All managers who read any management-related books and/or have passed certifications are very well aware of the project stages – initiation -> execution -> monitoring and control -> closure. It may look like you are a great manager if you can handle all stages properly and at the end, all deliverables are finalized, all documentation is signed off, approved, and formally transferred to the client. Both sides are smiling, shaking hands, and say goodbye. In such a case, the last stage is closure, isn’t it? And what if I tell you that our goal is not to end the project?

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Of course, I’m not saying that you should skip the closure activities, or not deliver on time, within the budget, and with an appropriate level of quality, but instead do even more than that. If you look at this relationship with a helicopter view, your collaboration is not a one-project thing.

What is a partnership and why do we need it?

In my current organization, our ultimate goal in every collaboration with the client is to become a partner – we team up with the client to reach their business goals and ensure their business success. What is the value of such an approach? For some managers, who strictly follow almost any project management framework, it would sound weird because according to PMBOK® Guide, a Project Manager’s job is to apply knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to meet the project requirements. And we’ve just said that you should go above and beyond. So why would anyone want to go this extra mile? In other words, why would we need to build a partnership with the client? Isn’t it just a transactional relationship where they pay us to deliver what they have asked for? If that’s the case, next time your client needs a new project, they may come back to your organization, but they may also choose another supplier, or you’ll go again through the same RFP process together with the competition.

In my current company, we spend a lot of time and effort to get to know client’s pain points, increase our understanding of their business needs and collaborate. This way, our organizations grow and succeed together. The partnership brings stability and continuous growth to your and your client’s organizations. Because of the partnership focus, 98% of our clients are repeat customers with multiple engagements, and our financial services unit in SoftServe Poland has grown by 60% in 2020 despite the pandemic and temporary budget freeze on the client’s side.

The effective partnership and its key factors

So, let’s take a closer look at the key factors which contribute to this dish called “partnership”.

1. Understanding client’s busines

Whatever solution we deliver to the client, we should always consider how it will contribute to their business, whether it will generate an additional income/revenue stream for their companies, or it is aimed at cost saving or the automation/simplification of some of their departments’ workflows, etc. To be able to do this, it makes sense to get familiar with the client’s industry/domain, figure out their competitors and what distinguishes them from their competitors. You need to understand how they make money and how you can contribute to their success.

At SoftServe, we say that people are our greatest asset and thus we create a pool of talents who are proficient not only in the technology part but also in domain-specific knowledge.

In my previous companies, it wasn’t possible to keep a pool of people with the domain knowledge but we still tried to understand our client’s business. Having this knowledge and sharing it with your team, allows all participants of the project to ideate and come up with some bright ideas on how to do things differently even from the technology point of view, propose technical improvements and innovative features.

2. Revise the business needs frequently enough

While it seems obvious that we can’t develop a great solution without understanding its real purpose, we can often observe cases when a team delivers a project without this initial purpose in mind. At the project initiation phase, business needs and pain points are defined, but it’s important to remember that they should not be established once and forever. We’ve been living in a fast-paced environment where market demands change pretty often. Moreover, such things as the COVID pandemic, political and/or financial crises can happen and influence business priorities significantly. Even in more stable times, it’s crucial to constantly reassess business needs and their scope, whether they are still valid or if they have evolved with time. That’s why the agile framework is applicable. Most of the IT projects are long terms endeavours. In our unit, we deliver complex software solutions within the financial domain and the duration of such projects is usually 2-3 years. This requires continuous validation of the business priorities and checking how they contribute to the client’s company strategy.

3. Make sure that business needs are understood on all levels of your and your client’s organisations

We work in a people-oriented business. We interact with the clients and internal stakeholders (team, upper management, and supporting functions), who all have their perspectives which means we may understand the same things differently. On top of that, people on different company levels have different focus areas, targets, and goals. The trick is to identify all stakeholders who benefit from the project, the contribution the project will make to their targets and success, and then do the right mapping. We may not have the exact roles, but the goal is to align the areas of responsibilities between organizations. This is usually done at the initiation stage during onsite/online workshop sessions when we try to get to know our clients better.

4. Build transparent, honest, regular, and efficient communication

Establish the Governance model and ensure the right person in your organisation to communicate using the same language and level of details with the client’s counterpart.

Once stakeholders are identified, make sure the client’s stakeholders are on the same page by introducing appropriate alignment meetings on the top of regular project status meetings (like a monthly steering committee meeting, quarterly business review meeting etc.). It is also a crucial part of forming a lasting relationship.

To make sure that we are aligned with the client’s organisation, in our company we create a governance model that allows us to map appropriate stakeholders from both organizations – client and ours. This helps us to assure that our organisation communicates using the same language and level of details with the client peers.

5. Do not underestimate the quality of delivery. Go above and beyond with your delivery

Even if it sounds obvious, assuring the appropriate project delivery, that is, predictable, on time, and within the budget is the foundation of a partner relationship.

I’m not going to dwell on details here because PMI provides the vast and very well covered basis for establishing the appropriate delivery quality. In my current organization, our project management office builds an extensive PMI-based framework that allows us to cover all areas of project management and to ensure industry standards and best practices.

Introducing a metrics system allows us to react at any moment while approaching the next milestone/release and make sure we are on track. Showing commitment builds a trusting relationship and demonstrates your professionalism.

6. Get constant feedback and look for the improvements

In the financial service unit at SoftServe, we have had an NPS of more than 80% for several years in a row. NPS is a common management tool used in the IT industry. It doesn’t matter, however, what tool or methodology you use to measure client satisfaction – it’s important to have one.

The key to success in terms of NPS in our organization is not only to ask a client for feedback but also to act on any areas of concern or deal with every single doubt the client may have. It’s important to remember that lack of feedback is also feedback. While in different cultures it may have different contexts, it’s important to dig up that meaning.

We’ve been working with the clients from Germany and quite often I hear from my stakeholders that no feedback means that they have nothing to complain about, thus it’s good feedback. On the other hand, in the case of the stakeholders from Eastern Europe, Middle East or India, no feedback usually meant that they didn’t want to share negative opinion to not ruin the relationship.

It’s crucial to understand and respect the client’s culture, but at the same time, it’s important to tell the client how valuable this feedback is for you and your organisation, that you strive for constant improvement and would benefit from it especially if they share specific comments, cases or areas they would like you to focus on.

And of course, once you get this feedback, it’s crucial not to find excuses for why some things happened. After all, it’s a customer who is always right and feels this way. It’s important to validate their feelings (even if they’re not supported by evidence), get in their shoes, try to see the situation from their perspective, and don’t forget to ask 5 WHYs to get to the real reason behind.)

When the root cause is defined, convert it into an improvement plan with the actionable items and realistic timelines, introduce intermediate checkpoints before the next round of feedback. Use the SMART goals setting approach to fix those issues and make your client happy.

Considering all the above, we can build a strong relationship with the client focusing on resolving their business challenges and growing partnerships for the benefit of both organizations.