Planning: How We Manage Your Goals, Your Budget, and Your Project
It’s common for young agencies to have account managers that are also project managers (or vice versa, depending on which role they choose to highlight). It’s also common for those agencies to realize that it’s not sustainable to have one person in both seats as the team and client load grows… and that discovery is often made when project budgets are ballooning and clients are frustrated by the team’s responsiveness. At that point, it’s time for a split.
The account manager / account executive is the person responsible for understanding the client’s needs and does what it takes to keep client satisfaction at a 10. The project manager is the one who makes sure the job gets done on time and on budget, usually with the company’s interests at the forefront. Often, there is tension between the two.
The balance between the roles is a tough one to get right. Put too much of the project facilitation in the hands of an account manager, and things are bound to fall through the cracks with unexpected external demands. If a project manager is too focused on internal interests while also having to reset client expectations, the client feels frustrated and undervalued. Draw too clear a line between the two roles, and a game of broken telephone is introduced to the project, often at the beginning and getting worse as you go.
You may have guessed by now that this isn’t just theoretical. We’ve done all of these things in a variety of ways. We had account/project managers in one. We’ve had account managers working alongside project managers, playing a rousing game of good cop/bad cop along the way and doubling efforts unnecessarily. We’ve handed off from account management to our production group and missed important nuances about the client need while also hearing that clients felt we were inflexible. We knew there was a better way.
Managing Your Goals
Starting with ourselves, we put a greater emphasis on goals. We knew that we wanted to have a process that felt like it clicked well internally and with our clients. We wanted our team to be in the position to do their best work for the people we serve, and for those clients to feel that value.
We realized, with the help of a trusted advisor, that the split between account management and project management was still in the wrong place. What we needed was a role that specifically focused on project-level, client-focused planning and facilitation, rather than an account/relationship manager that takes care of the client’s interests and a project manager that takes care of our company’s interests.
What we did need were people who could ask the right questions to understand exactly what the client needed to accomplish, not just at the start of the project but at every step throughout. We needed people who could keep a project moving forward at a regular cadence, presenting the work we had to show, confirming that it aligned with both expectations and the goals of the team, and facilitating agreement that the next steps in the roadmap were the right next steps to take.
Managing Your Budget
We already have a production lead who sees the big picture of capacity planning and aggregate budget management and profitability (agency budgets are rarely an exact science), so we didn’t need that at the project level. When we look at budget at the project level, it is as a constraint. In every project discussion, we look at our constraints alongside the client’s priorities to make decisions about where to go next.
When we were looking at who we needed to fill a role like this, we knew that it was important to have people who could facilitate multi-stakeholder conversations to find shared decisions, if not consensus, to drive the project forward. We needed people who knew enough about what it takes to get the job done, who could sit in empathy for the client’s current state and where they wanted to go, and who could think creatively about how to fill the gap in between given all of the known constraints (e.g., timelines, budget, strong wills, changing business priorities).
Managing Your Project
We have built a more collaborative process, facilitated by people who could both manage the goals with managing the budget. We call this role our “planning” seat, and it’s a combination Business Analyst/Project Manager role with a client-centric focus. It consists of the following accountabilities:
- Designing for requirements, goals, budget, and schedule
- Creating work packages for our delivery team (which that team accepts and delivers upon), assessing the delivered work, and presenting that work back to the client
Using the client’s POV to measure project success
- Keeping up on project-level status
Since the introduction of this seat and our improved process, we have brought project budgets in check, improved collaboration within our own team, and received excellent feedback from our clients about our ability to facilitate stakeholder discussions and provide visibility into the project status. We have brought flexibility into our work while still working with budget and timeline constraints, because those things need not be at odds if the client goal is at the forefront and project discussions are transparent. By having a client-focused process led by process-minded folks, rather than our sales team, our clients are brought into project discussions that require an expectation reset without feeling like they’re just being up-sold by the account manager. By making it clearer to both our team and our clients that we are always aiming for a win-win project outcome, we have brought needs and project budgets into balance.