going to be really painful to get through the project.

Megan Maguire

I'm wondering, as reading this, if it would not be helpful for you to have direct access to the client to make sure you understand the concerns, requests, modifications, etc.  Seems like having to rely on a "middle man"  can muddy up the process.  Do they have a sample course that they like that you could view to better understand their desires? 

Whenever I construct a course I have direct access to the "customer" but they are all internal to our company so I am not working in the same environment as it sounds that you are.  However, it is invaluable to be able to have the dialogue about what will work and my limitations as well!

Good luck with your project!

Leah Hemeon

I agree with Megan. In projects where I have started out with a "middle man", I have quickly asked to have direct access to the client while keeping the "middle man" apprised of what's happening. Is this possible for your situation?

Otherwise, I think a meeting (in person if possible) with the client and the company you work for to lay out expectations for moving forward, and to all get on the same page again is needed. You should go into such a meeting with a clear goal and not leave until things have been ironed out. I agree with Steve, it's going to continue to be challenging until you have such an up front meeting.

I definitely can empathize with your situation. Been there several times myself. In some cases a client meeting is all that's needed to clarify expectations and continue moving forward. Other cases the problem isn't resolved for one reason or another and things continue to go in several directions. Communication is definitely key. Do what you can to be the direct contact with the client.

Good luck!

Mike B.

I'd like to share a few observations, and suggest a few possible solutions.

1. I'm not so sure it's the client that's your problem. Your "company" promised the client a Flash course, and it doesn't sound like delivering one was even a consideration. The fact that they won't pay for professional narration speaks volumes (I would suspect you could find a narrator through a Voice123-type service that would do all 12 modules in the 1000-1500 pound range). Bottom line...if a company is going to deliver a Flash course, they need to be prepared to hire or contract with a Flash developer. Not being willing to do that is plain dishonest. Sometimes it's not your client you need to fire, it's your employer.

2. Steve's point #2 is on the money: you should consider sending rapid prototypes instead of storyboards. In my own experience, storyboards are nearly useless. Clients rarely understand what they're seeing on a storyboard, which is why many so projects hit a major snag when the alpha version is delivered. Rapid prototypes let them see what they're getting, and how the functionality works. This approach should eliminate much of the time you're having to spend redesigning content.

3. Megan is also right that you should try to bypass the middleman (your company) as much as possible. If you make the client happy, your company will be happy too. However, the client needs to work within the framework of whatever agreement has been signed; if they change the scope of the project or work, they need to be prepared to pay more or adjust the timeline.

I don't get the feeling your project is beyond salvaging...many of us have had projects go far worse than what you describe. If you make it clear to the client you want to work with them to fix this and put out the best project possible, it will go a long way. I would suggest setting up regular weekly meetings (even if just on the phone), maybe even twice a week if necessary. The client will appreciate the extra attention, and the recognition that their needs are being taken seriously.

Good luck with your project.

Louise Ward

Thanks so much for all your detailed and quick responses - I'm going to take them into my company tomorrow as we're having a meeting to establish how to approach this.

In reply to Megan, yes I saw a course that the client liked which had been built in flash. That's when the whole 'flash component' idea came to light.  

I totally agree with going direct to the client, we have done it that way for all our other projects and the beginning of this project until I got ill for 2 weeks, and then it kind of went the other way.  I will steer it back!

We have had a few meetings with the client, but I think it's also a good idea to send her maybe a couple of scenarios or slides at a time rather than a whole module.  I thought splitting the project into modules would be good enough, but I think, especially for this client, it should be more regularly.

Just to clarify, my company are willing to pay for a professional narrator if needs be, I just commented on it because up until now my narration was good enough, but I decided it wouldn't be for this particular project.

For the first 2 modules I did actually send the client a rapid prototype rather than a storyboard, so I'm glad you agree on that, because I was questioning whether that was the correct thing to do.

The most frustrating thing with this having gone the way it has is that we have come across incompetent. I am actually very big on organisation and communication - but as most of you have said, having a 'middle man' complicates things.  And I think my company have tried to run before they can walk in all honesty.

Lets hope we can establish a better route tomorrow in our meeting!  And following that we will most certainly be contacting the client to discuss how to move forward.